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Khan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Adrian College in Michigan.
He is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings Institution and a Fellow of the
Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
He earned his Ph.D. in International Relations, Political Philosophy, and Islamic
Political Thought, from Georgetown University in May 2000.
For a comprehensive resume
click here: Resume
Bridging Faith and Freedom
August 7th, Chicago
Indian Muslim Council-USA' Annual Convention
"Islam and Democracy"
Michigan Area School for Pastoral
Ministry all four lectures August 17-19
Religion News Writers Conference,
an SSRC Panel, September 11, 2004, Washington DC
ISPU POLICY BRIEF #5
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS 2004:
Should American Muslims Do?
A. Muqtedar Khan Ph.D.
a PDF versions click here.
The American Muslim community has traveled far on the path of
This time in the year 2000 the community was still
debating the Islamic permissibility of participation in the American
political system. While Muslim political activists were expounding the
virtues of voting – particularly block voting – the intellectuals were
busy establishing the compatibility of Islam and democracy and convincing
Muslims that it was not only in their interest to exercise their franchise
but that it was also a good Islamic practice to participate in the Shura
(the deliberations) that determined who and how this country was governed [ii].
Fortunately, this no longer appears to be an issue today.
American Muslims recognize the validity of the democratic process and are
eager to participate in it to shape the political environment in which
they live [iii].
Recent surveys about political attitudes within the
community have clearly indicated that American Muslims will participate
quite vigorously in the coming Presidential elections and will also engage
the political process at multiple levels. For example a recent study of
Detroit Muslims showed that over 93% Muslims surveyed were determined to
A survey by the Washington DC based Council of
American Islamic Relations found that 93% of its respondents were
registered to vote; of them, 92% were determined to vote [v].
The present election has,
however, raised another important debate within the Muslim community:
whether American Muslims should formally endorse a candidate or not. The
issue is a very important one; arguably, it is a constitutive issue
and the manner in which it will ultimately be resolved will have a
long-term impact on the identity, interests and politics of American
As elections approach, community leaders are confused
over this issue. Many of them recognize that there are advantages to using
the block vote as a political weapon, but they also recognize that picking
the wrong candidate (if their choice is defeated) may backfire and further
undermine the community’s interests. They are also wary of criticism
from those who were opposed to their choice in 2000, and fear vocal
rebellion from ordinary Muslims if they endorse a candidate without fully
understanding the community’s orientation.
The issue of official endorsement
essentially captures several key issues that are driving the community’s
development and internal politics, the most important question of these
being political unity: whether the community, in spite of ethnic and
doctrinal diversity, sufficiently united politically to warrant a single
endorsement. In the 2000 election cycle, African Americans were
particularly upset that American Muslim organizations (i.e. those
generally instituted by the immigrant majority) had endorsed the
republican candidate without regard to their opinion and interests. They
were also justifiably angry that immigrant organizations assumed that they
could dictate the agenda of all
American Muslims and expect others to follow them even if they were not
In the past two years, it has become readily apparent that there is not
only ethnic but also political and interpretive diversity in the
community. In the past, this author has described the American Muslim
community as a community of communities-
a description valid now more than ever before. There has been a
surge of alternatives to the standard orthodoxy emerging within the
community. Liberal Muslims are becoming increasingly vocal and are taking
leadership positions within mainstream organizations. They are giving
birth to new institutions that also seek to interpret Islam differently.
Most importantly, alternate voices are gaining greater currency within the
community and in the mainstream American culture.
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The emergence of loud alternate
voices has made the national organizations a bit hesitant in their
presumption that they can speak for the entire community. In the past, the
American Muslim Alliance (AMA) took leadership in the political process.
It continues to mobilize Muslims, but is less presumptuous in its posture.
A correlation exists between community perception and the financial
support received (minimal) from the community. The Los Angeles based
Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) continues to engage in policy, rather
than political, issues. It devotes its energies toward a grassroots
campaign against terrorism, but it is a member of the taskforce, and it
remains to be seen what MPAC will do if the majority of Muslim
organizations in the taskforce decide to endorse a candidate.
CAIR, however, has
resorted to alternate means of endorsement via the use of surveys; its
recent effort on the political attitudes of CAIR membership is a defacto
negative endorsement of the incumbent, George W. Bush. The survey suggests
that only 2-3% of CAIR members will vote for Bush, while over 50% will
vote for John Kerry. The rest are either undecided or leaning towards
Ralph Nader (26%). The release of this data is essentially a proclamation
that CAIR members who had overwhelmingly voted for Bush in 2000 (72%) are
now determined to vote him out. The survey provides a safe and clever way
making such a declaration.
The national organizations, now
banded under the American Muslim Task Force, need to exercise caution in
their endorsements, if and when they decide to make them. While it appears
obvious that a significant majority of Muslims will vote for John Kerry,
it is yet unclear whether the community will categorically support the
national organizations’ endorsement of the Democratic candidate. An
examination of the pros and cons of block voting for this election is
essential and warranted.
Advantages of Block Voting
- In a close election,
a community can play a decisive role in determining the outcome. The
American system is based on the principle of “winner take all” and
hence, newly emerging voting blocks that can make a significant
difference and can exert influence beyond their small numbers by
voting as a block.
- In close elections,
voting blocks can actually coerce political parties to change their
electoral platforms. The US today is deeply divided- nearly equally-
along party lines. Vacillating voting blocks can elicit more
concessions from the party they have traditionally supported or gain
new concessions from the other party. While there is much talk about
the American Muslim vote block, it seems that the American Jewish
community has already gained favors from both parties. Republicans
have continued to support Israel, despite stiff international
condemnation of the Jewish state, while John Kerry is trying hard to
look more pro-Israeli than Bush. The Republicans are trying to court
the American Jewish vote in their favor for the first time, while the
Democrats are trying to retain it. Traditionally, the American Jewish
vote has gone about 80% Democrat and 20% Republican- a reversal of
this tendency is greatly coveted by the current White House.
- If the politics of
block voting were correctly applied, it could help unite the
community. American Muslim politics are strangely compartmentalized.
There are many Muslim groups that lobby for their former home nations,
such as the Palestinian lobby and the Pakistani lobby. These groups
have not only succeeded in mobilizing sections of the American Muslim
community in pursuit of ethno-nationalistic political interests, they
also have used financial resources and other resources of the
community. Unless the interests of all such sub-communities can be
aligned, the effective exercise block voting is not possible.
It appears as though leaders of American Muslim organizations
are more interested in projecting, to the mainstream media and the two
political parties, the potential for a Muslims block vote rather than
its actual execution. Such action is dangerous because it runs the
risk of exposure. If the Muslim elite can unite on a common platform
and work toward consensus building, such union may have both tactical
and strategic benefits for the community. The American Muslim Task
Force believes this may be accomplished by its civil rights agenda;
however, there is no indication that there is consensus for the
support and/or prioritization of this issue by the various Muslim
sub-groups (e.g. Indian Muslim Council, etc.).
- Block voting gives
American Muslim Organizations and leaders greater influence and access
in mainstream politics. Politicians and the media will seek them if
they think these leaders are capable of manipulating and delivering
the “Muslim Vote.”
- One symbolic
advantage of block voting is the recognition of the community as a
whole being an important political player. It gives recognition and
awareness to their leaders, organizations and issues. Sometimes, the
media attention to these issues can be dangerous, while on other
occasions, it can be salutary. American Muslims achieved this in 2000;
its necessity in 2004 is debatable.
and Dangers of Block Voting
the advantages of block voting have been pervasively discussed within the
community, especially given its prominence as an issue in the 2000
elections, the negative aspects of block voting are less studied and
- The biggest danger
of block voting is the likelihood of endorsing the eventual loser. In
American elections the probability of doing so is 50%. By officially
endorsing a single party or candidate, the community effectively
alienates itself from the other party/candidate and in a way declares
its opposition openly. In the eventuality of the defeat of the
endorsed candidate, the community will then be vulnerable to reprisals
or isolation from government access. If, for example, American Muslims
officially endorse John Kerry, vote for him in huge percentages
(92-93% as CAIR’s membership survey indicates) and George W. Bush
still wins, the community could face further difficulty, given current
administration attitudes toward American Muslims.
- Think long-term.
Will the political parties develop deeper relationships with a
community that oscillates its support? Trust in politics is a rare
commodity, but also a very important asset. The community must learn
to develop long-term and meaningful relationships with the two
parties. Coercion and threats of mass exodus are not always beneficial
devices. Recent months
have seen two parallel developments: American Muslim leaders’
rhetoric about the existence of a Muslim vote block and its use to
vote against George W. Bush. They do this to intimidate the
politicians. These leaders also like to talk about how there are 6-8
million Muslims in America. According to studies conducted by Aslam
Abdullah, the editor of Minaret Magazine, there are only 2.7 to
3.0 million total potential Muslim voters.[vii] In addition, the
Bush administration’s unwillingness to do anything on the
Palestinian issue until the elections are over – except protect
Israel from International condemnations and sanctions – has become
copiously noticeable. The impetus for such a posture may be due to a
realization that since American Muslims are not going to support the
Bush-Cheney ticket, the Republicans may as well solicit- or
manipulate- the American Jewish vote by appearing to be extremely
pro-Israel. Block voting also allows the political parties to
manipulate communities. It is tragic that the Palestine issue divides
the Muslim and Jewish communities into adversaries even though the two
communities have identical interests on most domestic issues, such as
defending America’s secular ethos by protecting it from the rise of
Christian fundamentalism, strengthening the welfare state and the
civil rights environment.
- An additional risk
for American Muslims if their leadership insists on block vote
politics is the possibility of (a) exposing the absence of political
unity within the community and (b) actually exciting existing minor
fissures into becoming major cleavages [viii].
The marginalization of the African American Muslims
through the endorsement of George W. Bush in 2000 likely led to the
establishment of Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA), an organization
that seeks to represent indigenous Muslim interests. The creation of MANA
serves as an expression of a vote of no-confidence by indigenous Muslims
in the legitimacy of the national organizations established and managed by
immigrant Muslims [ix].
- American Muslims
must recognize that the overall philosophies and political agendas of
the two parties are pretty stable and enduring. Republicans stand for
reducing taxes for the rich, pushing religiously motivated political
goals – such as abortion; whereas Democrats seek to pursue social
liberalization and strengthen the welfare state. If American Muslim
values are stable then they too must have a long-term relationship
with one party. Or there must be Muslim factions aligned with each
party. The entire Muslim community cannot be Republican in one
election and Democrat in another. It is difficult to imagine that
American Muslim values and philosophical assumptions change so
dramatically every four years. The
disparity between consistent values and mercurial electoral practice
must hinge on only one or two issues; yet, the American Muslim
community cannot sustain itself as a political force if it can be
swayed by policy shifts on a mere handful of areas of focus. A major
political shift occurring once in a few decades may be understandable,
if prompted by extraordinary events such as the passing of the Patriot
Act, which practically eliminated the Bill of Rights for Muslims.
That American Muslims could allow block voting to become their
staple strategy is, however, a cause for concern.
America and manipulation of its politics could actually engender
pontification about the power and impact of the Muslim voting block on
American politics and policies may cause more anger, resentment and
distrust within the general American population. Block voting is
comprehended to be a Machiavellian strategy that enables political
groups to exercise far more influence than their size and
contribution. Many American Muslim leaders have over the years
expressed their negative impression about America, its culture, its
politics and its society. Recent surveys of Muslim attitudes towards
American society are full of sanctimonious condemnation of American
culture and society [x]
- The issue of
endorsement also presupposes the ability of the so-called national
organizations to set the agenda of all American Muslims. Many American
Muslims are very distrustful of the national leadership. Jamshed
Bokhari, a Muslim political commentator associated with the
conservative Muslim American Society, has penned a less than
flattering opinion of the Muslim leadership, writing [xi]
there were any subject upon which the members of the American Muslim
“leadership” can be said to be complete and inarguable experts, a
field in which they would reign unchallenged – even to the point of
being solicited to produce academic treatises – it would be “How To
Make Yourself Politically Irrelevant.” Admittedly, the charge is a bit
harsh, but it is, unfortunately, an accurate assessment.
Ali, associated with the progressive Muslimwakeup.com writes and the new
avatar of American Muslim Political Action Committee (AMPCC), American
Muslim Task Force (AMT) declared: [xii]
new name or not, traditional US Muslim leaders still seem to be asleep at
the wheel, denying any change in direction and ignoring trends among their
rank and file.
leaning to the political left or right, the American Muslim leadership
does not seem to inspire much confidence in its flock. While Bokhari’s
assessment may appear too harsh, it reflects the frustration of American
Muslims for the tendency of their leaders to make decisions without
consultation. Bokhari is also frustrated at the lack of political
influence of the community itself and chooses to unleash his angst upon
the leaders. If the community and leaders are so out of synch, block
voting could cause more internal harm. Jawad Ali, however, is somewhat
hopeful, adding, “The traditional Muslim leadership is starting to wake
up to which way the wind is blowing … some of them are even rushing to
adopt the ‘Progressive’ label.”
His reference is to MPAC.
- American Muslims
have learned many lessons from their past experience at block voting.
They endorsed George W. Bush and played a decisive role in the key
constituencies in Florida, but with little in exchange for the effort.
Ultimately, President Bush decided to push aside the community and
play it politically safe. The attacks of September 11th
understandably “changed everything,” (notwithstanding the
President’s maintenance of a conservative economic policy), but in
the process, rendered useless the efficacy of a block vote where the
beneficiary would not stand by his supporters in moments of dire need.
President Bush’s attitude toward Muslims is proof of the shallow
impact of block voting [xiii]
- Block voting is a
reflection of a superficial, instrumental understanding of, and
attitude toward, democracy. Participation in democratic processes
should not be viewed as a partisan engagement in a zero-sum game.
Thinking such as, “If we have more influence, then Jews will have
less, and US policies instead of being unjust in favor of Israel, can
now be “just” and in favor of Palestine,” are narrow, bigoted
and strategically counter productive. If American Muslims seek to
become a community of the noble, who seek to enjoy good and forbid
evil, then they must rise above partisanship and pursue politics from
the perspective of realizing the moral good for all people. American
Muslim participation should be a public good that benefits all: the
nation, its people, and all those whom Americans can help. But of
course, American Muslims can also choose to become a selfish group
that seeks to milk all opportunities to pursue only parochial
objectives. Given the character of the community and the vast majority
of its members, the latter is an unlikely scenario.
Recommendations For the Muslim Community
- The American Muslim
Community as a community should abstain from endorsing any
candidate or any party. Individual organizations and associations can
and should be encouraged to pick sides as long as there are some
prominent organizations that may go the other way. Placing all eggs in
one proverbial basket is always risky and injudicious.
- The community must
recognize that it is not united and may never be. American Muslims
should leverage their internal diversity. To put it plain and simple,
they must work to develop close and influential relationships with
both parties. This is neither Machiavellian nor in any way immoral. It
is basically a safe and cautious way to hedge all bets.
They should not be dependent on one party, or one individual to
safeguard their interests. Close relations with both parties will
ensure that American Muslim interests are served regardless of
- African American
Muslims have special relations with the Democratic Party. The
community must help and encourage them to develop and nourish this
relationship further. Muslim organizations had developed links with the
Republicans during the 2000 campaign. The community must renew and
strengthen those links. It should avoid ridiculing or condemning those
Muslims who may choose to work with the Bush campaign or the
Republican Party. Pure selflessness is a rarity.
The influence gained by Republican Muslims, even if acquired
through selfish pursuits, can be helpful to the community. Surely
there will also be those who will campaign against Bush for selfish
purposes, using the cover of the community’s mood to advance their
standing in the community while pursuing self-serving politics; such
behavior is a sine qua non in politics. Communities that can balance
self-interests with public interests well, do well; others will
suffer. Muslims must
avoid perceiving motivations as being solely self-centered or solely
divine, with no accommodation for middle ground.
- American Muslims
must stop obsessing over policy outcomes and start focusing on the
process itself. There are
no quick fixes; thus, the community must engage the process as deeply
and completely as possible. This can only be achieved by maximizing
political contributions to both candidates between now and November,
so that both parties know they can always rely on American Muslim
financial support. Despite much rhetoric, American Muslims have proven
to be very miserly when it comes to spending money to realize their
political goals. Contributions to Congressional candidates in 2000 are
a prime example; Both Arab American and American Muslim PACs combined
to give only $113,881, whereas the pro-Israeli PACS donated
constituting a 1:18 disparity. It
is beyond debate that significant financial contribution translates
into greater political influence.
In the American system, this is a waste of resources
and has no bearing on policy. During the party nomination battles, it is
sensible to support candidates such as Dennis Kucinich- this helps to
expand the electoral platform of the eventual winner- but in the
Presidential race, third-party candidates can hurt. In 2004, every vote
for Ralph Nader will be a vote for George W. Bush. That Republicans are
working hard and spending their own money to get Nader on the ballot in
some key battleground states affirms this probability. Muslims who vote
for Nader will be voting for Bush; the fact that they are not directly
voting for him or contributing to his campaign is immaterial.
- Avoid third parties.
They are a waste of time, money and vote. Some Muslims argue that both
the main parties have similar platforms (especially those who think
that Palestine is the only issue for American Muslims) and therefore
they must vote, as a form of protest, for third candidates such as
Ralph Nader [xv]
in the American democratic process is a form of Ibadah (worship) as
well as Dawah (dialogue) for American Muslims. By engaging in the
affairs of our times they become part of the Shura (deliberations)
that shapes our present and future. By taking positions that are informed
by a desire to enjoin good and forbid evil and by advocating maslaha
(public interest) they are also partaking in a constructive dialogue with
mainstream America (Dawah). In pluralist societies, where people of
many faiths have agreed to live together in harmony, the Islamic thing to
do is to pursue universal values and universal public goods. In addition,
it is important to remember that this game is not a single iteration
model. There will be many more elections to come and American Muslims must
not act as if this is the only shot they have at making a difference.
American Muslims are here to stay; the impact of their presence must be
slow, steady and continuous [xvi].
Muslims must stop having an instrumental relationship with the American
system. It is time the community went far beyond one or two defining
issues and started integrating with the challenges that America faces at
large. It must allow community members to find causes that they care for
and let them vote their conscience. Voting blocks are antithetical to the
spirit of democracy; they involve an undemocratic imposition of agenda
defined by the elite on all members of the community. If American Muslims
are to find an authentic expression to their citizenship, they must follow
their conscience and vote for a better America based on self-interest and
[i] I am grateful to Fareed Senzai of Oxford University, Mir
Ali Raza of William Paterson University, and Dilnawaz Siddiqui of the
Association of Muslim Social Scientists, Kamran Bokhari of Stratfor.com
and Zahid Bukhari of ICNA and Saeed Khan of ISPU for their insights in
preparing this Policy Brief. While the document has definitely benefited
from their suggestions, for its weaknesses and for its politics, I take
full responsibility. I also want to use this opportunity to congratulate
ISPU for helping expand the American discourse and for giving platform for
Muslim scholars also got into the debate; while some like Jamaal
Badawi hedged around the issue a bit, others like Sheikh Taha Jaber Al-Alwani
came out strongly in favor of participation. See Jamaal Badawi’s
position stated in an interview to Sound Vision on the World Wide Web: http://www.soundvision.com/Info/politics/badawi.asp.
See Sheikh Taha Jaber Al-Alwani, “The Participation of Muslims in the
American Political System,” on the World Wide Web:
For debates on the subject see M. A. Muqtedar Khan, “Refuting the
Isolationist Arguments,” American Muslim Quarterly, 2, 1 (Spring 1998),
pp. 60-69. Also see M. A. Muqtedar Khan, “How can Muslims Impact
American Politics,” IslamOnline.Com, November 04, 2000, on the World
Wide Web: http://www.islamonline.net/english/Politics/2000/1/Article3.shtml.
Also see Mahdi Muhammad, “Refutation of Dr. Khan’s article: “How Can
Muslims Impact American Politics,” on the World Wide Web: http://brothermahdi.tripod.com/khan.html.
See reports by CNN and MSNBC. “American
Muslims Seek Electoral Clout,” CNN (February, 4, 2004); http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/02/04/elec04.muslim.voters.ap/
also see Kari Huus, “Getting Out the Muslim Vote,” MSNBC
(February 02, 2004); http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4137092/.
See Ihsan Bagby, “A Portrait of Detroit Mosques: Muslim
Views on Policy, Politics and Religion (Clinton, MI: Institute of
Social Policy and Understanding, 2004).
For an excellent analysis of the diversity within the American Muslim
Community vis-à-vis political participation see Aminah Beverly
McCloud, “Muslims in American: Identity and Participation,”
(Chicago: International Strategy and Policy Institute, 1999). On the
World Wide Web: http://www.ispi-usa.org/policy/policy5.html.
For an analysis of how identity politics in the American Muslim
Community shapes political participation, see M. A. Muqtedar Khan,
“"Collective Action and Collective Identity: The Case of
Muslims in America", in Amber Haque (ed.), Muslim Issues in
North America, (Washington DC: Amana Publications, August, 1999),
See M. A. Muqtedar Khan, American Muslims: Bridging Faith and
Freedom (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 2002).
For example see M. Amir Ali, “American Political Scene and Muslim
Americans.” (Chicago: The Institute of Islamic Education and
Information, 2000).; on the World Wide Web:
Notice the use of the term Muslim Americans and not American Muslims.
This is often indicative of negative attitudes towards America.
For a more detailed reflections on the decision to endorse bush see,
M. A. Muqtedar Khan, “By George! Was Endorsing Bush a Mistake?” The
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2001, p. 67; on the
World Wide Web: http://www.wrmea.com/archives/july01/index.htm.
Hugh S. Galford, "Pro-Israel and Arab/Muslim-American PAC
Contributions to 2000 Congressional Candidates," The
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2001, pp.
49-54. On the World Wide Web: http://www.wrmea.com/archives/may-june01/0105048.html.
The CAIR Survey suggested that nearly 26% of their members preferred
Ralph Nader. I hope this preference does not translate into vote