In 2000, the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council, comprised of four major organizations, endorsed George W. Bush for President. The criteria for the endorsement were opposition to using secret evidence in trials and providing access to the Muslim community to government. For the 2004 Presidential Race, 10 Muslim organizations formed the American Muslim Taskforce (AMT), a group organized to advocate for civil rights and access to government through the electoral process. AMT is led by the experienced stewardship of Dr. Agha Saeed, who has dedicated his time and efforts to marshal the civil rights of American Muslims. In pursuit of increased dialogue among Muslim organizations, MPAC worked with AMT while choosing not to be a member of the umbrella group.
President Bush’s appointments of neo-conservatives have raised questions on the direction of our country and the deterioration of civil liberties. These actions have overshadowed the positive statements he has made about Islam, especially during the sensitive moments immediately after 9/11. Frozen assets of American Muslim charities have been consumed by legal and administrative costs at the expense of the donors’ First Amendment right to freely practice the fifth pillar of Islam, zakat (charity). We are disappointed in the performance of the Bush Administration, and polls suggest that American Muslims are ready to support the challenger, Senator John Kerry, for President.
Our response to those polls, however, should not be a reactionary blank check endorsement for the Senator from Massachusetts. We believe that he should have demonstrated a personal interest in American Muslim issues to receive such a gesture of confidence. At the very least, he should have met with Muslim communities in battleground states, such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida. Or, he should have met with American Muslim community leaders. Instead, Senator Kerry chose to avoid us, probably out of political calculation that right-wing pundits would pounce on him for being seen with Muslims. In contrast, Governor Jean Shaheen and Senator Ted Kennedy, whose leadership in addressing issues of importance to our communities should be commended, met with Muslim community leaders. We also thank those staffers in the Kerry campaign who reached out to American Muslim organizations and lobbied for courting our vote.
A major factor in our decision is that we simply don’t know what the Senator thinks about issues of concern to the American Muslim community. To endorse someone we have never met is reckless. We are, therefore, going to continue to provide analysis of the distinctions between President Bush and Senator Kerry. We also expect from our community an 80% voter turnout. Based on the recent political history of American Muslims, that goal is achievable, and exit polls will determine in whose favor the American Muslim community voted. An endorsement is far too important to give away without delivering solid promises to the community that their interests will be of paramount importance to the next President. Leaders of other religious and ethnic communities throughout our country do not endorse unless they receive such promises. We should not be any different.
The role of American Muslim leadership is not to simply amplify the will of the popular vote; rather, it is to encourage elected officials to engage with American Muslims on a variety of levels. The popular vote is political engagement at the popular level. Engaging with the voters as a collective group is accomplished by meeting with community leaders. While polls indicate that Kerry will get the vast majority of American Muslim votes, it is the candidates’ responsibility to demonstrate their interest and commitment to the community. As marshals of the American Muslim interest, we cannot report that Senator Kerry has been willing to engage with American Muslims in a substantive manner and, therefore, we cannot in good conscience offer him our endorsement.
We trust the political judgment and maturity of American Muslim voters. In this election, Muslim voters must vote their conscience based on what is best for themselves, their communities and their country. Our decision not to endorse a candidate in the 2004 Presidential election must not be viewed as a directive for American Muslims to reconsider their decision. Rather it is a reminder that although candidates are willing to take our votes, they are not yet willing to announce such to the country.
Omar Ricci is a board member of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council.