As diverse as Muslims in America are, something peculiar happens around presidential election time. Roughly divided into equal parts South Asian, Arab, and African-American; mostly Sunni with significant Shia minorities; mostly traditional along with some progressives and secular-minded folk – Muslim Americans appear to gravitate to a particular candidate in a particular party on either side of the political spectrum. Driving this scenario are proponents of what’s come to be known as an organized “Muslim block vote”. The logic goes that Muslims make up a sizable electorate in America, and that if properly applied, this vote could make Muslim Americans “kingmakers” in close political races – as was apparently the case in the 2000 presidential election. In theory, it is natural to gravitate towards a block vote – so long as it expresses a genuine organic collective of like-minded voters. But the story of the Muslim American “block vote” isn’t this simple.
The organization that issues the endorsement, the American Muslim Taskforce (AMT), is an umbrella group made up of one or more representatives from several national and local Muslim groups, and is the successor to the committee that issued a 2000 endorsement for George W. Bush. The well-intentioned idea was to have this committee go to each campaign and offer to sway Muslim votes in exchange for access and favorable policy positions. Shortly before the presidential election, the committee meets to make a final endorsement decision based on candidate responses. The group then remains mostly dormant until the next election four years later.
While some have applauded this strategy as a means of getting Muslims on the political map, it is in fact a short-sighted plan that neither increases Muslim political power nor helps Muslim Americans become better (and more involved) voters.
A necessary component of the “block vote” strategy is the faulty assumption that Muslims either have uniform political views or are indifferent enough to drop them in favor of a recommendation by Muslim leaders. But every survey of Muslim political opinion shows a wide variety of views on issues ranging from national security and foreign policy to education and trade. While some Muslims conservative values are in line with the Republicans, their social justice, civil rights, and foreign policy viewpoints are sometimes more in line with the Democrats. In the current race, many Muslims also admired Ron Paul’s fiscally conservative, anti-war bent.
It is unreasonable to expect, and unfair to encourage, Muslim voters to drop these personal political leanings in favor of a dictate from above. To do so would be to mirror dysfunctional electoral politics in less-sophisticated democracies, where voters cede their responsibility to be informed decision makers, casting their votes largely along ethnic or tribal lines. This approach can only lead to political apathy and atrophy in the Muslim electorate – the exact opposite of what the Muslim American community needs.
The endorsement strategy also reveals a misunderstanding on how public policy is crafted and executed. Selective pressure applied every four years is no match for daily interaction with candidates, political parties, and elected officials to slowly make the case for a more enlightened governance. To be sure, every day more Muslims are finding careers in public policy, political campaigns, and on the Hill – and the effect on policy positions is noticeable. But nearly all of them have found their way there on their own.
A bit of history is in order here. As a decision was nearing in the 2000 block vote decision, pleas by Muslims already involved in the political process to stay away from endorsing George Bush fell on deaf ears. African-American Muslims in particular, who like most African-Americans tend to vote Democratic, were shut out of the process entirely, despite their substantial voting numbers and far greater political experience. And while third-party candidate Ralph Nader most mirrored the political convictions of most Muslim Americans, he wasn’t considered a serious enough candidate.
In the end, the endorsement went to Bush for what now seem to be trivial reasons – Bush had given access to select Muslim leaders and had made a mention of opposing secret evidence in a presidential debate, while Gore had not. No mention was made of positions on issues or their correlation with Muslim viewpoints. As a result, thousands of Muslim votes were swayed towards Bush in a state (Florida) where the margin of victory was in the hundreds. As we have now seen, the granting of this support was not merely of no benefit to Muslims. It was exploited to further an agenda of incalculable detriment to Muslims worldwide. And, mirroring the “stay the course” strategy of the candidate they endorsed, there has been little acknowledgement by block-vote organizers of the magnitude of their error.
By 2004, the rationale for another Bush endorsement was obliterated by the post-9/11 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But again, far too much weight was given to things like responses to Muslim overtures rather than which leader was truly best for the country. The committee found itself trapped between an unpopular candidate (Bush), an unresponsive candidate (Kerry), and an unelectable candidate (Nader), illustrating perfectly the limitations of a block vote strategy. What if you assembled a block vote party and nobody came?
As a result, a “qualified endorsement” of Democratic opponent John Kerry was issued (MPAC, one of the member organizations, wisely broke from this statement and offered no endorsement, as did ISNA a few days later). Never heard of a “qualified endorsement” in politics before? That’s because the words “qualified” and “endorsement” effectively cancel each other out. You either endorse someone or you don’t. The reaction by the Kerry campaign to this “qualified endorsement” was to be expected – in their eyes, Muslims were political neophytes to be written off as irrelevant.
The most important reason to oppose a “block vote” strategy, however, is that it comes far too late to effect meaningful change in the campaign. Unlike past elections, this year Muslims are taking extra steps to become involved and educated voters. Muslims are on the paid campaign staff of both the Obama and Clinton campaigns, and Muslim Republicans (such as New Hampshire State Rep. Saggy Tahir) are already lining up behind McCain. Muslim fundraisers are also active at high levels in several campaigns, with several even holding finance co-chair positions. Countless Muslims are volunteering, caucusing, and voting in primary elections. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Muslims who have been elected as precinct chairs or higher offices within both parties. In short – Muslims (without direction from above) are putting energy into becoming a part of the political process, where real change is more likely to occur.
It would not be fair to approach Muslim Americans at the 11th hour (as in the previous two presidential elections) to tell them how to vote, especially given the high-level of grassroots mobilization and awareness achieved over the past year. Right now, Muslim public opinion appears to be gravitating towards Barack Obama as the field narrows. As such, block vote proponents are left with two bad choices. Either tell Muslims to abandon the candidate that the majority supports, or – if Obama is endorsed – take credit for leading a block of votes they had nothing to do with creating.
So what should the alternative be?
Instead of focusing on orchestrating a block vote, Muslims must be (or should have been) encouraged to focus on issues at grassroots levels, and not be swayed by personalities, throwaway overtures, or one-time favors. Interest groups of every persuasion are effective at promoting their issues because they work with politicians across the spectrum, at all levels, from local to national. Muslim leadership should be enabling this by opening doors for Muslims to get involved in this way, and not just during an election year. And rather than swinging from Democrat to Republican, as the last two endorsements have done, Muslims should be encouraged to become involved in the political party of their choice, staying true to their own ideals.
Beyond this, Muslim Americans need to become involved in the system as a whole, and fully invest themselves in the institutions of our country – media, government, non-profit, and more. As other minorities have proved over the years, it is the only real way to affect political change. Block voting belies a mentality that cements Muslims in place as outsiders who knock on the doors of power, hoping to scare politicians into giving us handouts.
One day in the near future, there won’t be just one Muslim “block vote”, there will be several: one in each campaign, made up of Muslims who have put months of energy into the campaigns for the candidates of their choice, making their case for Muslim voters to follow along and raising significant amounts of money along the way. They will have earned enough respect from within those campaigns to ensure that Muslims have positions of importance in future administrations. The prospect of losing their energy and commitment will mean that candidates will take their views seriously.
This – not “block vote” power politics – is the political future we all need to be working towards.
Photo: Keith Bacongco via flickr under a Creative Commons license.
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.