Newsday – May 2, 2004
Building political voice: The Muslim vote
BY RON HOWELL
Before going off to work one recent afternoon, Lena Sarsour sat down on her mother's couch and filled out a voter registration form.
Sarsour, 21, Brooklyn-born but of Palestinian descent, has grown increasingly bitter these past two years about the foreign policy actions of President George W. Bush, especially his decision to invade Iraq and his recent declarations supporting hard-line positions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Sarsour, an office manager with a Brooklyn real estate appraisal company, doesn't mince words. "He's going to jail for war crimes," said Sarsour, who lives with her husband and toddler son in Bensonhurst, speaking of Bush. "I think he's a major terrorist and I think he's prejudiced."
Sarsour's mother and father, Maha and Nidal Sarsour, who live in Sunset Park, say they registered to vote about three weeks ago and cannot wait to cast ballots against Bush in November.
Muslim leaders in the New York area say they have been urging Muslim immigrants such as Sarsour to fill out registration cards, hoping to give new strength to a community that has been politically powerless.
In New York State, only one major elected office holder, Democratic Assemblyman Roger Green of Brooklyn, is Muslim. He is African-American, and a convert to Islam.
Nationwide, leaders of Muslim immigrant groups say they expect the voices of their communities to be heard this year as never before.
A little known fact about Muslim immigrants is that they overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush against Al Gore for president in 2000, said Amaney Jamal, a professor of politics at Princeton University and an expert on American Muslims.
"This is a man [Bush] that many in the Muslim community feel they played a role in bringing into office," she said. But in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, many Arabs who supported Bush in his first run will work to oust him now.
"I think people are expressing their frustration with Bush across the board right now," Jamal said. "In general, they are really upset with what Bush is doing and they plan to express that opinion at the polls."
Last week, the Washington-based Arab American Institute released the results of a survey showing that, of the Muslims surveyed in four states, 10 percent said they would vote for Bush and 62 percent preferred Democratic rival John Kerry.
The survey, conducted by Zogby International pollsters, interviewed voters in four states with relatively large numbers of Arab voters: Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
According to Prime New York, the Manhattan-based political consulting company that keeps databases of voters in the state, there are 23,944 registered voters of Middle Eastern descent in the city.
Using computer software that culls out Middle Eastern names - a portion of which could be non-Muslim - Prime New York concluded there are 9,302 other Middle Easterners on election lists in other parts of the state, including Long Island.
Although those numbers are relatively small - there are 10.1 million voters in the state - some community leaders are hoping Muslim immigrants this year will begin showing a measure of political clout that will earn them more respect with elected officials.
Some Muslims made it clear that they do not necessarily oppose all of Bush's foreign policies.
For example, at the Hazrat-I-Abubaker Sadiq mosque in Flushing, where most of the worshippers are from Afghanistan, many strongly supported the U.S. ouster of the Taliban from their homeland.
While the spiritual leader at the mosque, Mohammad Sherzad, would not say whether he supports Bush's Iraq policies, he did stress one point: He has been encouraging his flock to vote. "I told them all that you have to register for the vote," said Sherzad, who said between 300 and 400 of his 1,470 members are U.S. citizens.
African-American Muslims - who according to experts at Columbia University make up about a third of the roughly 600,000 Muslims in New York City and 6 million in the nation - strongly opposed Bush in 2000. But immigrants saw him as an ally on domestic as well as many foreign policy issues, Jamal said.