Los Angeles Daily News May 1, 2004
Islamic voters in U.S. see '04 as watershed
Support for Bush was key in 2000
By Ann Pepper
SANTA ANA -- Sama Wareh registered to vote for the first time last year. But not for real. Just for extra credit in political science. This time it's different, said the Anaheim Hills college student as she marked "independent" on a registration form.
For Wareh and thousands of other Arab-Americans and Muslims in the nation, the 2004 election is taking on the aura of a defining moment. "We're waking up," said Wareh, 20, a film and zoology student at California State University, Fullerton. "We know we've got to become more involved in the society we live in."
Some of her community's concerns mirror everybody's: the cost of housing, education, health care. But in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, American Muslims say their faith has been maligned and their loyalty unfairly questioned. Islamophobia, they believe, is on the rise.
Muslims take responsibility for some of that. They are coming to realize, Wareh said, that the only way to be recognized as full-status Americans is to participate fully in civic life. And that means more than just voting.
Arab-Americans and U.S. Muslims always vote in large numbers. An estimated 79 percent are registered, and 85 percent of those say they vote, according to a 2001 poll taken on behalf of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Political activists believe the power of the community's bloc vote helped put George Bush in the White House four years ago. Bush won the community's votes overwhelmingly in Florida, where he claimed the presidency with less than a 600-vote margin.
The community cast a bloc vote on the advice of trusted voices, as from the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Word spread to voters over the Internet, at Islamic centers and through popular, ethnic newspapers, such as Al-Watan and Arab World in Anaheim and An-Nahar in Whittier.
This time, rank-and-file Muslim voters say their support won't be won as easily. They are grasping for a better understanding of issues and candidates and a stronger say in government.
"We want to create a model community with 100 percent voter registration," said Aslam Abdullah, a political adviser and founder of the newly minted Muslim Electorate Council of America. "That's what we are aiming for. We are doing the extensive work needed to bring in as many voters as possible."
It's been months now since Muslims in Orange County could go to a community event or even to some private parties without running into someone with a voter registration form in hand. Registration tables pop up outside Little Gaza restaurants along Brookhurst Street. Community residents are volunteering as poll workers. Imams preach on voting.
.. Bush's popularity with everyday Arab-Americans has plummeted from a high of around 83 percent in October 2001 to 38 percent, according to a January poll by Zogby International. The trend is the same among American Muslims.
Still, the president has a loyal following among wealthy Arab-Americans and some foreign-born Muslims. Some, particularly those who support the war in Iraq, have joined the ranks of Bush loyalists who have raised $100,000 or more for his re-election campaign and who call themselves the Pioneers and the Rangers.
And Muslim and Arab-American leaders, eager to parlay support for their issues, warn candidates that no one should take their community's votes for granted.