ISNA convention ends with no presidential endorsement
By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
American Muslim leaders gathered in Chicago for the 41st annual convention of the Islamic
Society of North America (ISNA) ended their meeting on Sept. 6, 2004 with a rousing plea to about 30,000 Muslims to vote in the November presidential election but without endorsing any candidate.
The American Muslim Taskforce, an umbrella group for top U.S. Muslim organizations, met behind closed doors separately from the conference, deliberating whether to make an endorsement in the race as both Democrats and Republicans are seeking their support.
Despite bitter feelings over how President Bush has conducted the war on terror, Muslim leaders indicated that an endorsement for his challenger, Democratic Sen. John Kerry, was not guaranteed. Independent presidential candidate, Ralph Nader traveled to Chicago to seek backing of the 8-million strong Muslim community.
Like this year’s election, in 2000, civil rights was the main issued for the American Muslim community when leaders of major Muslim organizations made their first endorsement in a presidential race, choosing Republican Bush over Democrat Al Gore. Bush, who met with Muslim leaders, had indicated that he was sympathetic to their concerns about the use of secret evidence act, enforced mainly against Muslims and Arabs, in immigration hearings.
However, many rank-and-file Muslims -- especially U.S.-born blacks, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic -- opposed that 2000 decision. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the anti-terror policies that followed, the Muslim leaders who had organized the Bush endorsement said openly they had made a mistake.
Still, Bush did not give up on the Muslim vote. But Bush appears to have little chance of winning the leaders' endorsement, given widespread anger over terror prevention laws the president insists are critical to national security.
A pro-Bush booth at the ISNA convention stirred anger among attendees who believe the president's actions since Sept. 11, 2001, have hurt more innocent Muslims than terrorists. They stop abruptly when they saw the 5-foot-tall photo of President Bush, with ``muslimsforbush.com'' above his head. Then come the outbursts. ``Disgusting,'' said one onlooker. ``Take that down,'' said another.
``I think President Bush has misled not only the United States, but the world,'' said Noor Maciael, an educator who called the booth ``disgusting'' and planned to vote for Democrat John Kerry. ``He has put us in a situation where the whole world is hating this country.''
The display was funded by Pakistani-American Hassan family who recently created the group ``Muslims for Bush.'' Seeme Hasan said that she and her husband Malik, a Colorado physician who earned his wealth in the health care industry, have donated more than $1 million to Bush and Republican causes since the 2000 campaign. ``The reason we are doing this is that Muslims don't have a lobbyist,'' Seeme Hasan said. ``We want to be there. We are going to give contributions at the highest level.''
Bush has other supporters in the Muslim and Arab community. Some are Iraqi-Americans overjoyed that Saddam Hussein has been ousted. Others are entrepreneurs who view the Republican Party as more friendly to business interests. And many devout Muslims prefer the Republicans' conservative stand on social issues such as gay marriage. But many Muslims at the nonpartisan Islamic Society of North America convention were not happy with the Hasans' activism.
Earlier, in an interview, Nader (Christian Arab American of Lebanese origin) said he alone was addressing Muslim issues. "We are the only ones who are speaking up on Israel, the Palestinians, civil liberties and malicious prosecution," he said. But many Muslim leaders have argued that voting for Nader would just end up helping Bush.
Regarding Kerry, some Muslim leaders say his campaign has missed opportunities to capitalize on Muslim resentment of the president. At the convention this weekend, organized by the nonpartisan Islamic Society of North America, several speakers said Kerry had become too timid on civil rights issues. They said his pledge on repealing parts of the USA Patriot Act, which gave the government broad new powers to monitor citizens, did not go far enough. "Please improve your position," said Dr. Agha Saeed, head of the Task
Force and President of American Muslim Alliance, in a plea to Kerry at the convention's closing rally. "Only then can we talk to you."
Others have also complained that high-level Kerry staff have been slow to reach out to Muslim leaders. However, Aslam Abdullah, Director of the Muslim Electorates' Council of America, said those leaders were thinking too narrowly. "It is not whether Bush meets with Muslims or whether Kerry meets with Muslims," he argued. "The question is who is more capable of steering the country out of the trouble it is in?" Whatever the task force decision, it is not clear that they can deliver the Muslim vote. They have sponsored voter registration drives and "town hall" meetings about the election nationwide, but many American Muslims are not affiliated with national Muslim organizations and may not be influenced by an endorsement.”
Aslam Abdullah, who is also editor of Minaret magazine, in an article - Visionary Muslim masses vs indecisive Muslim leaders – pointed out that the Muslim political scene is divided into factions. “The American Task Force that claims to represent more than a dozen Muslim groups is the side of indecisive Muslims while MuslimsForKerry.com, the Muslim Electorates' Council of America and the National Steering Committee for Kerry is on the side of Kerry. MuslimsForBush.com is an obvious backer of Bush,” he said adding:
“The indecisive Muslims argue that Muslim vote is not cheap and Kerry should not take Muslim votes for granted. Those who speak on behalf of the so-called Muslim votes, however, are unable to explain where that Muslim vote is and what they have done to mobilize that Muslim vote. They argue that presidential candidates should meet them (the so-called leaders) and discuss Muslim issues. If they are satisfied with the response of the candidate, they will endorse him, otherwise, they will look for the next bidder.
“This is a faulty logic and dangerous for Muslims. We are in a market where the highest bidder takes all. A vote is an expression of one's individual conscience. It is not a commodity to be bought and sold at the will
and whim of those who claim to speak on behalf of Muslim voters. Every individual is entitled to have his decision based on his conscious. People cannot be emotionally coerced to vote for a particular person because someone took a decision on their behalf. This is what happened in 2000, when the mainly immigrant Muslim leaders endorsed George Bush without any consideration to the opinion of the majority of Muslims.
“The above logic of selling Muslim votes is also faulty because an election is not a mandate on Muslim issues, rather it is a process to elect those who can best serve the country. Ideally, Muslim interests should not be different from the interests of the country. But the so called Muslim leadership has remained isolated from national interests. It is more concerned with shaking hands with the candidate so that it can satisfy its own ego that the contenders of the leadership of the most powerful country in the world were at their doorsteps begging for their support. In their zeal to sell Muslim votes, they ignored three important issues.
“Under George Bush, some 5 million more Americans were added to the list of uninsured people and some 4 million Americans were added to the list of people living below the poverty line. America has more than 45 million uninsured citizens and 44 million people living below the poverty line. A cursory look at the Republican agenda suggests that this number may increase by 13 percent by the year 2008.
“The second important factor that is missed by the so-called Muslim leadership is the appointment of Seventh and Ninth Circuit Court judges. A few supreme court are ending their terms and new appointments would be made. With an overwhelming majority of judges representing new-cons and Christian right, one can imagine the shape of things to come under George Bush second term.
“The third important factor that the leadership ignored is gun violence that causes death to some 500 Americans every week. With George Bush in power for a second term, the gun lobby would become even stronger.
“Instead they focused primarily on civil rights issues that are not specifically Muslim issues but are national. The majority of this country will not surrender its civil rights. The Democrats have assured the country
that they will let several provisions of the Patriot Act sunset. They did not make this assurance in a closed door meeting with the so called Muslim leaders. They did in public. At the MPAC convention last year, John Kerry spoke strongly in favor of Muslim civil rights. He could have further elaborated his points, but he was cut by the podium for lack of time.
“At the Democratic convention, he and many others spoke clearly on civil rights issues for everyone - including Muslims. The Republican leadership remained silent on that issue in its convention,” Aslam Abdullah concluded .
American Muslims hold special importance this election year because they have strong communities in battleground states such as Michigan, Ohio and Florida. Also, immigrant Muslims tend to be educated professionals -- an attractive demographic for both parties.
September 8, 2004