PATERSON, N.J. (AP) — With more than 1,200 Muslims and Arab-Americans taken into custody after the Sept. 11 attacks, and a U.S.-led war raging in Iraq, many Muslims oppose George Bush in the November presidential election.
But their voting for John Kerry is not a slam-dunk, either.
Muslims in New Jersey and across the country say they support the president on moral issues like abortion and gay marriage, but strongly favor Kerry because they oppose the war in Iraq and feel he’ll end it sooner than Bush will. They also support Kerry because they think he has a stronger commitment to civil rights in the United States.
In an election that could once again be razor-close, the support of Muslims — whose estimated numbers nationwide range from 1.2 million to 7 million — could be crucial. The Bush and Kerry campaigns have courted Muslim voters, particularly in swing states like Ohio and Florida, as well as Michigan, which has the nation’s largest Arab-American population.
“I can’t see how any self-respecting American — forget about Arab-American or Muslim — can vote for President Bush, unless you’re a total kook,” said Hani Awadallah, president of the Arab-American Civic Organization.
“He has made America look so bad to the rest of the world,” Awadallah said. “Muslims used to look at America as being on the side of the underdog. Now he’s shown America to be a cowboy bully, and it will take 50 years to undo this image.”
Not all Muslims share his feelings toward the president. Sherine El-Abd is on the New Jersey steering committee for Bush’s campaign. Earlier this year, she founded the Egyptian-American Political Action Committee, and hopes to raise enough money for the president’s campaign to qualify as either a Pioneer ($100,000) or a Ranger ($200,000).
The Edison woman admires Bush’s public pronouncements on behalf of American Muslims.
“It is this president that changed the language about how Americans pray,” said El-Abd, an events planner who formerly worked on Democrat Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign. “Since I came to this country in 1965, it was always ‘Americans pray in churches and synagogues.’ Now it is ‘churches, synagogues and mosques.’ He’s the one who started that.”
Bush also impressed El-Abd by including her in a group of Muslims invited to a Ramadan dinner at the White House last fall. During a private conversation that lasted perhaps a minute, El-Abd said she promised to work hard to deliver Muslim votes to him.
“I said I had a tough job ahead of me,” she recalled. “He promised to make my job easier.”
Whether Bush has done a good job is the subject of spirited debate among many Muslims.
“There is no way for the Muslim community to find themselves completely aligned with one party or another,” said Ibrahim Mohamed, the imam of a mosque in Seattle. “On moral issues like gay marriage, abortion, these kinds of faith-based issues, we tend to agree more with the Republicans. If you look at civil rights, the Bush administration gets an ‘F.’ They flunk the test. Democrats appeal to us on human rights and civil liberties. Personally, I think for the times we are in today, civil liberties will have to win out.”
In late September, a poll conducted by Zogby International for Georgetown University’s Muslims in the American Public Square found Muslims supporting the Kerry-Edwards ticket by a margin of 76% to 7% over Bush-Cheney. The random nationwide telephone survey of 1,700 Muslims had a sampling margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
In a Sept. 9-15 poll by EPIC/MRA, 58% of Arab-Americans in Michigan said they support the Kerry-Edwards ticket, while 21% support the Bush-Cheney ticket and 9% support independent candidate Ralph Nader, the son of Lebanese immigrants; 12% were undecided. Among the 574 Arab-Americans polled, 54% said they voted for Bush in 2000. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5%.
In southeast Michigan, home to an estimated 300,000 Arab Americans, some Arab-American groups have already endorsed Kerry, and an umbrella group of nine Muslim organizations is expected to weigh in on the contest next week.
In its endorsement Wednesday, the Arab American Political Action Committee said Kerry understands their values.
“We believe Sen. Kerry will make America stronger, safer and more respected throughout the world,” said AAPAC President Abed Hammoud.
Kerry’s stance on the Iraq war is why Prospect Park Borough Councilman Mohamed Khairullah, one of a handful of Muslim elected officials in New Jersey, plans to vote for the Democrat.
“He said the U.S. will never attack unless we are in real danger, which will really appeal to Arabs,” Khairullah said.
Ghassan Shabaneh of West Paterson, who teaches political science at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, said Kerry has been more respectful of Muslims and Islam than Bush has.
“He doesn’t think his God is better than your God, and I believe that will have an important appeal to Muslims,” said Shabaneh, as he ate lunch in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Paterson, which is the nation’s second-largest Arab-American community after the Dearborn, Mich.-area.
He and other Muslims said their community has tended to support Republicans in the past because the GOP is closer to their own social conservatism.
“Devout Muslims will find a more natural home in the Republican party because of issues like gay marriage and abortion,” he said. “If they would play their cards right, they could get a lot of Muslim votes. For some Muslims, to vote not Republican is a big step for them.”
Yet some Republicans simply cannot fathom re-electing the president.
“I am un-Bush,” said Aref Assaf of Denville, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. “There’s a sense of great distrust and disappointment in Bush, and a fear that if he is re-elected, the same policies will continue.”
But he’s not wild about Kerry, either, expecting more strongly pro-Israel policies under the Democrat. Souheila Al-Jadda, a producer with San Francisco-based Link TV, which translates news reports from the Middle East for an American audience, agreed.
“This is a defensive vote, a reluctant vote, but they will vote for Kerry because no one wants Bush back,” she said.