U.S. Muslims Use Growing Numbers to Flex Political Muscle

Article excerpt

What new political constituency is morally conservative, liberal on social-welfare issues and highly educated with a median household income of $69,000 a year?

Muslims.

Fueled by a cohort of Gen-X believers born in this country and educated in American schools, they're following the footsteps of Jews who arrived here a century ago.

"We've become more vocal in working within the system," says Neveen Salem, spokeswoman for the American Muslim Council, whose headquarters are on New York Avenue three blocks from the White House. "We're no longer these immigrants who've come to the States."

About 30 Muslim Hill staff have their own Islamic prayer meetings on Fridays in one of the House meeting rooms beneath the Capitol rotunda. Jemeel Johnson, chief of staff for Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, New York Democrat, is the highest-ranking Muslim staffer.

Two Muslim political groups put on a show of strength last month. On "Muslim Day on Capitol Hill" on June 22, two dozen members of Congress attended a dinner sponsored by the AMC. Five members of Congress - and a Senate staffer - attended an open house on June 14 at the Council on American-Islamic Relations' new $2.5 million Capitol Hill headquarters.

Rep. James P. Moran, a Democrat from a Northern Virginia district with a large number of Muslims, attended both.

All of the presidential candidates were invited to the AMC's annual convention in Arlington last month, which was covered by CNN. Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, the only presidential hopeful who attended, downplayed his anti-immigration stance, Miss Salem said, and played up his opposition to abortion and his belief that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine.

"The political leadership now accepts Muslims as part of the American reality," says Sulayman Nyang, a Howard University professor co-directing the Muslims in the American Public Square project at Georgetown University. "But there's a great deal of prejudice at the popular level. The Muslims are still the new kid on the block."

There was a time when no candidate would be seen publicly with a Muslim group.

"Arab-American contributions used to be turned down by political candidates," says Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "Anyone who didn't do so was suspect. In 1988, [Democratic presidential nominee] Michael Dukakis rejected an endorsement from an Arab-American democratic federation. That was back in a different period."

That was then. Now President Clinton is presiding at a White House celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the feast marking the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

"We're getting there," says Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR. "Muslims are taking their seat at the table in all aspects of public life."

Or at least they're trying.

About 700 Muslims are running for offices nationwide this election cycle, from city councils to mayor's offices to national party conventions, says Lubna Javaid, executive director of the 6,000-member American Muslim Alliance in Freemont, Calif. In Texas alone, she said, 100 Muslims have been elected as delegates to Republican and Democratic national conventions. A Muslim city councilwoman in Tuskegee, Ala., is running for mayor there, and a male Muslim is running for mayor of Selma, Ala.

The bulk of candidates are black. A few are Asian immigrants, Miss Javaid said. Blacks tend to run as Democrats. Immigrants tend to run as Republicans.

"Our goal is not only to activate American Muslims, but to send a message to mainstream America that Muslims care about politics," she said. …