U.S. Muslims are learning to use political system Adherents of Islam join in lobbying, some run for office

October 22, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

America's millions of Muslims -- adherents to what may be the nation's fastest-growing religion -- are gradually learning to embrace politics.

The change can be seen in the hopeful politicians who flock to meet voters in Detroit-area mosques and California Islamic centers. At Muslim gatherings across the country, thousands of people have registered to vote.

And, in a departure from the past, some Muslims are entering politics themselves, and the professionals among them are learning to exercise their financial clout.

In part, the new political activism reflects the increasing number of Muslims in the country, though estimates vary widely, from 3 million to 8 million.

Part of it is driven by concern about Muslim homelands, whether Kashmir, Kosovo or Palestine, or the sense that Muslims in the United States suffer discrimination. And part of the motivation is reaction to what they say is a formidable Zionist lobby committed to demonizing Muslims in popular culture and outweighing them in the halls of power.

In the 1996 elections, an estimated 100 Muslims won public office. Probably 10 or 20 are running for public office in the Nov. 3 races, says Agha Saeed, a California State University political scientist.

But Saeed and other activists in the Muslim community call this ** year a dress rehearsal for the year 2000, when they hope to help elect 2,000 qualified Muslim candidates to public office.

This year, an American Muslim is running for a California congressional seat, although she is given little chance. Not one Muslim serves in Congress now. Still, a Muslim presence is growing on Capitol Hill, and enough Muslims work there that Friday prayers are offered in a congressional office building.

In moving into politics, Muslims are copying the efforts of religious minority groups before them, such as the Jews and the Mormons, says John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

"They seem to be following a well-trod path," Green says.

A survey by the American Muslim Council in 1996 found 470,000 people with Islamic names registered to vote. Many more, including the highest-ranking elected Muslim official in America, North Carolina state Sen. Larry Shaw, would not have shown up in such a survey.

If Muslims voted together, especially in such states as California, New York, Michigan and Virginia, they could tip elections.

Concerns about Mideast policy, domestic discrimination and a shortage of political representation have inspired Detroit-area Muslims to contribute to an Arab-American Political Action Committee.

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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