Muslim political groups seek unified voice

Diversity: Organizers strive to overcome differences to address common concerns.

July 05, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore City Council candidate Melvin Bilal held a fund-raiser at a local mosque in May, the black Republican drew 250 fellow Muslim Americans, including immigrants from India, Pakistan and the Arab world.

Among them was retailer Ahzar Ansari, originally from Karachi, who donated $1,000 to help put one of his brethren in office.

"We don't have any representative at all, anywhere in Baltimore City," said Ansari, who plans to hang signs for Bilal's long-shot campaign in one of his Dollar Stores. "We have to start somewhere."

Bilal's fund-raiser captures what American Muslim political organizers have been working for: cooperation across ethnic lines. At a time when many Muslims are anxious about civil rights and opposed to President Bush, organizers want to develop a unified voice and gain a foothold in the political system.

It's not easy. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq, the number of Muslims running for office nationwide has dropped more than 80 percent.

Organizing American Muslims is also a challenge. Far from being a monolithic group, they hail from about 80 countries and are often divided by linguistic, cultural and political differences that can outweigh their common faith.

Numbering from 3 million to 6 million - estimates vary widely - they have established a variety of public organizations. But none hold public office beyond the state level.

"There are so many groups, and they are so diverse," said Mohamed Nimer, author of The North American Muslim Resource Guide. "The major thing is for leaders in the community to start thinking of the Muslim population as a whole."

As the election approaches, Muslim activists are trying to do just that.

In December, they created a national political umbrella organization, the American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections, which includes the nation's nine largest Muslim groups. They're holding voter registration drives - with mixed results - and fielding seminars to teach political organizing skills.

Learning from others

Muslim activists also are drawing lessons from earlier immigrant religious groups. They include Jews, who developed political power through education and volunteer work, and Irish Catholics, who made inroads by joining police and fire departments.

"I cite how the Jewish community did it and take it as a model for us," said Raeed N. Tayeh, a political organizer of Palestinian descent who has given more than two dozen seminars to Muslims around the country. "They didn't just start working on Israel - they started working on the state legislatures, they started working on the school boards."

"I tell people, overall, the whole goal here is integration. You can't convince Americans that you are part and parcel of this society - that you are not a threat - simply by saying: `Islam is Peace.' You have to show them through action."

The vast majority of American Muslims divide roughly into three groups, South Asians (including Indians and Pakistanis), Arabs and American-born blacks. Beyond the Quran, Islam's holy book, they often have little in common.

For example, many Pakistanis tend to live in the suburbs and work in professions - particularly medicine and engineering. African-American Muslims are more likely to live in cities and work blue-collar jobs.

Ethnic clashes

Even Muslims who share the immigrant experience may clash over ethnic differences. Some South Asians admire Arabs because they come from the cradle of Islam and can read the Quran in its original language. But others complain that Arabs view them as inferior.

Shahab Qarni, a Pakistani-American who serves as director of outreach for the Maryland Muslim Council, recalled visiting a Syrian-led mosque to discuss plans for a candidates forum. He said he waited 45 minutes as mosque members chatted in Arabic - a language he doesn't understand - before they spoke to him.

"Arabs have fairer skin, so they look to the [Pakistanis] like this," said Qarni, glancing downward.

Another impediment is Islam's Shiite-Sunni split, which began nearly 1,400 years ago as a dispute over the nature of Muhammad's successor and continues to play out around the world. Even when they're dealing with shared concerns here, the Shiites, who represent 15 percent of Muslims, and Sunnis, who represent 85 percent, organize separately.

Qarni, 52, runs a home and business loan company in Sam's Plaza, a Woodlawn strip mall he shares with Muslim entrepreneurs from Bangladesh, India and Nigeria. With the Maryland Muslim Council, he tries to forge connections between Muslim groups and with the broader community.

Earlier this year, he persuaded Sam's Plaza merchants to fund a luncheon celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday - an outreach to the local black community, including Muslims. The event honored teachers at Woodlawn High School and drew 150 people, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat who represents the area.

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