One day during the 2004 presidential election, I was sitting in the office of (the late) Democratic congresswoman from Ohio, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, talking about how difficult it was to get anyone from the John Kerry campaign to speak to the American Muslim community. Tubbs Jones (a former cochairwoman for the Democratic National Committee) took my cell phone and immediately dialed the Kerry campaign and told high-level campaign staffers that they needed to send someone to speak to the Muslim community. As she hung up the phone, I remember her looking at me and saying:
“There you go, Arsalan. Welcome to being black in America, an unappreciated voting bloc in America.”
More than eight years later, for the 2012 presidential election, I believe that many people within the 7-million-plus American Muslim community are probably wondering the same question: “Does anybody even want our vote anymore?”
As an American Muslim political and media commentator, whenever I remind someone that President Barack Obama is not a Muslim, I always feel like Jerry Seinfeld should jump out and humorously remind us: “Not that there is anything wrong with that.” As members of the most politically radioactive minority group in America today, the last few years have witnessed major national controversies – a “Ground Zero” mosque, high-profile congressional hearings targeting the American Muslim community and even societal debate over a vanilla-flavored reality television show about “All-American Muslims” – which have seemed to keep us Muslims near the forefront of our sociopolitical zeitgeist within the current American sociopolitical landscape.
Even the first Muslim member of Congress was not immune from this political nonsense when he was elected. On the November 14, 2006, evening broadcast of his CNN Headline News program, former right-wing television host Glenn Beck interviewed Congressman-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), who made history just one week earlier by becoming the first American Muslim ever elected to the halls of Congress. True to his loony form, Beck wasted no time at all and asked Ellison if he could “have five minutes here where we’re just politically incorrect and I play the cards face up on the table.” After Ellison agreed to this strange request, Beck proceeded, “I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’ ” He graciously added that, “I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.” To offer some context, two months earlier in September 2006, the watchdog group Media Matters for America noted that Beck had previously warned that if “Muslims and Arabs” don’t “act now” by “step[ping] to the plate” to condemn terrorism, they will be “looking through a razor wire fence at the West.”
Moving onward, throughout the nearentirety of the 2008 presidential campaign cycle, when certain nasty (and xenophobic) right-wing elements of the Republican Party tried to paint Obama as some kind of “Crypto-Muslim Manchurian Candidate,” we Americans did not see Obama go even once within 12 feet of an American mosque entrance or Muslim campaign event. Even more shocking was the fact that this pandering to anti-Muslim sentiment was not limited to the Republican Party. For example, the Muslim insinuation against Obama became so toxic and radioactive within our American society that in June 2008, two American Muslim women in Michigan were removed from a photo opportunity at an Obama rally in Detroit by his Democratic campaign volunteers simply because the two wore the hijab (headscarf).
Ironically, it took the bipartisan gravitas of a former Republican secretary of state to finally put the Obama “crypto-Muslim” rumors to rest, (at least temporarily, for these toxic rumors persist to this very day). During an October 2008 interview with NBC News’ Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press – in one political fell swoop – former Secretary of State Colin Powell bravely challenged the xenophobic undertones of his own party by highlighting the ultimate sacrifice of an American Muslim soldier from New Jersey who died in Iraq for his country, our United States of America.
“I’m also troubled by … what members of the [Republican] party say,” Powell said. “And it is permitted to be said such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-yearold Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
Moving to the “Ground Zero” mosque controversy of 2010, certain vocal right-wing national critics of the project in New York – a coalition that included Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and members of the Tea Party movement – had assailed it as an unnecessary provocation. Palin famously asked people to “refudiate” (sic) the mosque project on Twitter, and some protesters – including televangelist Pat Robertson – pledged to organize legal efforts to block the project’s construction.
From there, anti-mosque campaigns across America only continued to grow. Some right-wing activists in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, denounced plans for a large Muslim center proposed near a residential subdivision; hundreds of angry protesters subsequently turned out for a march and a county meeting on the matter. A few months earlier, members of a Tea Party group in Temecula, California took barking dogs and anti-Muslim signs to protest outside Friday prayers at a neighborhood mosque that was seeking to build a worship center on a vacant lot nearby. In Wisconsin, a few Christian ministers in Sheboygan decided to lead a noisy fight against a Muslim group that sought permission to open a mosque in a former health-food store that a local Muslim doctor bought.
With the growth of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment across America over the past few years, it has become quite clear that Islam and Muslims will continue to be a political “wedge issue” aimed at dividing our nation along religious and ethnic lines for the foreseeable future. Candidates who run on anti-Muslim platforms find the expedience of demonizing American Muslims as a successful wedge issue; they can solidify their political base and activate xenophobic nativist fears under the banner of fighting against the euphemism of “political correctness.”
In March 2011, Congressman Peter King (R-New York) provided a new form of political legitimacy for this societal bias as he basically sanctioned the religious profiling of American Muslims based on the pernicious stereotypes that followers of Islam are uniquely more vulnerable to violent extremism. As the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, King decided to hold a high-profile congressional hearing on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” Reminiscent of the shadow cast by the McCarthy-era during the Cold War, these hearings now signaled that it was acceptable for Congress to investigate protected First Amendment religious beliefs, practices and activities of American Muslims simply because of their faith.
King has made numerous factually inaccurate and blatantly prejudicial accusations against Muslims in the last several years alone. He once said on camera that “we have too many mosques in this country” and that extremists lead “80-85 percent of American mosques.” Because of King’s past statements, it became quite clear that the focus of these congressional hearings would clearly violate the spirit and core beliefs of our Constitution: The presumption of innocence, the promise of fairness and equity afforded to all people, irrespective of one’s race, nationality or religious belief. In the lead-up to the hearings, the spectacle of a congressional hearing specifically targeting a religious minority generated serious concerns among political leaders, editorial boards and prominent media commentators around the country.
In a brilliant column for The Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that, “If King is looking for threats to our freedoms and values, a mirror would be the place to start.” The editorial board at the Philadelphia Inquirer called the congressional hearings “un-American” and columnist Bob Herbert of The New York Times wrote that, “To focus an investigative spotlight on an entire religious or ethnic community is a violation of everything America is supposed to stand for. But that does not seem to concern Mr. King.”
If you need more proof that American Muslims have become the most radioactive political minority football in the United States today, you have apparently not been paying attention for the last few years. Since the Republican Party has seemingly dedicated itself to an anti-Muslim national political platform, it should come as little surprise that the overwhelming majority of the American Muslim community will continue to vote for Democrats across the country, even if they do not want our votes anymore.§
Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, author of the book Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era and contributing editor for The Islamic Monthly in Washington, D.C.