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Published:February 11th, 2007 10:33 EST

Local Media Cannot Keep Ignoring the Muslim Vote

By Syeda Abbas

The word was out in mosques, community parties and Islamic schools, Ramadan feasts  all over Pittsburgh:  get the vote out.  Why would a normally sleepy Muslim community thrust itself into the forefront of the most crucial election in recent history? Would it matter? Apparently it did.  

The Muslim community of Pittsburgh, estimated at about 10,000, worships in eight or nine mosques.   The community is ethnically diverse.  South Asians are the biggest group, followed by African- Americans, and then Arabs.  The largest mosques are in Monroeville  and in Oakland. The former is called MCCGP Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and the latter is named Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.  South Asians and East Europeans frequent the Monroeville mosque. This part of the community is remarkably wealthy, its core support coming from professionals, particularly physicians employed by the mammoth University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the smaller Allegheny General health system.  Lexuses, BMWs  are parked in rows outside the Monroeville mosque that houses the Sunday school. Many children attend private schools, and dinner conversations frequently turn to investment options.  

Arab families, African -Americans and students from neighboring colleges frequent the Oakland mosque. Oakland offers summer camps, Arabic lessons, free meals  and group activities.  Another mosque is planned in Warrendale on the north side, and there are smaller mosques all over the city.  Zainabia, run by the Imamia Organization of Pittsburgh in Plum, is the only minority Shia mosque for miles and offers lectures commemorating the martyrdom of the seventh century Imam Hussain.   These mosques have forged an Islamic Council of Greater Pittsburgh that calculates Eid days and meets when there are public relations crises, frequent occurrences in the Muslim world.  This broad community fuses Islamic ideals with classic Americana:  potluck fund-raiser dinners, mosque sleepovers, Arabic summer camps and lecture series mark its calendar.   Women hold positions  in mosque administration, and many activities are geared around families with children. Two years ago, a stand-up Muslim comic regaled the community with different accents heard in the mosque. 

The Muslim community teetered last fall on a delicate line between voter education and endorsing candidates.  According to Saleh Waziruddin,  of  the Al –Nur Islamic  center  and secretary  to  the Islamic council , there was a conscious nationwide effort to mobilize the Muslim vote.  He cited two challenges:  Mosques are non -profit organizations and are not allowed to endorse any candidates, and mosques are casually organized. There are no accurate  member lists. Secondly, irregular mosque attendance does not allow for actual head counts. Some members may attend two mosques. Mainstream politics is still a distant reality. Elections tend to bypass the community.  Most immigrant members generally struggle to differentiate between Democrat and Republican, or they puzzle over the term gubernatorial.  .  

National research shows that Muslim voters overwhelmingly went over to the Democratic side, as the Iraq war progressed. A Council of American Islamic Relations survey of 2006 suggests that 55% of Muslims surveyed felt the war on terror had turned into a war on Islam.  Three Rs galvanized Pittsburgh’s Muslim community into action; Republicans, Rick and Ramadan.  The timing of the election proved providential. As if the Iraq war was not nightmarish enough, the black smoke rising above Beirut and the apathetic pace of the ceasefire was seared into Muslim consciousness. The height of the election campaign and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a month of fasting, coincided. Mosque attendance peak during this month, emotions rise to fever pitch, and Muslims are more likely to donate time and money. The faithful believe that good deeds during Ramadan are rewarded greatly.  A hawkish Republican agenda, which Santorum seemed to personify to Muslims, fueled sentiment that Muslims needed to help bring about a change.  Omer Slater, former president of Greater Pittsburgh’s Islamic council, said, “ Santorum's highly transparent Islamaphobia made him a target for most Muslims.”  

Before you could say Islamofacist, the Muslim community  rallied behind the conservative Democratic challenger Bob Casey, supporting him with money and votes. At least two fund-raisers were held for Casey. He met families at a Muslim home in Monroeville where he is said to have remarked that of the 200 fundraisers he had attended it was the first where people prayed. Children played, women sat behind the men and listened quietly. Casey was quiet and understated.  He shook hands with men and women on his way out.  The second fund-raiser was held at a restaurant.  At the third meeting Muslim families were present. The first fund-raiser netted about $11,000. The new senator’s office did not respond to e-mails confirming this amount, nor would his office comment on whether Casey had pursued a Muslim strategy during the campaign. 

Santorum, who is writing another book on the threat of Islamic fascists, was well aware of Muslim support for Casey.  His press assistant, Melissa Anderson at the conservative D.C.- based Center for Ethics and Public Policy, says, “ Mr. Santorum did try to meet Muslim voters.”   

Congressman Tim Murphy was the only Republican to win back his seat with ease. Murphy befriended the Muslim community when it was trying to set up an all- day Islamic school on the premises of the Monroeville mosque. 

Unlike most Republicans, he has not been shy meeting the community. Murphy introduced himself to 300 Muslims at a dinner marking the end of Ramadan. Zahida Chaudhary, president of the Pakistani- American Association of Greater Pittsburgh and chief organizer of the event, said, “Murphy’s people were very eager to meet the community.”  

In a telephone conversation the congressman said, “This is more than just campaigning; I want to learn about Islam, their services, and their festivals. So when I talk I can speak out with some facts. This is a gracious, wonderful community, with compassion and very much a part of my district. I want to focus on outreach and genuine understanding.” 

At the dinner Murphy lingered long enough say hello to some physicians whom he knows. 

The Muslim communities in Pennsylvania are not large enough to send a representative to Congress, as Virginia did but they  have proven they can be a fulcrum on which the balance of power rests.  Speculation about Muslim political power is difficult because there is no real way of quantifying it. Waziruddin thinks the only way to tell if the Muslim vote made a difference is to conduct name- dictionary search of voter lists. In the 2004 voter list he found 1 to 3,000 names that could be Muslim. Waziruddin says, “ The list includes non-mainstream Muslims but excludes Muslims with Western names.”  

Waziruddin’s 3,000 votes would have made a difference in the Altmire - Hart challenge in the House of Representatives where Altmire defeated incumbent Melissa Hart,  by a narrow margin. Ms. Chaudhary, who attended an Asian women’s fund-raiser for Jason Altmire says,” I have heard Melissa Hart and Altmire speak; I was not very impressed with either, but I voted for him because he was Democrat. I thought it was time for a change.”    

Christina Stacey, an Altmire spokesperson, said, ” We did not have the resources to target a special ethnic group or religious community. We are very happy with the support from the community. Mr. Altmire did get an invitation to speak at the mosque, which he could not accommodate because of scheduling problems.”  A planned tactic or not, there are plenty of Muslim-sounding names on Altmire ‘s donors list on the Federal Election Commission web site.  

What of the future?  Waziruddin thinks tweaking the laws under which mosques operate would help. If mosques could be incorporated as political action committees, they could have a sister organization that could lobby for candidates.  Right now mosques can remind people to vote, but no more.  MPAC, the powerful Muslim Public Affairs Council with offices in D.C and California, began as political action committee   The Muslim society has thrown its political weight behind Democrats and will test the waters in the presidential elections of 2008.  But it remains to be seen if the change in Congress will improve the Muslim experience in the United States.

Research suggests that Muslims are alive to the complexities of their situation. A change in the ruling party does not mean a rewriting of state policy. What is true of the nation is true of western Pennsylvania. An overwhelming majority of Muslims favor bloc voting in the elections but at least one in three are still neutral, unaffiliated with any major party. Web sites representing national Muslim interests are filled with stories about hate crimes, racial profiling, seemingly anti-Muslim legislation, media censure, press denunciation and guilt- by- association incidents. This sort of thing has caused cynicism in immigrant groups in general and Muslims in particular. 

“I would agree that the community is under fire. There is real, pervasive anti- Muslim rhetoric coming from elected leaders to the media which presents dangers to all Americans, not only Muslims”, said Edina Lekovic, communications director at MPAC. “It is not a Muslim issue, but they do get the most attention.”  

Though underreported by Pittsburgh newspapers, the decisive role  
played by the Muslim community will linger on, in the minds of the  
politicians and power pundits alike...   

American Muslim Voter survey of 2006 conducted by Council on American - Islamic Relations reported:

89% of 1,000 persons polled were regular voters

42% Dems,17% Rep, 28% unaffiliated

62% were college graduates or higher

32% had annual income of $75 000 or higher

46% want block voting in presidential elections

69% want resolution of Palestinian issue

The  American Muslim Poll of 2004 conducted by Zogby International and Pew Charitable Trusts reported:

 82% of 1,846 persons polled were registered voters

50% were Dems, 31% Independent, 12% Rep

 59% were college graduates or higher

33%  had  annual income of  $75,000 or higher

69% said endorsement of a presidential candidate by Muslim American Task Force important

76% want change in Mid-East policy

(www.projectmaps.com).

Whatever the strategy, successful candidates took care to meet Muslim voters.