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After months of balancing their support for the presidential candidate with concerns that their allegiance could do more harm than good, millions of relieved American Muslims cheered the election of the son of a Muslim immigrant whose middle name is Hussein.
Record numbers of U.S. Muslims had cast their votes, boosted by registration drives held by the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, which targeted swing-state residents. MAS Freedom estimates that about 70,000 Muslims voted in Virginia, a state that had not backed a Democratic president in more than 40 years, and which Barack Obama won by fewer than 160,000 votes.
“We used Friday prayer, religious holidays, gatherings and conventions to register Muslims,” said Imam Mahdi Bray, MAS Freedom executive director. “In Virginia (on Election Day), we had 30 taxi drivers who did nothing but take people to the polls all day.”
The Muslim community has mobilized greatly since 2000, when most of its voters — with the exception of African American Muslims — had supported George W. Bush. Ultimately dismayed by the president’s
post-9/11 policies, they began swinging Democratic in 2004, a shift that MAS Freedom was able to build on for Obama, Bray added.
Early estimates indicate that between 70 and 90 percent of Muslim voters supported Obama this year; official numbers won’t be ready until January or February, said Ahmed Younis, an analyst with the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
Throughout the party primaries and the general election, Muslims had to temper their political activism against a smear campaign calling Obama a “secret Muslim,” based on his father’s Kenyan roots. These efforts ultimately backfired; Jen’nan Read, a Duke University sociology professor, said the rumors helped galvanize Muslims and other offended Americans to fight back.
But some Muslims were more frustrated that Obama’s campaign, which responded to the accusations by highlighting the candidate’s Christian faith, did not also state that there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim American — an anti-Islamophobia point finally made in Gen. Colin Powell’s mid-October endorsement.
They also complained when Obama volunteers moved two headscarf-wearing Muslim women out of a background shot at a Detroit rally last summer, prompting the campaign to apologize.
“They were disappointed,” Read said. “But they were also disappointed by the past eight years of George Bush, and more disappointed in that than in (Obama’s) campaign strategy.”
Rumors of Obama’s Muslim ties, and the possible implications for U.S.-Israel relations, also fueled an unusually tough battle for the Jewish vote. But ultimately, about 78 percent of Jews supported Obama — slightly higher than their 2004 votes for John Kerry, although the Republican Jewish Coalition noted that this did not reach their support for either Bill Clinton or Al Gore.
Despite the loss, Matt Brooks, RJC executive director, said he would not have changed controversial RJC ads calling Obama “dangerous” to Jews and Israel, and strongly implying the candidate had pro-Muslim, anti-Semitic tendencies.
“We raised important issues,” he said. “Everything we talked about was legitimate, and I think it was important to have that conversation in the Jewish community.”
But Jews, Muslims, and America’s other minorities seem to have found a unifying figure in Obama, Younis said. His presidency could be “a magic spear in the heart of clash of civilizations theory,” especially considering his own experiences struggling with prejudice and different cultural viewpoints.
“There is a great relief today,” he said, though he added that American Muslims “do not expect for Barack Obama to have a magic wand to alleviate all the discrimination.”
In terms of immediate goals for the next White House resident, the Muslim community now wants to see Obama fulfill his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, and to take a more balanced approach when dealing with turmoil in Pakistan and the Middle East, said Mukit Hossain, executive director of the Muslim American Political Action Committee.
At the grassroots level, Muslim political activists plan to continue building on their victory and strengthening ties with other groups who organized with them behind Obama.
“We had good coordination with the Latino community in Virginia, and some of the labor justice community, with immigrants,” Bray said.
“There’s an emerging coalition within the Muslim community that will have significant impact in the years to come.”
By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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