With an estimated population of between 5 million and 6 million, American Muslims are often described as the country's fastest growing religion. If those numbers are accurate, there are already more Muslims than Episcopalians (2.4 million) in America, and there may be more Muslims than Jews (6 million).

So it was only a matter of time before Muslims started organizing politically. This year, they are stepping up visibility and involvement in the elections and, as a result, will soon be considered a political power.

"They could become as influential as Mormons and possibly even as Jews," said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a leading authority on religion and politics.

Green said that based on his surveys, Muslims vote primarily Democrat. But he cautioned that accurate Muslim voting statistics are hard to come by because Muslim numbers are still small compared with other groups and because until now Muslims have not been that well organized. He said he could not predict how Muslims will vote this year.

Tom Albert, the director of Ethnic Outreach for the Democratic National Committee, said that in comparison with recent years, Muslims in 2000 have exerted "more of an organized effort to become a part of the process. Muslims really, really want to become a part of the system."

At the moment, there are Muslim staffers in Congress, and at the White House, State Department, and Justice Department. But the people who hold those positions are usually viewed as individual successes. No Muslim yet serves in Congress, although a Muslim Democrat, Eric Erfan Vickers of St. Louis, is running for a position in the House of Representatives.

More national political activity will soon follow. Four Muslim organizations--the American Muslim Alliance, Muslim Public Affairs Council, American Muslim Council, and Council on American Islamic Relations--have united this year to form the American Muslim Political Coordinating Committee. Meanwhile, on the local level, Muslim political activity is intense. Muslims have set up voter registration booths in mosques nationwide. They are winning positions as city council members and state legislators, and nearly 700 Muslims will run for office this year. They are particularly active in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.

About 25 delegates to the Democratic National convention in Los Angeles later this month will be Muslim; Republicans expected between six and 10 Muslim delegates at their convention.

Perhaps the greatest victory for Muslims lies in their growing symbolic influence. On the first day of the Republican convention, a Muslim led the benediction; Democrats are said to be lining up a Muslim for a similar spot on their program.

"This is a significant recognition of the Muslim community, that the numbers have grown to such levels that they are being recognized as being a part of the fabric of the American society," said Talat Othman, chairman of the Islamic Institute in Washington, D.C., who offered the GOP benediction Monday afternoon.

Othman prayed for guidance for the candidates and quoted from the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book.

"Both parties have been showing an incredible willingness to embrace the Muslim-American community," said Suhail Khan, a Muslim who is policy director for Republican Congressman Tom Campbell of California. He said the parties "see a very strong growing base of support that has been untapped."

Khan called Othman's invitation to speak at the Republican convention a sign that "the Republican Party would like to be associated with Muslims."

"Political parties recognize Muslims as a force and recognize that they are becoming better organized," said Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the Islamic Institute and a key player in arranging Othman's appearance. "I don't think this could have happened in 1996."

But there are still obstacles.

For a religious or ethnic group to become a major political player (on the level of, say, evangelical Protestants or Jews), Green said it needs two elements: a population concentration in a few key areas and involvement in political parties and fund-raising. Muslims still lack a concentrated population--they are too scattered around the United States--and they aren't yet involved enough in elite politics, Green said. In addition, it's still difficult to mobilize the Muslim population because, like Catholics, they aren't easily categorized along party lines. While they tend to vote Democrat (as they did in the last election), they also tend to align themselves with Republicans on social issues.

Asked about whether a barrier to entry exists for Muslims in a society commonly thought of as "Judeo-Christian," Green said Muslims are still not prominent enough to worry about offending. "Americans are practical people," Green added. "If they see an advantage to dealing with a group, then they deal with them."

Muslims generally oppose abortion, gay rights, premarital sex, and access to alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. They tend to support the death penalty and generally advocate limiting sex and violence in the media. They also oppose efforts to cut immigration and immigrant rights.

In June, the Council on American Islamic Relations released the results of an internet poll of 775 people. It was a tiny poll, with a large margin for error, but it showed that 43% of Muslims were undecided about which party best represented their interests. Meanwhile, 31% favored the Democratic Party and 17% supported the Republican Party. The poll also found that Muslims were evenly split on the presidential candidates.

Zogby International, a polling and market research firm in New York, has found that the issues most important to Muslims include ending racial profiling at airports, establishing a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, ending the embargo on Iraq, and stopping the use of secret evidence to imprison without due process Muslims who are suspected of being terrorists.

According to the American Muslim Council, school vouchers and charter schools, abortion, health care, crime prevention, and gun control are other important issues.

So far, neither presidential candidate has sufficiently addressed Muslims' main concerns, said Lubna Javaid, executive director of the American Muslim Alliance. Muslim leaders are preparing questionnaires for the two campaigns and conducting research to learn the candidates' positions. They've met with George W. Bush and members of his campaign staff but have yet to meet with Al Gore.

And that means the Muslim vote--a small but increasingly influential vote--is still up for grabs.

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