A recent internet survey released by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) revealed that Muslims are evenly split between George W. Bush and Al Gore. But will Gore's choice of Sen. Joseph Lieberman for his running mate cause Muslims to turn overwhelmingly to George W. Bush?

On the contrary, says Salam Al-Marayati, the director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council--Gore's selection of Lieberman "would benefit Muslims in general."

But American Muslims are divided on Lieberman, with concerns about the Middle East precariously balanced with a desire for pluralism in public life.

Al-Marayati's optimism may be surprising, since Muslims and Jews are often portrayed as adversaries with historical and theological differences so deeply rooted, that the possibility of peace and cooperation seems like a far-flung prayer. Recent events seem to support this view. Last month, peace talks collapsed as Jews and Muslims failed once again to find a solution to the status of Jerusalem and the future of Israel, and an answer to the conflict does not seem to be anywhere in sight.

Furthermore, the role of the U.S. as the broker of these talks not only brings the peace process into the American political arena, but it also puts a heavy burden on the U.S. to maintain a certain objectivity. Does the inclusion of an Orthodox Jew on the Democratic ticket signal a bias regarding the Middle East that the estimated 4 to 5 million American Muslims cannot ignore?

Khalid Turaani, executive director of American Muslims for Jerusalem (AMJ), called Lieberman's stance on Israel a "concern."

"Lieberman has gone to great lengths to serve the interests of Israel at the expense of the executive powers of the president of the United States," Turaani stressed. "Lieberman on the ticket will take the administration even further away from any honest broker role."

But many American Muslims, including Al-Marayati, believe that the choice of a non-Christian can only help religious minorities. "In terms of diversity and pluralism, [the choice of Lieberman] should be applauded," he said.

A contributor to a variety of Muslim-Jewish dialogues, Al-Marayati has also been at the center of conflict between the two communities. Last year, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri rescinded Al-Marayati's nomination to a national commission on terrorism because of pressure from Jewish groups that included the Zionist Organization of America, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations, which accused Al-Marayati of being sympathetic to certain "Muslim" terrorist groups.

Now, he hopes that Lieberman will use his standing in the Jewish community to promote better understanding between Muslims and Jews. Al-Marayati said, "Lieberman has a chance to benefit his candidacy, the Muslim community, and the Jewish community by taking a leadership role in widening and developing the Muslim-Jewish dialogue with the Middle East and dealing with it with delicacy."

But, he warned, "it depends on what Lieberman brings to the table. If it's going to be a hard stance on Israel and Jerusalem, then you can shut the door on getting Muslim support."

And Muslim support is not something that the Democrats can afford to lose. "If Muslims leave the Democratic Party," Al-Marayati said, "it will be because of Jerusalem, and that will hurt Gore's chance for winning such key states such as Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio, where there are large Muslim populations."

Muslims have generally been wary of what the AMJ's Turaani calls the Clinton-Gore administration's "reckless policy" toward the Middle East. They are already concerned about the likely policies of a Gore administration, and they fear that any balance Gore might bring would be lost with an Orthodox Jew as vice president.

"Al Gore made some outrageous statements in his speech before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee on the issue of the peace process and Jerusalem," Turaani said. Lieberman's influence could wind up pushing Muslims toward the Republican Party or toward Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, he added.

But some groups did stress that a working and respectful relationship had already been initiated with the senator.

Aly Abuzaakouk, director of the American Muslim Council (AMC), called Lieberman a "friend of the American Muslim community," adding that the AMC awarded Lieberman it's Abu Saud Award of Excellence for his work with the American Muslim community in 1997.

Abuzaakouk added that Lieberman was one of the early co-sponsors of a Senate resolution that passed last week recognizing the importance and significance of the American Muslim community. The resolution reads, in part:

"Senate condemns anti-Muslim intolerance and discrimination as wholly inconsistent with the American values of religious tolerance and pluralism.... Senate recognizes the contributions of American Muslims, who are followers of one of the three major monotheistic religions of the world and one of the fastest growing faiths in the United States."

Abuzaakouk explained that Muslims could look to Lieberman on issues other than the Middle East, even if they disagree with his view of Israel. "In the American political environment...there are people we disagree with in foreign policy...but that does not exclude us from working with them on other issues," he said. "I think the American public in general and Muslims in particular...will look to the two tickets and see who will serve them better."

Khaled Saffuri, the executive director of the Islamic Institute and an active player in arranging for last week's historic Muslim benediction at the Republican National Convention, added that Lieberman has been accessible to Muslims. Saffuri pointed to the fact that Lieberman co-hosted the first iftar dinner (the breaking of fast) during the month of Ramadan at the U.S. Capitol with 14 other members of Congress. He was also receptive to Muslims' concerns about Bosnia.

"In general, I believe that he is very positive...outside the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict," Saffuri said. "He was one of the most reasonable senators with their dealings with the Muslim community."

Both the Republican and Democratic parties are reaching out to the Muslim population. Last week, the first Muslim benediction at the RNC took place, and later this month another Muslim, Dr. Maher Hathout, is scheduled to address the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Muslims are ostensibly being included, but their vote is still up for grabs as they await the candidates' positions on local issues that concern them, such as school vouchers and charter schools, abortion, health care, crime prevention, and gun control, as well as on larger issues like 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. So, will a Jewish candidate lead Muslims to the Republican camp? It doesn't necessarily seem so. But the ball is in Lieberman's court.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad