The dueling endorsements are the latest evidence that the nation's estimated 6 million Muslims-a sprawling group from dozens of ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds-is in the throes of its political coming-of-age. Hillary Clinton's recent decision to return $50,000 in campaign contributions to a major American Muslim group caused a stir in major papers throughout the country, as did Rick Lazio's corresponding statements on Muslims.
"Those who understand politics here know that in order to be major players you need representation in both parties, and you need to bring results back to your community," said Karriem Muhammad, spokesman for the Detroit group, which represents about 10,000 Muslims. The group is comprised of the Muslim Community Political Action Committee and the Detroit chapter of the Coalition for Good Government. The Detroit area is a major hub of Muslim American population and influence.
The Detroit PAC was organized five years ago. Membership includes African-Americans, South Asians, Arabs and Anglo Americans, Muhammad said.
So, who are Muslims expected to vote for: Gore or Bush?
"Forming a coalition, forming alliances, is right. This is the Islamic tradition of `shura,' or consultation," said Imam Fahim Shuaib of the Masjid al Waritheen in Oakland, Calif. "But there were some mistakes made, some gross political mistakes," in the process that led to the Bush endorsement. The Bush group is called the AMPCC-PAC, which represents the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), the American Muslim Council (AMC), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). Members of these organizations come from Arab, African, and South Asian backgrounds, but the coordinating committee does not include representation from African-Americans, who make up between 20% to 30% of the Muslim population.
Shuaib conceded that the result of a planning process that included African-American Muslims within the AMPCC might have been the same, and a unified Muslim endorsement might still have gone to Bush. He said, however, that "the mistake was not including divergent views." In early October, Shuaib received an enthusiastic ovation when he spoke about increasing cooperation between African-American and immigrant Muslims during an AMA convention in California.
Muslims have been trying for the last decade to organize themselves politically into a "bloc vote" that could carry as much clout as the Jewish vote. "Bloc votes" do not necessarily mean that all members of a constituency will vote for the same candidate. Statistically, a "bloc" will split a community 80% to 20%, with the majority reflecting the preference of the leadership. Muslims in America have followed the path of most American minorities seeking political influence: forging alliances based on common ground and compromising on areas of disagreement.
The Washington group endorsed Bush citing that Bush had been more open to Muslim concerns than the Gore campaign.
Meanwhile, high-level Democrats had not responded to repeated requests for meetings with various Muslim American groups, Muslims have charged. In a letter to the Democratic National Committee, Robert Moore, director of Democratic Party Affairs for the Coalition for Good Government, wrote: "it has been challenging for me to overcome the perception that the Democratic Party, and the Vice President, in particular, does not take the Muslim vote and support seriously."
CCG President Ali Khan also noted that in spite of historic ties to the Democrats, it is still unclear for whom the majority of Muslim Americans will vote. "The moral stands of the Republican Party are close to the hearts of Muslim Americans," he said. He listed views on homosexuality and school vouchers as examples.
Most African-American Muslims who are running for office this year are Democrats. But the party has tended to ally itself with the African-American mainstream--visiting black churches for example--and the Muslim community sometimes finds itself on the fringe.
Meanwhile, some African-Americans believe the AMPCC endorsement of Bush was based on a narrow view of issues that places Palestine and the future of Jerusalem above domestic concerns. They also believe it may be a reaction against the appointment of Joseph Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, as Gore's running mate.
Khan took the matter a step further: it has to do with respect for those who have already tested the waters of politics. "If I were to go to Pakistan, let's say, and get involved in the political scene, I would go to the Pakistanis and ask for guidance," he said. "They know how to maneuver in Pakistan. Similarly, I would expect that immigrant Muslims would have turned to us. We have a lot of experience in American politics. And they haven't."
While many immigrant Muslims continue to place a high importance on international issues, particularly those related to their homelands, African-American Muslims often concentrate on domestic issues-inner city development, racial profiling, police brutality, juvenile justice and economic development.
At a meet-the-candidates evening sponsored by the American Muslim Alliance in Morristown, N.J., a week before Mrs. Clinton's rejection of campaign contributions, comments by the attendees revealed these divisions. They knew the Bush endorsement was to come from the AMPCC, yet many said they could not support him.
"We have voted for the Democrats ever since the Kennedy Administration," said Fahima Amin, a councilwoman from Plainfield, N.J. "The Democrats have traditionally shown concern for the issues important to the African-American community, like inclusiveness, education and civil rights."
"But Gore has already sold out to pro-Israeli pressure groups," countered Mohammad Chaudry, a Pakistani-American. He and others feared a Gore Administration would lead to the immediate transfer of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and a restriction on Muslim access to the Haram al Sharif.
Agha Saeed, national chairman of the AMPCC and director of the AMA, said the development of a Muslim political consciousness in America is in its infancy, "a work in progress." Still, he said, "In 10 years we have brought these ethnic groups together, [and] the community has evolved and organizations have evolved.
A Muslim on the other side of the aisle agreed.
Though he was discouraged by the exclusion of the African-American voice by the Washington group, Imam Shuaib of Oakland is still glad to see the Muslim political voice expand.
"We are at the birth of Muslim American politics," he said. "This is a first step, shaky as it may be. We can argue the rightness or the wrongness of it, but standing still is not the way."