Khalid Suffari has spent the last several years working to bring American Muslims into the Republican fold and to get GOP officials to reach out to a community that holds dear the conservative social values upon which the party bases much of its appeal.

You would think, then, that Suffari would be overjoyed by the recent presidential endorsement Texas Gov. George W. Bush received from the American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC).

Not so.

"I frankly was surprised," said Suffari, executive director of the Islamic Institute, a Republican-affiliated, Washington-based lobbying group. "It came too fast. Bush says a few things Muslims want to hear, and boom, he gets the endorsement. They should have held out for more."

In announcing its support for Bush, the AMPCC's political action committee cited his support for ending the use of secret evidence in deportation cases and airline security profiling procedures that American Muslims say unfairly target them because of stereotypes linking them to Middle Eastern terrorists.

The group also said the Bush campaign was more open to Muslim overtures than was Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate. Bush met with Muslim leaders on at least two occasions, in Michigan and Texas, publicly raised the secret evidence concerns during his second televised debate with Gore, and, during a Republican National Convention speech, included mosques among a list of houses of worship.

Although Gore later voiced opposition to the use of secret evidence and airline profiling, Bush went a step further by putting his support for the Muslim concerns in writing. That prompted Dr. Yahya Basha, president of the American Muslim Council--one of four groups that joined together to create the AMPCC--to laud Bush for having "shown a willingness to work with the American Muslim community in order to ensure that constitutional rights are protected and discriminatory practices are curbed."

For a community that believes bias has kept it from full participation in American politics, Bush's gestures were enough to gain him a potentially important endorsement. Muslim votes could tip the balance in close battleground states with large Muslim populations, such as Michigan. Given the presidential race's closeness, it could even mean the difference in the electoral college count.

But more went into the Bush endorsement than a few nods toward the Muslim community, estimated to number about 6 million--about the same size as the better organized and politically more powerful American Jewish community--and growing rapidly.

Muslim activists--including more than a few who are not all that enamored with Bush--took the step because they were anxious to nudge forward the long-term task of molding their ethnically and culturally diverse community into a cohesive voting bloc that future candidates will be unable to ignore.

Also important was the Middle East conflict, an issue made even more emotional than usual in recent weeks by the focus on Jerusalem holy sites and the violence that has overwhelmingly claimed Palestinian--and Muslim--lives.

"Really, they just wanted to endorse someone," Ihsan Bagby said of the AMPCC decision. "In truth, as far as I'm concerned, both Bush and Gore are slim pickings for Muslims. But it came down to political education. Politics 101 dictated that the community unite behind a candidate so we could show we can deliver votes.

"That's what it takes to gain a seat at the table," said Bagby, a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, another of the AMPCC member groups. "Is it an imperfect system? Yes. But it's the system that exists, and Muslims want to be players."

For Salam al-Marayati, such long-term political gains were important enough for him to back Bush at the risk of severing his close relationship with the Democratic Party and the Clinton administration.

"I received calls from the White House and the Gore campaign. They are not happy with me," said al-Marayati, national director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, a third AMPCC member. "But I had to put aside my personal preference. The issue is creating a Muslim voting bloc, and on this one I'm just reflecting what I saw in my community."

In al-Marayati's view, Gore took the Muslim vote for granted, perhaps because he thought the Clinton administration's extensive Muslim contacts and past support from the community would automatically transfer to his campaign. Under Clinton, for example, the White House hosted its first-ever Eid al-Fitr celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan, the month during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Clinton also sought to bring greater numbers of Muslims into government posts, although the number remains small.

"Neither Bush or Gore is really doing much for the Muslim community, but at least Bush made a play for us," said al-Marayati. "I'm still a registered Democrat and will continue to be one. But Gore distanced himself from Clinton, and I have made a distinction between Clinton and Gore."

In endorsing Bush, the AMPCC said it had based its decision solely on the Republican's outreach to the Muslim community. Gore's choice of Sen. Joseph Lieberman--an Orthodox Jew and a staunch supporter of Israel--was said to have played no role in the decision, as it admittedly did in an earlier Bush endorsement made by Arab-American political groups in Detroit.

"Lieberman was not a factor," said al-Marayati. "We did not look at foreign policy at all. Just accessibility. If anything, we welcome the presence of a person of faith on a presidential ticket. An Orthodox Jew is better than someone of no faith."

Suffari, the Republican operative, said otherwise. "Lieberman was a factor. I'm sure of that, even if they won't admit it," said Suffari, who was not directly involved in the AMPCC's endorsement deliberations.

For his part, Lieberman told a Michigan television station he was "hurt" by rejection of the Democratic ticket based on his Jewishness and support for Israel. He noted his past attempts in the Senate to reach out to Muslims and Arab-Americans--efforts that Muslim activists freely acknowledge.

Ironically, both Gore and Bush have voiced Middle East policies that have given Muslims little to cheer about. Both candidates said they support moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem, both back the continued embargo of Iraq, and both endorse Israel's security concerns, particularly in light of the current Palestinian uprising.

And Bush followed the lead of New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in returning campaign donations deemed tainted after it became known that the Muslim contributors had given interviews in which they supported Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic group that has called for the total destruction of Israel.

Despite that, Bush is viewed as being less tied to the American Jewish community and--by virtue of vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney's oil industry backgrounds--potentially more open to Muslim and Arab views on the Middle East conflict.

"It's not one of the things talked about, but there is that sense about Bush, that he might be more evenhanded," said Bagby, a professor at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.

Just how much weight the AMPCC endorsement will carry within the Muslim community is unclear, community activists said. They note that at least two recent polls--one of Arab Americans, the other of Muslim Americans--showed Bush as the clear favorite in both communities anyway, with about 40% of decided voters.

In the poll of Muslims, Gore, with 24%, also trailed Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, a second-generation Christian Lebanese-American, who had 25% of the vote. A Green Party statement has called for the ending of all U.S. aid to Israel until the Jewish state agrees to withdraw from all land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, turns Jerusalem into a "shared city," and accepts the "inalienable rights" of Palestinian refugees to return to what is now Israel. Nader has also criticized the level of force Israel has employed against Palestinians during the current uprising, in addition to blasting Bush and Gore for their support of Israel.

Moreover, none of AMPCC's constituent groups represents African-American Muslims, who according to estimates account for a quarter or more of the entire American Muslim community. Like blacks in general, African-American Muslims--who are much more focused on domestic concerns that international issues--have tended to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

Muslim political activists expect no change in that historic trend this year.

Still, they say, the AMPCC endorsement represents a coming-of-age for American Muslims that will ripple through the community as the sprinkling of activists at each mosque discuss it.

"It will sharpen the debate, but it won't get everyone to fall into line," said Bagby, noting that a traditionalist wing within the community still rejects the very act of voting in a secular society as a violation of Islam. "The community is still in training."

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