Dearborn, Michigan, a blue-collar, industrial suburb of Detroit, perhaps best known for being the home of the Ford Motor Company, is often referred to as the unofficial Arab capital of America.
The town boasts one of the largest populations of Arab Americans of any city in the country, the majority of them Muslims.
Yet, Dearborn has never elected a Muslim representative to the US Congress. In fact, it has never even fielded a Muslim candidate - and it is not alone.
In the history of the United States, no Muslim American has ever been elected to the US House of Representatives or the Senate, according to officials from several of the largest Muslim civic associations in the country.
While a few individuals have launched congressional campaigns in states such as California, Virginia and Missouri, none have come close to winning a race for federal office.
Muslim American leaders cite the lack of political organisation and a limited understanding of the democratic system among immigrants as the main reasons for the absence of representation at the highest level.
“I think it has a lot to do with our immigrant community not being as politically proactive in the process,” Sherifah Rafiq, the outreach coordinator for the Muslim American Society in Washington, DC, said.
“Most people vote, but most people don’t understand how important the political process is,” she added.
"I think it has a lot to do with our immigrant community not being as politically proactive in the process"
Muslim American Society
A survey of American Muslims co-sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), titled “The Mosque Study Project 2000,” estimated that of the 6-7 million Muslims in the United States, roughly two-thirds of those who attend mosques are of South Asian and Middle Eastern heritage.
Approximately half of them are immigrants who come mainly from countries where American-style democracy is an unfamiliar concept to people living under totalitarian governments and monarchies, experts said.
“Many Muslim immigrants came from countries where politics was not a very big part of life, and they came to a country where politics is everything,” Nihad Awad, CAIR's Executive Director said.
Dr Imad al-Din Ahmad, a Palestinian Muslim who ran for the US Senate in 1988, said Muslim immigrants often come from homelands “that arrest people for speaking out about political issues”.
Another large group of Muslim constituents is African American converts, who, according to the CAIR survey, comprise about 30% of Muslims in the US.
Jameel Johnson, the chief of staff for US Rep Gregory W Meeks, D-NY, and an African American Muslim, said many black Americans had difficulty reconciling voter participation with America’s history of racism and political disenfranchisement.
African Americans in the southern United States endured years of discrimination and violent efforts to bar them from the voting booth. The subsequent cynicism towards politics among black Muslims is a reflection of that nefarious legacy, Johnson said, adding that they must now work to bridge the gap between religion and politics.
Many African American Muslims have difficulty reconciling voter participation with America's history of racism and political disenfranchisement
“From a theological point of view, there needs to be clarity about the importance of being involved in the process,” he said.
Another reason why Muslim Americans have recently struggled to get elected to local and federal office has been the attacks of September 11, 2001.
It was a day that few who witnessed the devastation will ever forget, but it also shattered the campaigns of several Muslim candidates running the last leg of hard-fought political races.
Abed Hammoud was running for Mayor of Dearborn at the time. Sept 11 was not the only reason he lost the election, but it certainly did not help, he said.
“The campaign was great until September 11, which was the primary day, and then the whole campaign became about the Arab and Muslim issue,” he said.
Kamal Nawash was at home in Virginia on that day, closer to the tragedy than most.
“My building shook when the plane hit the Pentagon,” he said.
The 9/11 attacks have brought
about an image crisis
He was running for the Virginia House of Delegates, but the post 9/11 backlash against Muslims proved to be a serious blow to his campaign.
The attacks sparked an estimated 85% drop in the number of Muslims running for political office, a decrease from about 700 candidates in 2000 to roughly 100 in 2002, according to the American Muslim Alliance.
Whether or not anti-Islamic discrimination accounts for the lack of Muslim Americans in Congress is unclear. However, Ahmad said that both religious intolerance and xenophobia have hindered their political evolution.
Other factors such as fundraising, constituent mobilisation and the development of platforms that appeal to a wide array of voters are the more critical stepping-stones to overcome, he said.
Hammoud said simply galvanising Muslim voters to support their own candidates would not get Muslims elected. Out of 60,000 registered voters in the two congressional districts representing Dearborn, roughly 10,000 are Muslim Americans, he said.
“If you mobilise the community and get them very excited you might get 60% of Muslims,” he said, adding that a Muslim candidate would still fall short of victory without the strong support of non-Muslim voters.
“Is there a city where the mere number of Muslims could allow Muslims to get elected? No,” he said. “But can Muslims get elected? Yes.”
Ahmad said they have failed to rally around Muslim candidates in the past, something that was a serious problem during his 1988 Senate campaign.
“It was very hard to get Muslim support because they weren’t involved in the process,” he said.
Most Muslim Americans are
ill-at-ease with American politics
That is not the case for Jewish congressional candidates he said.
There are currently 37 Jewish members in the 108th Congress, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, a website created by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
Ahmad said Jewish politicians are able to rely on the backing of Jewish constituents, an area where Muslims are at a disadvantage.
“Muslims running for office can’t count on the support of Muslims in their community like Jews can count on Jews from their community,” he said.
Not true, said Malcom Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations. He said it is a myth that the Jewish community is united in its support of Jewish candidates for Congress.
“Jews contribute more to non-Jewish candidates than Jewish candidates,” he said, citing a 1992 Senate race in New York in which Bob Abrams, a Jewish Democrat, could only manage to win 60% of the Jewish vote and lost the election by a razor-thin margin to the Republican incumbent, Alfonse D’Amato.
David Twersky, the communications director for the American Jewish Congress said he did not believe Jewish members of Congress are elected because of their religion or because of any political backing from Jewish organizations.
“We don’t do ourselves a service when we say it’s a question of them being Jewish candidates or not,” he said.
“American Jews have a longer history in this country than American Muslims. The American Muslim experience is relatively new”
executive director, CAIR
Abrams failed to secure the Jewish vote in New York because D’Amato was seen as the candidate who conveyed the strongest support for Israel, he said.
Awad said the Jewish American community goes back several generations, something that has given them a political leg up on Muslims.
“American Jews have a longer history in this country than American Muslims,” he said. “The American Muslim experience is relatively new.”
Hoenlein agreed that it takes a while for any religious or ethnic group to build up a solid constituency.
“It’s a process that takes time,” he said. You have to work your way through the political process.”
Yet, until that happens, Muslim groups said they would not have a proper voice on US foreign policy in the Middle East, a critical issue for their people.
Lack of political organisation is
proving to be a handicap
While some Muslim political activists said it was unfortunate that they are often viewed solely through the prism of the war on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they added that a swift and just resolution to both situations would lift a heavy burden from their shoulders.
Without Muslim representation in Congress, there is less chance of that happening, they said.
“The lack of our input in foreign policy issues is missing and therefore the American policy is suffering," Awad said.
There is reason, however, to be optimistic about the future, he continued.
Muslims already hold a wide variety of state and local offices, from city council seats to the state legislature. Building up a solid base at the grassroots level is an important first step on the road to a more inclusive political status.
“I think Muslims are going in that direction aggressively,” Awad said. “There’s more interest in running for political office, because people understand that a lack of representation affects us negatively in terms of policy.”
Nawash is one Muslim at the forefront of that effort. He recently lost a bid for the Virginia State Senate, running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic district.
Nevertheless, he was excited by the support he received during the campaign and said he would definitely be back sometime in the near future.
“I’m an excellent campaigner,” he said. “I really mastered the game.”