Like most Americans, Muslims are not single-issue voters. They worry about their wallets, access to affordable healthcare and quality education for their children.
This year, however, the issue of civil liberties has leapt to the forefront of an election in which large segments of the Muslim American community feel “under siege” from various federal security measures, representatives from several Muslim organisations say.
“The government, in affect, has significantly abridged the civil liberties of the Muslim community,” said Agha Saeed, a spokesman for the American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT), an umbrella organisation comprising 10 Muslim advocacy groups.
In particular, Muslim leaders cited the US Patriot Act as the principle source of tension and fear among members of their community.
Expansive new powers
Congress passed the law shortly after the 9/11 attacks, giving federal law enforcement authorities expansive new surveillance powers with little judicial oversight.
“My prediction is that [the Muslim turnout] will be higher than ever before”
Thus far, the Department of Justice has been tight-lipped about the application of the Patriot Act, making it difficult to gauge the extent to which it has been used against Muslim citizens and immigrants.
Nevertheless, Muslim community representatives say the measure’s potential for abuse has become a symbol of the civil liberties battle many Muslim Americans say they are fighting.
But the Patriot Act is just one of several fronts in which Muslim citizens say the government has targeted members of their faith, producing “harassment of one kind or another”, Saeed said.
Citing the closure and indictment of several prominent Muslim charities, the detention and deportation of hundreds of Muslim immigrants after 9/11, as well as recent FBI interviews of Muslim individuals, Saeed said the community was under attack “when you look at the totality of the situation”.
Increased government scrutiny
The upcoming election has only increased government scrutiny of Muslim citizens and immigrants, community leaders said.
Bush signed the Patriot Act into
Although The Washington Post recently reported that US intelligence agencies had uncovered no definitive evidence of an impending pre-election terrorist plot, the FBI has been interviewing Arab and Muslim Americans for the past several weeks as part of the Justice Department’s effort to thwart such an attack.
During that time, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) has received more than 100 complaints from Muslims across the country who say they have been questioned by the FBI.
Cair spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed said FBI agents have gone to mosques and “workplaces and that causes problems for people who look suspicious when the FBI comes to their door”.
In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently filed a lawsuit seeking FBI documents containing information about the “scope, purpose and policies” behind the interviews of Muslims and US citizens of Middle Eastern decent.
“It’s time for the FBI to come clean about this unprecedented campaign and the activities of their joint task forces in our state,” John Crew, an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California said in a written statement.
“If they want the public to believe that these interviews are truly voluntary, why won’t they publicly release policies requiring officers to respect the constitutional right of individuals to refuse to answer these chilling questions?”
Backing Kerry cautiously
The political fallout of such law enforcement tactics has all but ensured that John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, will win the Muslim vote decisively. While President Bush carried the Muslim vote in 2000, 80% of likely Muslim voters plan to vote for Kerry this year, a recent Cair poll said.
In addition, the American Muslim Task Force recently issued a “qualified” endorsement of Kerry, calling on Muslim Americans to cast a “protest vote” against President Bush.
“We simply don’t know what the senator [Kerry] thinks about issues of concern to the American Muslim community”
MPAC, which refuses to endorse either Kerry or Bush
Despite their displeasure with the Bush administration, many Muslim Americans remain circumspect about the Kerry campaign, a feeling underscored by the decision of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) not to endorse either candidate.
Several Muslim leaders said Kerry has not sufficiently explained his positions on key civil liberties issues and has done a poor job of reaching out to Muslim groups.
“A major factor in our decision is that we simply don’t know what the senator [Kerry] thinks about issues of concern to the American Muslim community,” an MPAC statement said. “To endorse someone we have never met is reckless.”
Nevertheless, many Muslim activists say they expect a high turnout among Muslim voters, if for no other reason than the perception that anti-Bush sentiments run so strong in large portions of the community.
“My prediction is that [the Muslim turnout] will be higher than ever before,” Saeed said.