Muslims Are Angry -- And They Matter

The 2000 election cycle was a heady time for Muslim voters. Although courted by both major parties, Muslim groups gave George W. Bush their first-ever Presidential endorsement. The clincher: His pledge to repeal a Clinton-era law making it easier for prosecutors to use secret evidence in terrorism cases. Now, concerned that their civil rights are being trampled in the war on terrorism, Muslims plan to make their presence felt again at the polls next year -- but this time, many will vote against Bush. In a Zogby poll last summer, 78% of Arab-American Muslims gave Bush poor grades: Only 10% favored his reelection. "Muslims will trend more Democrat than Republican in the next election," predicts Omar Ahmad, chairman of the Council on American-Islam Relations (CAIR).

A shift could hurt Bush. America's estimated 5 million Muslim voters are a sliver of the electorate, but their impact is multiplied because they are concentrated in swing states such as Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, and Florida. Indeed, activists boast that some 65,000 Florida Muslim votes put Bush over the top in 2000.Voter Drive

The next wave of Muslim mobilization is set for late November, when CAIR and other groups will mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan by raising campaign cash and signing up 1 million new voters. Mosques across the country will host registration drives on Nov. 26, when Muslims break their fast and attend prayer services in larger-than-usual numbers. Three days later, CAIR expects to collect $1 million at a banquet near Washington. That's on top of an Oct. 4 fund-raiser in Anaheim, Calif., that netted $500,000, a CAIR record, and an Oct. 12 event in San Francisco that took in $400,000. Collectively, Muslim groups expect to spend almost $10 million in issue advertising and get-out-the vote campaigns next year.

Islamic leaders are deeply disappointed with the Administration's performance. In the wake of September 11, Bush backed off his promise to repeal the Secret Evidence Act as the Administration detained hundreds of Arab Americans, shut down Muslim charities, and expanded surveillance powers under the Patriot Act.

Bush took another hit in June. Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence, speaking of his meeting with a Muslim Somali warlord, said: "I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." Bush distanced himself from the remarks but has ignored calls for Boykin's resignation. "It's going to be very difficult for the Muslim community to vote for President Bush again," says Tahir Ali, author of an upcoming book on Muslims in American politics.

Republicans will try to stem defections by emphasizing the conservative views they share with Muslims, including opposition to abortion and gay marriage. GOP strategist Grover G. Norquist sees short-term damage but says Muslims and other "communities of faith" will trend Republican. "Some votes will move, but not as much as some may fear," he says.

Still, thousands or even hundreds of votes in a battleground state can be significant. So don't be surprised to see the White House try patching things up before Ramadan '04. A Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling opening the door for gay marriage has leading Democratic Presidential candidates in a quandary. The reason: They've been courting gay voters by endorsing "civil unions" but are on record opposing same-sex marriages. "I do not support gay marriage," says Representative Dick Gephardt, whose lesbian daughter has accompanied him on the campaign trail.

Despite growing cultural acceptance of homosexuals, surveys indicate that only 32% of Americans -- and just 39% of Dems -- favor giving gays and lesbians the right to marry. Opposition is strongest in Midwest swing states and the heavily Republican South, according to an October poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Warning that Religious Right Republicans will demagogue the Massachusetts ruling, Democrats raced to stake out some muddy middle ground. Now, instead of making more promises to expand domestic benefits for gay partners, Democrats may be forced to play defense against a Republican-backed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Says Sandy Rios, head of the conservative Concerned Women for America: "Democrats don't want gay marriage, but they got it."