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Both Obama and McCain Seen as Keeping Muslim Americans at ‘Arms Length’

Muslim and Arab Americans could tip the balance in the close presidential race. But both candidates have avoided speaking to these groups directly during a time when the labels Arab and Muslims have become slurs.

Backers of Republican presidential candidate John McCain have called Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama a Muslim or Arab in attacks against him. At a recent campaign rally McCain handed a microphone to a woman who called Obama an Arab, and McCain responded that Obama is not an Arab but “a decent family man.”

Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute says, “we feel the need to point out that Arab Americans are also decent men and women with full rights of citizenship as enumerated under the Constitution.”

Republican and former Secretary of State Colin Powell recently became the most prominent public figure to defend Muslim Americans. Responding to the accusation many in his party made of Obama being a Muslim, Powell said: “What if he is? Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim kid believing that he or she can be president?”

Neither candidate has made any real efforts to reach out to Muslim and Arab Americans. “The Obama campaign has kept Muslim Americans at arms-length for obvious reasons,” says Dr. Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor of English at City University of New York-Brooklyn College and author of the recently released book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America

The reasons include the distrust and prejudice some Americans feel toward Muslims and Arabs. But while the Obama campaign might try to side-step the Muslim community, the McCain camp is using Islam “as a very destructive and hate-filled way to promote their campaign,” says Bayoumi.

McCain has said the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation. Bayoumi says this type of rhetoric alienates anyone belonging to a nonChristian faith: “It’s meant to say that there’s an ‘us’ and there’s a ‘them.’ At the core of the ‘us’ is the Christian Evangelical movement. At the core of the ‘them’ are the Muslims.”

Despite being largely ignored by both candidates, by all accounts Muslim and Arab Americans are following the presidential race and planning to vote. That means a good many of approximately 7 million U.S. Muslims – many of whom live in battleground states – will turn out to cast their ballots. But many say they feel disenchanted with both candidates.

Sammy Haddad, a Muslim American and graduate student at The Pennsylvania State University, says he’s been paying close attention to the presidential campaigns because there are so many issues at stake. He agrees that as a whole his community supports Obama, but adds, “I’m very disappointed that he doesn’t embrace us back.”

By not reaching out to the Muslim American community, Obama is giving up principle for votes, says Haddad. What upsets him the most is Obama’s stance supporting Israel, despite all the human rights violations Israel commits against Palestinians. Of Obama, Haddad says, “I would definitely recommend him as the lesser of two evils.”

But on Nov. 4, he says, he plans to vote for Ralph Nadar in protest.

Many Muslims voted for Bush eight years ago because he reached out to their community, but since then the community has largely voted Democratic in response to Republican domestic and foreign policy following Sept. 11, according to Laila Al-Qatami, communications director for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a nonprofit organization advocating on behalf of Arab Americans.

Republican policies unfairly targeted Muslim Americans in airports and waged war against Muslim countries like Pakistan and Iraq, says Talat Shah, a Muslim American and senior studying international politics at Penn State. She says she previously liked McCain when he ran for president in 2000, but she does not support him anymore because his policies now mirror those of other Republicans.

Behar Godani is a Muslim American and a graduate student studying political science at George Mason University. She says she plans to vote for Obama because he has better solutions for her primary concerns of health care and the economy. But at the same time she has been disappointed that he has side-stepped the Muslim community and says her vote for Obama is “like choosing the lesser of two evils.”

Despite neither candidate reaching out to Muslim Americans, the community is organizing around the election. “The Arab and Muslim community has been very involved … the vast majority of the community is registered and does vote,” says Al-Qatami. The Muslim Student Association has been actively encouraging its local college and university chapters to register students and turn them out to vote. And at Penn State, the MSA chapter is hard at work on Get Out the Vote efforts.

Many Muslim organizations and mosques are also putting energy toward registering their community to vote. Godani says during the her mosque’s Eid prayer marking the end of Ramadan, people were walking around with clipboards registering new voters. Godani says she thinks registering to vote is important because “with the number of Muslims in the United States being as large as it is there needs to be a lobby to show our voice counts.”

Ultimately, Muslim Americans want the next president to pay attention to their community. Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says, “whichever candidate wins it is my hope they will reach out to the Muslim American organizations and allow us to give them policy advice in regards to the Muslim world.”

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