Last Saturday, in a San Jose Convention Center meeting room, about 150 members of the South Bay's Muslim community gathered expectantly for a South Bay-wide Muslim town-hall meeting. The meeting, sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), would be one of 40 such meetings scheduled in major cities across the nation by the American Muslim Task Force, an umbrella group of nine American Muslim political organizations.
The nation's 7 million American Muslims, still undeniably nascent in their political identity, are perhaps best known politically for their bloc vote in the 2000 presidential elections, when some polls showed that an overwhelming 72 percent of Muslim Americans voted for George W. Bush. Four years and two wars later, Muslim political organizers have found themselves frantically organizing another bloc vote, this time with the specific intention to unseat the administration they helped vote in four years ago.
CAIR organizers brought in a heavyweight political cast, including Zoe Lofgren, Art Torres, Ralph Nader, Grover Norquist (via telephone) and San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, to greet the Muslim audience Saturday afternoon. The meeting, according to activist Agha Saeed, would help answer one of the more puzzling questions for political observers: Other than the obvious foreign policy and civil rights issues, what, exactly, are American Muslim political issues?
The eventual answer to that question will help distinguish whether American Muslim organizers intend to steer their community toward a narrow, issue-centric political identity--a trap that other religious communities have certainly fallen into--or a broader, issues-centric identity. As it stands, the rest of America can guess fairly accurately the Muslim take on the Israel-Palestine question, the occupation of Iraq and the Patriot Act, but few would have the slightest idea about what Muslims think about the budget deficit, gun control, urban planning, health care or any number of other issues.
"I think the community as a whole is not very sophisticated politically," says Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, a Chicago-based academic. "Political action that is more effective is based on municipal and local politics, bottom to top, instead of working from the top to the bottom. Muslims have this preoccupation with foreign policy issues, issues many Americans have had a preoccupation with before. But you have to be involved with internal politics before your voice becomes credible on that stage."
CAIR chairman Omar Ahmad opened Saturday's proceedings by listing the most important American Muslim issues; among them, he cited Muslim inclusion in the political process, civil rights, a balanced foreign policy in the Middle East and the need for the United States to have a better relationship with the Muslim world. The issues were straightforward, predictable (but certainly necessary) and, in some senses, narrow--two involved foreign policy and a third was a reaction to bad legislation...