Posted by on Sep 18, 2012 in Religion and Politics

There’s a disheartened sigh on the other end of the phone.

“When the Republicans are trying to say that Obama is a Muslim, they say it like it’s such a negative thing,” says the warm voice of Jamaal Abdul-Awwal.

“Why would it be so wrong for him to be a Muslim? There’s something insulting about that.”

Abdul-Awwal is a Muslim, and like many Muslim-Americans, his faith presents a number of challenges politically.

While Muslim voters have been largely ignored by political campaigns, they are also politically torn: Choosing between feeling accepted by their candidate and upholding their moral values, between liberal aims like services for the poor and conservative ideals like marriage should be of a man and woman.

Ignored

Scholars Matt Barreto and Karam Dana have been researching Muslim American politics together for several years, co-writing their first paper in 2008.

Barreto is a professor in political science at the University of Washington, Seattle and Dana is a professor at the University of Washington, Bothell. Together, the two put together the Muslim and American Public Opinion Survey.

They found that Muslims tended to register and vote Republican, Dana said — until 9/11.

Muslim groups publicly announced their support for the Republican party in 2000, he said, because Al Gore’s running mate, Joseph Lieberman, had ties to the Israeli government.

“But with 9/11 came a wide variety of different policies they felt targeted them specifically,” Dana said.

Post-9/11 policies hit racially Arab or Indian Muslims the hardest, said Abdul-Awwal, who lives near Charlotte. As a black man, he could don American clothing and no one would know he is Muslim, he said. But problems like profiling in airports arose for his ethnically Arab Muslim friends.

Race aside, Abdul-Awwal said he sometimes feels excluded by political campaigns because of his faith.

The religious group as a whole moved away from identifying itself as Republican, Dana said, because its members felt abandoned and disrespected by the Bush administration following 9/11.

“They were told you could not be a good American and a Muslim at the same time,” Dana said.

Since then, Muslims have been largely ignored by campaigns. Dana and Barreto found that neither the Republicans nor Democrats targeted Muslim Americans as political allies in 2004, 2006 or 2008. It was a unique situation, they said: The 2008 Obama campaign alone had more than 80 stickers and web banners for various groups including Jews, Greens, Latinos and even “NASCAR dads.” There were none for Muslims.

There are no stickers for Muslims in 2012, either, though there are stickers and buttons for Jewish Americans and various racial groups. Any Muslim-specific political paraphernalia is custom-made by outside groups.

In “The American Muslim Voter: What Explains Voting When Nobody Cares?” Baretto and Dana wrote, “Never before has a group of voters been subject to attacks and slights by both major political parties, yet this has been the case for Muslim Americans since 2001.”

In the same study, Barreto and Dana noted that in 2008, when Republicans said Obama was a Muslim, “Rather than making an earnest stand in defense of those who practice Islam, the Obama campaign attempted to hide any possible connection to Muslims, even removing two women wearing the hijab from the stage behind him during a campaign stop in Michigan.”

UNC-Chapel Hill first-year student Basil Kazi says that while he wishes politicians were more inclusive of Muslim Americans, he understands that it’s all about earning as many votes as possible.

“No one is against NASCAR dads,” he said. “But the anti-Muslim base is much larger than the Muslim base.”

Kazi compared reaching out to Muslims today to reaching out to African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement. It isn’t likely to happen because more votes would be lost than gained, he said.

The Pew Research Center reports that there are almost 2 million Muslims in the United States (0.6 percent of the population), but the Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates as many as 7 million.

Divided

Evangelical Christians, Jews, Mormons and Buddhists tend to consistently align with one party, according to data from the Pew Research Center, but not Muslim-Americans. In 2007, the majority of Muslim voters either reported affiliating with the Democratic party or leaning Democrat, but when it comes to the breakdown of issues, the group is divided between parties.

For instance, 70 percent Muslims surveyed by Pew preferred a large government with lots of services — a point of view that aligns with the Democratic party. At the same time, 61 percent said homosexuality should be discouraged — a Republican sentiment.

“I have some political values where, if I voted [based on personal values] I probably would vote a little more liberally, but my religious values say I need to be a little more conservative,” Abdul-Awwal said.

The recent marriage amendment to the North Carolina constitution was one such case, he said.

“Me personally, I don’t have a real staunch view to be for or against. I’m not gay, and I’m not getting married, so why should I vote for or against it?” he said. “But because of my religious beliefs I believe that a marriage is between a man and a woman.”

In the end, he says religion almost always trumps personal opinion.

The decision comes down to one’s purpose on Earth, he said. He believes he will be held accountable in eternity for his actions — including his vote.

“If it’s something to do with the budget, I don’t think that really is something that you’re going to be judged on,” he said. “But I think in terms of things that are connected to commandments — issues of morality, trying to do things that are pleasing to your Lord — then yeah, I think those are things you’ll be judged for.”

For that reason, Abdul-Awwal supports the idea of a large government with many services for the poor. The holy text requires that followers of Islam protect and provide for the needy, he said. There are millions of people who need government services, he said, and it’s his moral duty to help provide.

Seventeen-year-old Kazi isn’t age-eligible to vote, but he regularly talks politics with his parents. For the Kazi family, voting isn’t about policies. It’s about acceptance.

“We tend to be very socially conservative — both my parents avey very anti-abortion and are against gay marriage — but my parents vote a straight Democratic ballot,” he said.

The Republican party seems anti-Islamic, he said, and is more hostile toward Muslim nations than Democrats. Kazi’s parents are Pakistani, so the United States’ involvement in the Middle East affects their extended family.

Not only are liberals generally more accepting of Muslims, he said, but their foreign policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict is less severe on the latter nation — a Muslim nation.

“I’m 100 percent sure that’s why most of them end up voting Democrat,” he said.

Similarly, UNC-CH sophomore Sumer Kanawati said she and her family vote Democrat because liberal candidates are more Muslim- and Palestine-friendly, even if they morally align with conservatives.

“We usually vote for the Democratic candidate because sometimes the Republicans are a little iffy about Muslims compared to the liberal, open-minded Democrats,” she said. “You can be morally conservative on your own but vote for liberal candidates because you feel they’d be less prejudiced against you.”

Similar to the Kazi family, the situation in the Middle East is a hot topic.

“In the Arab world I feel like Republicans might be more on the side of Israel,” she said. “But maybe Obama, he would be willing to work with both Palestinians and Israelis.”

Both students said their parents supported Ron Paul in 2008 — as did Abdul-Awwal.

Kazi explained that it all comes down to foreign policy: Ron Paul advocates for little intervention in the Middle East.

In a 2009 study titled “Democrat, Republican, or None of the Above? The Role of Religiosity in Muslim American Party Identification,” Barreto and Dino Bozonelos, a professor at Victor Valley College in California, wrote: “If any one issue has the ability to unite Muslim-Americans of all backgrounds, it is the plight of the Palestinian people and the status of the Occupied Territories.”

So how do you vote when both party platforms support Israel? When you morally align conservatively, but feel liberals are more accepting of you? When neither party seems willing to openly affiliate with you?

“Well,” Kazi said, “it’s voting for the lesser of two evils.”

Samantha Harrington contributed reporting.