Muslim Melians

Mr. Ellison believed that Mr. Obama’s message of unity resonated deeply with American Muslims. He volunteered to speak on Mr. Obama’s behalf at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, one of the nation’s oldest Muslim enclaves. But before the rally could take place, aides to Mr. Obama asked Mr. Ellison to cancel the trip because it might stir controversy. Another aide appeared at Mr. Ellison’s Washington office to explain.

“I will never forget the quote,” Mr. Ellison said, leaning forward in his chair as he recalled the aide’s words. “He said, ‘We have a very tightly wrapped message.’ ”

When Mr. Obama began his presidential campaign, Muslim Americans from California to Virginia responded with enthusiasm, seeing him as a long-awaited champion of civil liberties, religious tolerance and diplomacy in foreign affairs. But more than a year later, many say, he has not returned their embrace.

[. . .]

“A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim, by the way,” Mr. Ellison said.

Muslim Voters Detect a Snub From Obama,” 24 June, 2008, New York Times.

I am among those waiting for him to say this (though this probably will not happen, because most Americans indeed believe that there is something wrong with being Muslim). The Times article makes an interesting point on the reluctance of most candidates to be seen in association with Arab and Muslim American organizations and individuals.

Before the Virginia primary in February, some of the nation’s leading Muslim organizations nearly canceled an event at a mosque in Sterling because they could not arrange for representatives from any of the major presidential campaigns to attend. At the last minute, they succeeded in wooing surrogates from the Clinton and Obama campaigns by telling each that the other was planning to attend, Mr. Bray said. (No one from the McCain campaign showed up.)

McCain has a history of ignoring Arabs and Muslims, and indeed his campaign draws greatly on base level fear and hatred of them. While Democrats claim to be “inclusive,” their record with Arabs and Muslims is anything but, going back to the 1980’s and the Obama campaign is following in the tradition of ignoring these voters, treating them like an ulcer and offering insulting snubs along the way, while claiming that its platform does not support such behavior. The only Democratic tradition he has not participated in, it seems, is returning Arab and Muslim donations. That hasn’t stopped American Muslims, especially first and second generation ones, from drinking his Cool-Aid. And it hasn’t stopped some commentators of Muslim origin from excusing the excesses of his campaign and defending Obama’s distancing himself from the community.

One cannot look at the history of national Democratic candidates and American Arab and American Muslim voters and have any kind of serious confidence in a Democrat on American Muslim issues and not be smoking the very best rock cocaine in Philadelphia. (It is politically correct in this country to treat Muslims as a “liability” and to deliberately spurn them, where as such behavior with respect to any other minority group (save perhaps the Mormons) would be regarded as nothing short of bigotry and a betrayal of the civil rights tradition and of common morality.) And the snubs, the insults, the displays of ignorance by his aides and supporters will continue, because “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Addendum: There is a curious paragraph in the NYT’s article, discussing the ethnic composition of the American Muslim population.

In those states and others [ like Virgina, and Michigan ], American Muslims have experienced a political awakening in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. Before the attacks, Muslim political leadership in the United States was dominated by well-heeled South Asian and Arab immigrants, whose communities account for a majority of the nation’s Muslims. (Another 20 percent are estimated to be African-American.) The number of American Muslims remains in dispute as the Census Bureau does not collect data on religious orientation; most estimates range from 2.35 million to 6 million.

There are two problems with this paragraph. The first is historical/factual. I am not aware of a time when “well-heeled” immigrants “dominated” American Muslim political activity. To my knowledge, prior to the 1990’s, Muslims were generally politically disorganized for the most part, and immigrant leadership only arose in the mid to late 1980’s and 1990’s when issues of racial profiling, secret evidence, and other matters of civil liberties became prominent. For most of the history of American Muslims, which is longer than most think, blacks led Muslim politics in this country, to whatever extent Muslims were politically active. Black Muslim leadership declined in popularity for many reasons, partially because of a stigma in popular culture (identifying black Muslims and indeed most other Muslims with the Nation of Islam and its racialism) and because of the rise in perceptions of unjust treatment of Muslims among the immigrant population. The immigrant leadership has worked assiduously to remove the stigma of Muslims as black convicts, NoI sympathizers and radicals, militants, and black racists. In order to “mainstream” American Muslims, most American Muslim FAQ pages on the web will explicitly address these matters, clarifying why the Nation of Islam is not Islamic and noting that most of its former followers have found their way into the Sunni Islamic tradition (some use “black Muslims” to refer to NoI members, others to any person of African origin who has any connection to Islam; I use it to refer people of African American descent who are Muslims in the traditional sense; I refer to NoI supporters as such, as this is what my experience with black Muslims has instructed me to do). Immigrant leadership is the result of the rise of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA, which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, so it is said by some) and CAIR. Black Muslims participate in these groups, but are not at the highest levels, which are mostly occupied by immigrants of Arab and Pakistani origin.

The second problem with this paragraph is numerical/demographic. Generally, statistics tell us that Arab-Americans make up a smaller proportion of American Muslims than do African-Americans and South Asian Americans. I recall numbers stating that blacks accounted for something like a little more or less than 30% of American Muslims, and I have never seen numbers as low as 20%. On the contrary, I have seen numbers for Arab Americans being around 20-25%. Going by the 2001 mosque attendance survey, about South Asians were 33%, blacks 30% and Arabs 25%. According to the 2007 “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly MainstreamPew Poll (in which I was a participant),

No single racial group constitutes a majority among the Muslim American population: 38% describe themselves as white, 26% black, 20% Asian, and 16% other or mixed race. Foreign-born Muslims are 44% white, 28% Asian, and 18% mixed or other. Just 10% say they are black. By comparison, a 56% majority of native-born Muslims are black, 31% are white and just 2% describe themselves as Asian.

It is unclear from the report how many Muslims are Arab (most of them describe themselves as “white,” with a significant minority describing themselves as “other” or “mixed race”). It is difficult to tell where different nationalities placed themselves, as Arabs and South Asians did not agree as to whether they were “Asian” or “white” or “other.” The survey did not sample most Muslims or even a large chunk of them. In any event, I do not think it is accurate to say that Arabs and South Asians together are the majority of American Muslims. If one took any two of the three major American Muslim ethnic chunks (Blacks, South Asians, and Arabs) they would get the same result. Blacks and South Asians could just as easily be said to comprise the majority of American Muslims. The Times article, though, seems to be making a point of stating that American Muslim leaders are mostly Arab and South Asian. This is one I disagree with, for the reasons above, as well for another: no American Muslim leader of national consequence is Arab or South Asian. Both Congressmen are black, and Muslim mayors of significant cities have been black as well (though I know of one or two Arab Muslims). Most Muslim elected officials are black or South Asian. So I see this paragraph as problematic.


4 thoughts on “Muslim Melians

  1. I feel much the same way about as you do, and while I can’t speak about the backgrounds of American Muslim leaders, I wrote an entry myself about this very issue (

    “One cannot look at the history of national Democratic candidates and American Arab and American Muslim voters and have any kind of serious confidence in a Democrat on American Muslim issues and not be smoking the very best rock cocaine in Philadelphia.”

    Yup. I’m telling you, Nouri, check out Frymer’s “Uneasy Alliances”. I think the “captured” voter applies to American Muslims too. It’s a quick read, and while he may skimp on the meat of exactly what constitutes issues specific to these “captured” groups, his theory is compelling.

    Also, as a resident of Philadelphia, I’ll let the cheap shot slide 😉

  2. It’s a tricky issue, because while American Muslims’ getting the snub from Obama goes against the civil rights we hope the Democratic party stands for, at the same time the political reality is: Yes, Muslims are a political “liability” in a a country like the US. As bad as that is, it is a fact. Obama’s already been accused of being a crypto-Muslim.

    Ties to Muslims is a dangerous thing in American politics. As Mr. Ghouri says in the article, Muslim organizations joke that “we should endorse the person we don’t want to win.”
    Put some women in headscarves behind him at a rally and watch the conservative commentators fly off the handle. Of course, should we or Obama make standards based off of how Islamophobes will spin events?

    It’s similar to Obama’s recent rejection of public funding. He has been for campaign finance reform, endorsed the public funding system in the past, but knows that he will not have enough money to compete with McCain’s cash if he accepts those limits now, so principles in the trash!

    It’s just proof that everyone who goes into politics has to sell out someway.

  3. “Ties to Muslims is a dangerous thing in American politics. ”

    And to that I say, “So what?” I understand you’re not apologizing for Obama, but I think by not being afraid of Muslims, Obama would draw all of this ear-whispering, racism, fear and hatred out into the open where we could confront it. After all, no one has a problem saying they understand why he’s afraid of such associations; but no one wants to go on record saying they fear/hate all Muslims and consider them terrorists.

    Granted, this is not the best electoral strategy, but like I’ve said before, if the election is truly going to be one by neocons and other fools crying Muslim, let them answer for their sins. If the McCain camp is going to try and make Obama look bad, let’s put him on the record with his opinions on Muslims. Take *them* to task too, and we’ll see how far that gets McCain in the election. Insinuation is one thing; I say let’s press everyone on their true feelings.

  4. Put some women in headscarves behind him at a rally and watch the conservative commentators fly off the handle. Of course, should we or Obama make standards based off of how Islamophobes will spin events?

    Well, he’s already done that, and I don’t think there was an uproar from the right. I think the volunteers who seem to think that having Muslims in the background are over estimating the impact such imagery could possibly have and underestimating the value of Muslim voters.

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