Beyond the use of the term Muslim as a pejorative, and accusations by the far right that Obama was himself a secret follower of the Quran, what did real Muslim-Americans think of the Chicago senator? And how did they vote? The American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections released a poll today of over 600 Muslims from more than ten states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, and it revealed that 89% of respondents voted for Obama, while only 2% voted for McCain. It also indicated that 95% of Muslims polled cast a ballot in this year's presidential election—the highest turnout in a U.S. election ever—and 14% of those were first-time voters. The Gallup Center for Muslim studies estimates that U.S. Muslims favored Obama in greater numbers than did Hispanics (67% of whom voted for Obama)—and nearly matched that of African-Americans, 93% of whom voted for Obama. More than two-thirds who were polled said the economy was the most important issue affecting their decision on November 4th, while 16% said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan informed their vote—numbers that put Muslims roughly on a par with the general population.
Many Muslim Americans also changed their party affiliations for this election. The country's Muslim population, estimated at between 7 to 8 million, has traditionally voted along conservative, Republican lines. Today, more than two-thirds of American Muslims polled say they consider themselves to be Democrats, while only 4% see themselves as Republicans (29% identified as Independents.) The shift began in 2004—in part because of the GOP's handling of civil liberties, from wiretapping American citizens to detaining Muslims in the US and Guantanamo without trail, and because of the war in Iraq. This year, many more were drawn into the Democratic party by Obama himself. Muslims across the country were captivated by the senator's promise of unity and hope. On the Muslim-Americans for Obama website (or "Mafo2008.com"), their mission statement includes the following: "That we support Barack Obama because, among other reasons, he rejects the politics of fear, challenging our nation to embrace its collective identity, where each American has a stake in the success and well-being of every American."
"All the Muslim Americans I know were excited and electrified by him," says Salman Ahmed, the New York-based guitarist and singer of the Pakistani-American rock band Junoon. He's dedicated several recent concerts to getting the vote out for Obama. "It was not like 'Good, Obama gets the Muslim world.' It was 'Oh My God! Here's a guy who understands the world, us, America.' Voting for him was a no brainer."
But many Muslims kept their presidential preference a secret in the months leading up to Super Tuesday, fearing that an endorsement from them might in fact work against Obama. After all, this was an election year in which the word "Muslim" was used as shorthand to connote anti-American leanings and a hidden love of terrorism. A recent study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog group, found that the mainstream press didn't do enough to challenge the election-year smears of Islam by such conservative talk show hosts as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, or counter accusations that Obama was "one of them" by detractors such as "Obama Nation" author Jerome Corsi. "We are the bogeyman now," joked a secular Muslim women last month during a conversation regarding Obama (she preferred to remain anonymous). "Yes, I want to shout my endorsement of him from the rooftops, but I do not want to mess up any chance of Obama becoming the next president. How crazy is his position we've been put in?"
But the ploy to connect Obama to a demonized Islam may have backfired. Weeks before the election, a non-profit group which calls itself the Clarion Fund sent out an anti-Muslim DVD titled "Obsession" in Sunday papers across America; copies were also mailed to various voters in swing states. The DVD paired images of Nazis with images of Muslims, over and over and over again. Its arrival on the eve of the election was clearly intended to scare voters into supporting McCain, turning them against the candidate whose middle name happens to be "Hussein." "It was intended to be a way of linking Obama to Islam, but it backfired when a lot of people began saying wait, what's going on?" says Jen'nan Read, a professor of sociology at Duke University. "It not only mobilized many Muslim-American voters, but brought out other undecided voters in support of Obama rather than McCain."
Did Muslims have any apprehensions of their own about Obama? The candidate's stance on Pakistan, and his willingness to sanction military strikes against the nation if the government there did not hunt down terrorist threats to the Americans' satisfaction, certainly troubled some of Pakistani descent. But a greater worry, shared by American Muslims of all stripes, was that Obama rarely seemed to defend them when the word "Muslim" was used as a slur. Instead, it took others like CNN's Campbell Brown and, remarkably, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to say "and so what if he was?" whenever someone inaccurately accused Obama of being a Muslim. "That was not a deal-breaker for me," says immigration attorney Engy Abdelkader, a New Jersey native and Obama supporter. "I was a little disappointed I didn't hear more from him, but he did say on Larry King that the comments were not only untrue, but insulting to Muslims." Salman Ahmed says he was disappointed too, but felt the need to cut his candidate some slack. "We understood that we could not hold him up to defend the entire Muslim community. It was just an unspoken thing--that he was treading this very fine line."
Muslim-American websites, blogs and myspace pages have gone wild with enthusiastic posts since Obama's win ("Yes We Did!" read one on Mafo2008.com).Supporters like Abdelkader say they couldn't be happier, and that Obama's victory reignited their faith in the American dream. "His victory is a reaffirmation of what we were taught growing up in America," she says. "That you're not supposed to judge by religion or the color of someone's skin. I remember during one of his rallies. It was reported that women in hijabs were asked to move out of camera shot. When Obama found out what his staffers did, his response was to pick up the phone and call those women and apologize. It really resonated with me. What other politician would do that?"
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