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North Texas Muslims Struggle to Involve Community in Politics

By Marla Crockett, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX –

Marla Crockett, KERA Reporter: Susan Hays first knew Muslims were stirred up politically a few months after she became chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party. In June 2002, she was invited to Texas Stadium to attend something called the Ballot Box Barbeque.

Susan Hays, Chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party: And the initial call I got suggested, "Hey, we want you at this event, we want you to bring candidates, and your party to buy a booth, and we'll have 10-thousand people there. And I thought, yeah, right.

TV Report of the Event: Call to prayer: "They gather and pray in a place known for strength - Texas Stadium, but what these Muslims want is to strengthen their political voice."

Crockett: About 7 to 10-thousand Muslims showed up. Almost 2-thousand of them signed voter registration cards that day, but Hays says she and the Democratic candidates who came with her weren't sure how much the crowd was really behind them.

Susan Hays: This was about a week after the state Republican Convention had taken place in Dallas that year at which the Republican Party adopted a platform stating that this is a Judeo-Christian nation. So, after an hour of speechmaking, one of the Democratic candidates got up there and started reading from the platform. And the crowd went wild.

Crockett: That's an about-face from 2000, when an estimated 75 percent of Muslims nationwide voted for George Bush. Being a close-knit and conservative community, they were attracted to his positions on social and economic issues. But this year, even though support for John Kerry is described as lukewarm, many believe 75 percent of Muslims could cast ballots against the president. Sayed Hassan is an analyst for American Airlines.

Sayed Hassan, Muslim activist: Being a Muslim, personally I feel that with all that's happened in the last few years, I don't see how any Muslim with a clear conscience can vote for George Bush this time.

Crockett: The harassment of Muslims, the Patriot Act, and the war in Iraq led him to join the Democratic Party, Hassan says. He helped organize the Ballot Box Barbeque. And the night the president accepted his party's nomination, Hassan joined a few hundred other Democrats in Arlington to slam Republicans at another event he championed, the Texas Truth Convention.

Morris Meyer, Congressional Candidate Morris Meyer: We've got a lot of work ahead of us to take back our country, state and take back our democracy.

Crockett: Hassan is working for Morris Meyer in his congressional fight against Joe Barton and says it's important for Muslims like him to be seen in mainstream politics

Sayed Hassan: And we are trying to raise our voice in a positive manner. We are contributing to the civic life of American society.

Crockett: In a sign that many agree with him, about 250 Muslims were elected as delegates to the Democrats' state convention this summer. In contrast, about 20 Muslims attended the GOP's statewide gathering. Seven of the Democrats went on to their party's national convention in Boston. Sayed Hassan was one of them; so was Dr. Inayat Lalani, a physician from Fort Worth.

Dr. Inayat Lalani, Physician: American Muslims are Americans first. We're also concerned about the national deficit, health care, the environment. All those things are far more important to American Muslims than what happens on the international scene and the opposition of some extreme elements in the Christian community. They do scare us, but that's not the only reason we're in tune with the Democratic Party.

Crockett: For Mohamed Elibiary, things aren't that simple.

Mohamed Elibiary, President of the Freedom and Justice Foundation: I think I will vote for President Bush for a second term. I grabbed a sheet of paper and split it down the middle and wrote down what I expected from each side. Bush just barely edged out Kerry.

Crockett: The 29-year old recently founded the Freedom and Justice Foundation, a statewide non-profit that's coordinating Muslim political activism. Although he personally backs the president, Elibiary admits his primary goal in 2004 could work against his candidate.

Elibiary: My focus in the community is actually to get the vote out, whether that's going for the president or not going for the president, I think Muslims need to make a strong showing this year.

Crockett: Elibiary wants to launch a get-out-the vote campaign, but he and other activists, including Dr. Lalani, agree that despite unsettled feelings since 9/11, there's still a lot of apathy among Muslims.

Dr. Lalani: Many are too busy making a living, the most important reason. Secondly, there's no tradition of vocal participation in public affairs; and thirdly, some fear that we might stand out and be singled out and targeted.

Crockett: Dr. Lalani says he's faced resistance putting voter registration tables in the one place Muslims reliably come to, the mosque. The Central Mosque in Richardson has been around for about 35 years. In addition to being a house of prayer, it's a community center that includes a medical clinic and a school. There have been a few candidate forums in their gym and some voter registration efforts, but mosque leaders say politics have been downplayed. Legally, of course, the non-profit can't endorse candidates, but Mohammed Suleman, the President of the Islamic Association of North Texas, Central Mosque, says his organization is also sensitive to how political passions have been inflamed in mosques around the world.

Mohammed Suleman, President, Islamic Association of North Texas, Central Mosque: We strictly believe in the separation of politics and the theology. We feel that politics is such an area that changes with the wind. Theology is forever.

Crockett: And, everyone agrees, the theology of Islam includes these cardinal points: to fight injustice, and hold to the good and forbid the evil.

Suleman: There are three levels of addressing that. Number one, if you have power, you should change it with your power; money, muscle. If you don't have that, change it with your tongue, say something. And if don't have that, the third is that you should condemn that in your heart.

Crockett: Although Muslims value unity, some are still debating how much money, muscle and condemnation to throw into the 2004 race. Suleman was at the Islamic Society of North America's recent meeting in Chicago, where the group declined to endorse either presidential candidate. And he's still undecided, despite being a Kerry delegate at the party's state convention.

Suleman: Some of my friends say, "No, no, no, we should stick with George Bush." Others say, "No, no, no, y'know, John Kerry." At the last minute, maybe I'll walk in to the voting booth and make up my mind what I'm gonna do.

Email Marla Crockett about this story.

This story is part of KERA's Voter's Voice 2004 coverage. Click here for more on Voter's Voice 2004.