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Muslims, Obama, And The Perils of Victory Ahead

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Thoughts on a well-reported piece about the Obama campaign's apparent Islamophobia. The piece resonates with a number of things I've been writing about, right up through yesterday.

I was writing about communities of color expecting a certain kind of "change" in Obama's message, that is, a greater push for racial justice.

Here's Minha Husaini, an Muslim American in her 30s now working in the Obama campaign:

"He gives me hope," Ms. Husaini said in an interview last month, shortly before she joined the campaign on a fellowship. But she sighed when the conversation turned to his denials of being Muslim, "as if it's something bad," she said.

In fact, the article reports, the campaign is even stricter about regulating Obama's appearances -- and even the appearance of subordinates -- at Muslim American events, culminating in last week's resitting of two young women wearing hijabs. Obama himself called the young women to apologize.

Truth be told, for many Muslim American activists and other grassroots progressives, the Obama campaign can be, at best, a big buzzkill machine and, at worst, a wheel-shattering brake on "change" and "hope."

Throughout the primaries, Muslim groups often failed to persuade Mr. Obama's campaign to at least send a surrogate to speak to voters at their events, said Ms. Ghori, of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

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.

The most frustrated surrogate of all is Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, the nation's first Muslim congressman, who has seen efforts to bring the Muslim communities in greater contact with Obama stopped dead by the campaign.

It's hard not to notice that this is where the "change" message gets run over by the still largely white mainstream Democratic party operatives who control Obama's campaign. Again, to all those who want to complain about allegedly coalition-fragmenting "identity politics", here are the real identity politics at work.

Muslims, like other communities of color, confront this problem: Do you trust the candidate to do right once elected or do you accede to the reality of the campaign and sit it out?

Which leads to the second thread I've been talking about: the fact of formerly marginalized communities becoming (re)energized in the electoral process over the last 8 years -- whether the young, women, communities of color, or non-Christians.

These minorities are facing the difficulty of moving their vote from emergent to insurgent, from one that can get ignored or vaguely patronized to one that can make things happen.

Here's the article again on the Muslim American vote:

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.

A coalition of immigrant Muslim groups endorsed George W. Bush in his 2000 campaign, only to find themselves ignored by Bush administration officials as their communities were rocked by the carrying out of the USA Patriot Act, the detention and deportation of Muslim immigrants and other security measures after Sept. 11.

As a result, Muslim organizations began mobilizing supporters across the country to register to vote and run for local offices, and political action committees started tracking registered Muslim voters. The character of Muslim political organizations also began to change.

"We moved away from political leadership primarily by doctors, lawyers and elite professionals to real savvy grass-roots operatives," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, a political group in Washington. "We went back to the base."

In 2006, the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee arranged for 53 Muslim cabdrivers to skip their shifts at Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia to transport voters to the polls for the midterm election. Of an estimated 60,000 registered Muslim voters in the state, 86 percent turned out and voted overwhelmingly for Jim Webb, a Democrat running for the Senate who subsequently won the election, according to data collected by the committee.

By itself, these kinds of elections are transformative. They will help build lines of access to change for the communities. No one who is serious about gaining power can ignore the electoral process.

But what happens when groups turn out, get their candidate elected, but still can't influence the process?

If Obama wins, this is a problem Muslim Americans, communities of color, and all those minorities who took the mantra of "hope" and "change" to heart may find themselves in by the middle of 2009.

That's about when the new majority that the Democrats didn't really want and certainly didn't know how to create starts making its claims.

Originally published at Vibe.com

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