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Young U.S. Muslims Shift to Democrats This Election

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Medhi and Keisha Islam, Muslim-Americans from Fullerton, California, are looking for political change. They want to be represented by someone who is culturally diverse, as they are. Medhi is Southeast Asian-American and his wife Keisha comes from a bi-racial family of German American and African American descent. The Islams see their diversity mirrored in Barack Obama.

"Our country is a melting pot. There are lots of different kinds of people here, so why shouldn't our leadership represent that?"

The Islams, like many middle class Muslim Americans, feel that Senator John McCain has lumped them with terrorists while Senator Obama has kept the door open for dialogue. Medhi says Obama won him over with his decision about the war in Iraq. "Obama knew it wasn't the right war. He wanted to go after Bin Laden, in Afghanistan."

Edina Lekovic works for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a non-profit Muslim American political advocacy group. She says typically, Muslims are socially conservative which is why they voted overwhelmingly for George W Bush in 2000. However after 9/11, Lekovic says many Muslims regretted that vote. President Bush pushed for the passage of the Patriot Act and the curtailing of civil liberties. Lekovic says many Muslims, especially women who cover with the Muslim headscarf, the hijab, felt targeted. "Many Muslims are looking for a president who can balance national security with civil rights. They are particularly offended and outraged by domestic surveillance."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that thousands of Muslim Americans reported harassment and discrimination in the year after 9/11. While those reports have subsided, the feeling among some young Muslim Americans, particularly women who cover with the hijab, is that they are still being targeted.

"What bothers me is that when I go back to fly home to Portland or back here to school, I can never check in like anyone else. They always see my ID and the screen doesn't let me check in. When I go through the metal detector, I don't beep but they still pat me down. It's humiliating. I ask why but no one ever answers my questions." says USC student Sumiya Ahmed.

Because of his position to end racial profiling and the war in Iraq, Obama has drawn considerable support from the Muslim American community. A 2007 Pew survey states that 63% of Muslim Americans say they are Democrats compared to 11 % who consider themselves Republicans. But as the Pew survey shows, Muslims Americans are not a monolithic group. They are people of all ethnicities. Typically, they are highly educated, financially well-off and socially conservative. While those social views may have been the primary factor in the 2000 election, many Muslim Americans are voting on the economy and foreign policy in this election.

"Obama has the best economic policy. I don't want anymore tax breaks for Wall Street. I want to feel secure with my money in the bank, and in the stock market. I think Obama has the best plan to get us out of this crisis." says 26-year-old Farrah Shah.

The Pew survey reflects this shift: the majority of young Muslim Americans are supporting Obama. The same study shows that two thirds of Muslim Americans say it is more difficult to be a Muslim American today than before 9/11, and according to that study, this is particularly true for younger Muslims. According to CAIR, the number of reports from Muslims of being harassed and the victims of violence jumped dramatically in the year after 9/11.

Terrorism created a divide in the Muslim American community. According to surveys by CAIR, most Muslim Americans say that the candidates' views on how to handle terrorism will be a primary factor in how they will vote this election.

"These terrorists are crazy. Their violent actions have nothing to do with Islam." says Hashmi. "John McCain understands we must fight the terrorists to the end."

The Pew study shows that older Muslim Americans support the military fight against terrorism, especially in Afghanistan, more often than younger Muslim Americans. Duke professor Jen'nan Ghazel Read says this divide is normal. Her research shows that the majority of Muslim Americans, who were born in the Middle East or Southeast Asia, still have a strong connection to their native homelands, despite years of being in this country.

Fifty-nine-year-old Hashmi was born and raised in Pakistan. She worries about her father and other relatives still living there. "In Islamabad, there's a bomb. In Karachi, there's a bomb. You are not safe anywhere. We need an American President who can act in a big way who is committed to helping the Pakistanis fight terrorism." She thinks that man is John McCain.

Hashmi's daughter, Shah, also concerned about Islamic extremism, believes that president should be Barack Obama. She prefers his emphasis on diplomacy and using military action as a last resort. "We need to keep our enemies close," she says, "let's talk to them. We'll be safer that way."

There are other issues important to Muslims. Research shows that Muslim American women want a president who will help the marginalized, as the Prophet Muhammad did. Shah agrees with this and wants action. "I want someone who does more than just talk about equality. I want someone who has done something," says Shah. "Obama's role as a community organizer sealed my vote."

Both women say their desire to help the marginalized is rooted in their Islamic faith but they do not want to make their political decisions based on their religion alone. Islam informs their decision-making but is not the decisive factor.

"I judge the candidates on the issues that are important to me, their policies," says Hashmi.

"I'm a social conservative, pro-life. But I do not want my personal religious views mixed up with politics." says Shah. "It's a disaster; just look at what we have now: a failed Iraq war and an economy in crisis."

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