In December last year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) announced their 2012 "Muslims Vote" campaign. A 2012 presidential voter guide is available, they have an online registration tool and a video, as well as a presence on Twitter. The hope is to encourage participation in the election among young Muslim voters as CAIR recognizes that with a large Muslim population in key swing states such as Ohio, Florida and Michigan, the Muslim vote potentially has great influence.
The overall Muslim population in the US is an estimate and somewhat controversial depending on which communities are included. But it is generally accepted that there are between 3 and 5 million Muslims in the country, and that this number is growing.
CAIR's GOTV campaign will hopefully make an impression on Muslim voters as the 2012 election approaches. Certainly, their Voter Guide questions have helped reveal the prejudices of some of the presidential candidates. With four of the more outspoken candidates out of the race, CAIR's Voter Guide profiles on the rest tend to feature their attitude towards Islam and toward civil rights. On Santorum, for example, it notes that he "supports indefinite detentions of suspected terrorists without charges at the Guantanamo Bay prison" (and) "Endorses racial and religious profiling, specifically of American Muslims and young men, in order to enhance security at airports."
But CAIR in a news release saves its most pointed criticism for Newt Gingrich, calling him "one of the worst promoters of anti-Muslim bigotry." CAIR spokesman Corey Sayolar said that this was in response to Gingrich's comment that he would only hire Muslims in his administration if they renounced Sharia as a tool for American government.
In January 2012, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Oklahoma ban on the application of "Sharia law" and "international law" in courts. Any further attempts to raise this issue in order to get votes from a fearful and ill-informed electorate will hopefully be dealt with in similar fashion by the courts. It may not be enough however, to prevent candidates from raising the Sharia law issue as a divisive wedge in their campaigns if they think it will serve their purpose.
Other ugly incidents, like the fundamentalist pastor who wanted to publicly burn a copy of the Koran, controversy over the siting of the Moslem Community Center in downtown Manhattan and anti-Sharia law initiatives, have only encouraged the bigotry of some TV commentators and media spokespeople. It can be argued that this sort of anti-Muslim rhetoric, while hardening the fanatics on the right, will end up alienating most moderate thinkers in the electorate. In recent races where xenophobic rhetoric and fear mongering was used to get votes, it turned out that it was the amount of money spent on a race, not the rhetoric that determined the outcome. It is considered unlikely that these tactics will work in a presidential election when substantial turnout means that the hard right base will not have a disproportionate influence.
There appears to be an inherent conflict for most Muslims when choosing sides. Conservative Republicans are more likely to be anti Muslim, as most of the Republican presidential candidates have proved. But the conservative nature of the Republican party appeals to many similarly conservative Muslims, giving them a limited field to choose from.
So who will these Muslims vote for this year in the Republican presidential primary?
Ron Paul is the one Republican candidate who may get support from Muslims who see his libertarian philosophy as similar to their ideology. His position on foreign policy appeals as he wants the US to immediately stop its military involvement in the Middle East, repeal the Patriot Act and limit funding to Israel.
Zahra Siddiqui, a political science major at the University of Illinois, said recently, "Ron Paul knows how to differentiate between Muslims and terrorists, and he would never sacrifice any citizen's liberties over security."
But Brian Gaines, a political science professor specializing in voting behavior and elections at the University of Illinois, notes that generally Muslims in America today do not vote like other religious groups.
"Muslims are unique in that the more religious they are, the more Democratic they tend to vote," said Gaines.
This is possibly because Muslims who attend mosques regularly are more likely to also be community minded, socially active and aware, as well as being conservative and religious. Gaines says it is unlikely that Obama would lose votes from this population to a Republican candidate.
Muslims in the U.S. haven't always leaned Democratic. Before 9/11 many Muslim-Americans were Republican voters but the way they were treated by the Bush administration and the rise of anti-Muslim feeling in the country helped to change their attitude. 55 percent of Muslim-Americans say it has become more difficult in live in the United States since the 9/11 attacks, according to the 2011 Pew Research Center findings.
A recent poll showed that 76 percent of Muslims in America approve of Obama's performance. His moderate voice in Middle East politics, his support for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his response to calls for change and democracy with the Arab Spring movement have all gained him support from Muslim Americans. But there remains a sense of wariness as anti-Muslim sentiment continues and Obama's opposition to the Palestinian effort to have their statehood recognized by the United Nations disappointed many and contributes to political caution.
But for the vast majority of the electorate, the economy trumps most other issues. Candidates who continue to raise anti-Muslim fears should be seen as irrelevant distractions from the real problems of the economy, jobs, civil rights, education and health care. With Ron Paul not considered a viable presidential candidate for the Republic party, Muslim voters, as they were in the last election, don't seem to be spoilt for choice. It seems for many the best bet would be to give President Obama four more years to fulfill those early promises.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is an Adjunct Research Professor at the US Army War College, Lecturer at the University of Chicago, Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. He obtained his PhD from Cambridge University.
More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com