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Muslim voters feeling "politically radioactive"

By Heather Yamour

WASHINGTON, Aug 15 (KUNA) -- As the US presidential election draws closer, the campaigns of President Barack Obama and his republican rival Governor Mitt Romney are set on over-drive to reach out to as many communities and minority groups as possible. But with the uptick in targeted violence, and anti-Muslim rhetoric by conservative lawmakers, Muslim-Americans told KUNA they are being treated as "politically radioactive" this election cycle.
Many Muslim-Americans, which number six to eight million in all of the US, say they feel marginalized and widely perceived as political scapegoats during this election. Rather than courting Muslims, many of which live in key swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Virginia, Republicans seeking the party's nomination did not just avoid Muslim voters, but actively distanced themselves with anti-Muslim remarks.
"Politically, Muslims are treated as radioactive. When we are on the stage, we are asked to stand on the very edge," said Cory Saylor, Government Affairs Director for the Council on US-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Islamic civil rights organizations in the US in an interview with KUNA.
Although the Republican Party conservatives are widely seen as unfriendly towards the faith, across the aisle, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Obama campaign have also faced heat from Muslim-American voters.
Recently, the Obama campaign drew criticism from Muslim civil right groups, including CAIR, for omitting Muslim-Americans from its specially-branded merchandise aimed at various minority, religious, and ethnic groups including "Jews for Obama", "African-Americans for Obama", "Asian American/Pacific Islanders for Obama". They have called on the president's campaign to be more inclusive.
Many in the community remember a time when presidential contenders went out of their way to court them and their donations. President George W. Bush set up meetings between Muslims and Republican leaders as part of his outreach in 2000. He also made the first-ever visit to a mosque, a gesture that helped him secure the Muslim-American vote.
Before Bush, President Bill Clinton started the tradition of hosting iftar dinners at the White House during Ramadan.
This election cycle, Muslim-American voters are struggling to choose a suitable candidate, with many in the community disappointed by the Obama administration's continuation of the Bush-era policies that drove many Muslims and Arabs from the Republican Party and put-off by the rhetoric and proposals by Republican presidential hopefuls that conflate Muslims with radical Islamists.
Neither campaign responded to requests for an official comment.
"Muslims are not happy with Barack Obama on a host of issues both domestic and foreign policy related. You hear from many that folks are very disappointed, specifically on a lot of the promises that were made during the Cairo speech, whether it was closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, or starting a new relationship with the Arab World, the increased drone attacks, the targeted killings and lack of progress related to Israel-Palestine," Suhail Khan, a board member of the American Conservative Union and a former senior political appointee with the Bush administration said.
"There's no doubt that Muslims feel very uncomfortable and insulted by comments made by some of the Republican candidates." However, Khan who is a prominent Muslim Republican told KUNA that while the negative comments made by a small group of conservatives within the Republican Party has damaged the party brand, it does not reflect the party as a whole.
"It's not part of the Republican Party to be anti-Muslim or anti-Arab", Khan said while noting that a growing number of voices within the party are speaking up against anti-Muslim bigotry.
The Romney campaign is working closely with the Republican National Committee, (RNC) which has established a coalition effort to engage leaders from various ethnic, religious, and other minorities on broad domestic and international issues.
However, Khan noted, "We're not as good as Democrats in taking the message specifically into communities. That is a challenge the GOP is dealing with." Muslim Democrats are swift to defend the president's record of engagement with the Muslim community.
Meanwhile, board member of the National Muslim Democratic Committee and former outreach coordinator at the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association Jihad Saleh Williams said, "President Obama made it very clear early in his administration he understood the importance and recognized Muslim American community as contributing to our society. He wants to make sure that departments within the government have various faith-based and community initiative centers.
"He reaffirmed that the Muslim community should be engaged on policy issues, and are present during round table discussions on the local, state, or national levels." During Ramadan, the White House hosted a high-level iftar dinner and the President issued an official statement welcoming the Ramadan season. Under the Obama administration, the number of government departments hosting the iftar dinners for Muslim staff has increased, according to Williams. The overtures have extended to the campaign with the Obama campaign hosting its first iftar event this week in Washington.
The biggest concern raised on both sides of the aisle is that Muslim voters, frustrated by both candidates and parties, will not show up on Election Day. And in response, civil rights groups and non-profits have launched get-out-the vote drives to educate the Muslim community on the candidates and campaigns in order to mobilize them to the polls and to get the younger generations involved in public service.
Over the years there has been an increase in the number of Muslims in government, including two members of congress. Muslims on both sides of the aisle agree that the Muslim community have to shoulder some responsibility for the current political climate and have a duty to make their voices heard and to correct misperceptions.
"The onus is on the Muslim community rather than the campaigns. When Muslims are seen as being able to deliver funds to campaigns and strong voter turn-out, then your issues get taken far more seriously," Saylor said.
However, Khan says Muslim-American organizations need to overhaul approach to engaging fellow Americans. "We need an Arab Spring with a lot of the established Muslim American organizations that have been reusing pre9/11 models of engagement in a world that has changed dramatically." Part of the problem, Khan describes, is that over the past ten years, national Muslim organizations have not effectively reached out to people that have questions and concerns about the faith. A major step forward is letting go of the victim mentality, he says.
"Muslim-Americans are Americans; our vote is just as valuable as anybody else's. We have a moral and civic duty to participate in our public discourse including in our political process. We are not victims as a community and I don't think we should ever give into that type of mentality," Khan stressed.
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