Arab and Muslim Americans flex their political muscle

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salem, mass. | Next month’s likely election of the first Muslim to Congress, coupled with increased campaign donations and a voter registration drive, indicate that Arab and Muslim Americans, long in the shadows of American politics, are continuing to raise their profiles after briefly becoming less politically active after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

There are 52 Arab Americans seeking office this year, up from 49 in 2004, according to the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based lobbying and advocacy group.

At least 35 Muslims are seeking office, according to the Web site of the Muslim Alliance, a California-based advocacy group. Keith Ellison, who is heavily favored, would become the country’s highest-ranking Muslim elected official if he wins an open U.S. House of Representatives seat from Minneapolis.

The Washington-based Muslim American Society has launched a renewed effort to get the nation’s 2.2 million Muslim registered voters to the polls. The strategy includes a revamped Web site, more voter education programs and more voter-registration machines in mosques.

In 2004, 84 percent of registered Muslims voted — far above the national average — compared with 41 percent in 2000, according to the Muslim American Political Action Committee. University of Akron political scientist John Green said participation levels increased because Muslims and Arab Americans were frustrated by what they felt was the singling out of some community members for harassment after 9/11.

Of the 3.5 million or so Arab Americans in the United States, 60 percent are Christian.

Approximately 4.7 million Muslims live in the United States, more than 80 percent of them black Muslims or non-Arabs from South Asia.

In 2004, Arab Americans and Muslims supported Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) over President Bush by 72 percent to 28 percent. In 2000, Bush received 46 percent of their support, according to exit polls.

Efforts by conservative activists such as Grover Norquist to include Arab Americans in the Republican coalition were complicated by 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

Both parties face obstacles in attracting Muslims and Arab Americans to their permanent support bases.

The Arab American Institute says its top priorities include a more “balanced” U.S. approach to the Middle East, including advocating for a Palestinian state. After 9/11 it opposed racial-profiling efforts that the group said unfairly targeted those of Arab background, and opposed the war in Iraq.

There currently are five Arab Americans in Congress, all of them Christian: Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.).

Two others are seeking to join those ranks. In Michigan, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard is the GOP challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Republican businessman Ahmad Hassan is seeking to defeat U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) in a Houston district. Both parties have ranked those races as likely to go Democratic.