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Last Updated: Friday, 23 January, 2004, 14:30 GMT
US Muslims flex political muscle

By Barnie Choudhury
BBC social affairs correspondent

American Muslims could play a crucial part in deciding the outcome of this year's presidential election.

The winter sunshine and blue skies are deceptive for a cold wind blows through Ohio. The forecasters say with the wind chill it is minus 50C.

Many American Muslims say they feel marginalised
Pollsters choose this mid-Western state because it is seen as one of the states that most closely represents the demographics of the nation.

The American census does not include the religion question and estimates vary between 1.2 to 7 million Muslims in the US. What ever the figure, many American Muslims here feel marginalised.

They say they have to condemn the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 every day to let others know they are loyal to the country.

'Under attack'

One prominent Islamic civil rights and advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says attacks on Muslims, physical or discrimination, went up by 15% to 602 in 2002.

At Friday prayers at the Islamic Centre in downtown Columbus, the state's capital. There are more than 30,000 American Muslims among the 1.2 million population of the city.

I am concerned about the backlash by the American-Muslim community - but I believe the Republican Party will try to mend fences and make sure they don't desert the party
Saghir Tahir, Republican politician
Their leaders say they love America but feel they should be allowed to practise their religion without hindrance.

But that is not happening, say some. Three months after 11 September 2001 the centre was vandalised. It re-opened exactly a year ago after repairs costing at least $500,000, all raised by community donations.

Yet most weeks, says Hazem Gheith, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Columbus, abusive messages are left on the answer phone.

But it is not just from ordinary Americans that Muslims feel under attack. They say they are under siege from those meant to protect them, their country and their home.

Civil rights

After 9-11 new laws were introduced to protect the country and fight terrorism. One, called the Patriot Act, gives wide-ranging powers to lock up people without charge.

It is reviled by Muslims, some of whom accuse the authorities of using the law to target them.

Civil rights lawyers across America say the state is using minor immigration violations to arrest people before accusing them of links to terrorism.

George Bush met with Muslim groups when he was Governor
Many American Muslims voted Republican in 2000 but now feel let down by Bush
I met Michelle Swenson at her attorney's office between Columbus and Cleveland.

Michelle's story is complex. Her husband, Ashraf al-Jailani, was arrested in October 2002 for domestic violence. This meant he had violated his immigration conditions. For that he was imprisoned.

Then the authorities decided he had links to terrorism after his phone records showed he had telephoned a number used by a man convicted of laundering money.

Ashraf al-Jailani has never been charged and I have seen court documents that say he was pardoned for his domestic violence conviction by the Governor of Ohio. Now, for a second time, a judge has ordered his release. But 15 months on he is still in prison.

Let down

So what has this to do with politics? According to CAIR 78% of Muslims voted Republican in 2000. That is because many American Muslims say they share the same social values as the Republicans.

Dennis Kucinich has urged Muslims to vote as a block
Democrat presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich is wooing the American-Muslim vote
Also the then Governor George W Bush met Muslim groups, Al Gore did not. And during a presidential debate George W seemed to hint that he would scrap the hated Secret Evidence Act.

Now many Muslims feel let down. Unless President Bush does something special it is unlikely the Republicans will win the level of Muslim support they did in 2000.

In snowy New Hampshire, Saghir Tahir is pressing the flesh. He is one of those rare people, a Muslim who is a politician, albeit at state level. There are no American Muslims in Congress.

Representative Tahir, affectionately known as 'Saggy' by his constituents, is very popular in his home town. Yet he is worried his party, the Republicans, will suffer this time around.

Vote

"I am concerned about the backlash by the American Muslim community. But I believe the Republican Party will try to mend fences and make sure they don't desert the party," he says.

This is a community that's suffered much over the last few years
Congressman Kucinich
Groups like the CAIR are trying to get one million more Muslims to register as voters this time around. After the Florida debacle last time some Muslims believe they can hold real power in swing states.

Ohio is one of those which could be crucial for Republicans and Democrats alike. Those who feel it is not important to vote should remember this, says Jad Humeidan, Executive Director of CAIR, Ohio.

"We have to become more politically active and more politically savvy in order to ensure the survival of the Muslim community."

They now have the ear of Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who is running for the Democrat nomination for the White House.

"This is a community that's suffered much over the last few years," Mr Kucinich says.

"They suffered with all Americans in the horrible tragedy of 9-11. But they've also been scapegoated and they've been subject to profiling and have been subject to law enforcement practices which are truly repugnant in a democracy."

Few politicians speak about Islam, afraid of a backlash from the powerful pro-Israeli lobby. But Congressman Kucinich goes further, urging Muslims to vote as a block and use their political muscle.

America remains a nation in pain after the awful events of 11 September, 2001. The attacks have left a country fearful of anyone that looks or acts differently.

American Muslims are determined to play their part in the healing processes. They admit they are infants politically but expect to mature quickly and effectively, one election at a time.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Barnie Choudhury
"Many American Muslims say they feel under attack as never before"


The BBC's Barnie Choudhury
"American Muslims are determined to play their part politically"



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