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Last Updated: Monday, 3 March 2008, 18:28 GMT
Ohio Muslims unite behind Obama
As Ohio prepares to vote on Tuesday for the candidates it would like to see running for the US presidency, Matthew Wells talks to Muslims in Cleveland who are impressed by Barack Obama.

A large majority of Muslim-Americans voted for George W Bush on the road to the White House eight years ago.

Khalid Samad
Community leader Khalid Samad is campaigning for Mr Obama
But now their support seems to be coalescing around an African-American senator, whose first name derives from the Arabic word for blessing.

Among them are the 60,000 Muslims of the economically depressed Cleveland area.

They are mostly middle-class naturalised citizens, disappointed with the Bush administration's record and with a powerful sense that their religion has been misrepresented in the years since 9/11.

The city boasts Ohio's largest mosque, based around a large prayer hall that would sit comfortably in the capitals of the Middle East.

A group of men from the mosque, led by the centre's president, Faud Hamed, spoke to BBC News after evening prayers.

There was exasperation at the on-going war, and a sense that social justice - a central tenet of Islam - is being ignored: "We all know that in the US Constitution it calls for peace and justice, but if we look around the world do we see any peace and justice?"

I'd vote for Obama - he has some new ideas
Mohammad Assar
Shiite Unity Center

Uneasy about being publicly critical, most asked not to be identified.

"We are sometimes given the short end of the stick but in general we're treated fairly... I agree with the brothers [that] if you look at the cost of the war in Iraq so far, how much of these billions could have saved lives in the US alone," said one.

Further out, in the Cleveland suburbs, lies the Shiite Unity Center, a building that until a few years ago was a Christian church, complete with a wooden spire.

"Republicans think there are more votes from other sources, so they forget and ignore," said one of the Mosque's leaders, Mohammad Assar, a placard-carrying Bush supporter in the past.

"I'd vote for Obama. He has some new ideas."

Identity politics

The fact that Mr Obama has Muslim roots on his Kenyan father's side, despite being a committed Christian, clearly makes him the most intriguing candidate for many here - though maybe less so for second-generation immigrants.

Mohamed Farukhi, who runs a multi-million-dollar electronics business, says Mr Obama may be his choice this time round, but hopes that his son's generation will be able to escape identity-politics altogether.

When you're making prayer, regardless of whether you're a doctor, lawyer, multi-millionaire or king, you've got to stand shoulder-to-shoulder
Khalid Samad
Youth leader

"Most of the Muslims in America have become independents now, which in a sense is probably better for them because they need to get more active in politics," he says.

The unifying nature of Islamic values is well-illustrated in Cleveland by the close ties that exist between upwardly mobile immigrants and the self-described indigenous Muslim converts.

"When you're making prayer, regardless of whether you're a doctor, lawyer, multi-millionaire or king, you've got to stand shoulder-to-shoulder," says Khalid Samad, an African-American Muslim convert, who works with inner-city youths.

He does acknowledge, however, that the historical concerns of Muslim African-Americans are different from, say, a newly-arrived doctor from Pakistan.

Mr Samad is actively campaigning for Barack Obama, and trying to bring minority groups together, including the local Latino voting bloc.

'Media demonisation'

Building common-cause coalitions is one of the ways that Muslim activists believe they can make their votes - and their issues - count more.

That is certainly the view of another convert, who is playing a central role in educating Cleveland's Muslim population about the voting process.

Julia Shearson's ancestors may have arrived in the first wave of English settlers to America, but now she is dressed like millions of other Muslim women around the world, and running the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) office in the city.

She is well aware of CAIR's role as a lightning rod for criticism from right-wing advocacy groups who regard it as a cloak for so-called Islamofacism.

Julie Shearson
Julie Shearson thinks Islamophobia is a daily threat for US Muslims

She rejects the conspiracy theories completely, but contends that Islamophobia - stoked by media demonisation - is a daily threat to all American Muslims.

"We should be drafted as advisors and policy experts, as people who can help understand and help mediate this horrible crisis between America and the Muslim world," she said.

"Exactly when our help could be most utilised, we've been effectively marginalised and stymied and stifled... But at the same time it will never work. A people can never be kept down."

CAIR is not endorsing specific candidates, but she sees the move towards Mr Obama, by the young in particular, as part of a wider awakening.

"What we see happening in the Muslim community is that our young people who before used to go into medicine - their parents are now saying, we have enough doctors - they're all going into journalism, political science, and law."

"It's wonderful to see them really stand up and try and protect their families from these horrible civil rights abuses."

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