Think Barack Obama has a lock on the Muslim vote? Think again. According to a poll released on Oct. 24, approximately 25 percent of American Muslim registered voters are still undecided about who to vote for on Tuesday.
The poll, sponsored by the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), included 500 randomly selected Muslim voters, who were surveyed in the first two weeks of October. Muslim voters are an increasingly influential group, though their community is still small relative to the general population. The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) reports that the number of Muslims living in the U.S. doubled from 2000 to 2010, growing from 1 million to 2.6 million across the country. In Minnesota, the total number of Muslim congregations jumped from 11 to 45 during the same period. Lori Saroya, executive director of CAIR-MN, estimates that there are 150,000 Muslims in Minnesota, 70 percent of whom are Somali by ethnicity. Minnesota's Muslim contingent is also quite green: About 50 percent are young people, Saroya said.
One of them is Burnsville resident Yussuf Shafie, a social worker and co-owner of Tawakal Restaurant. His top concerns for this election center on jobs and the economy. He describes himself as a liberal, though he acknowledges that traditional Muslim values can lean to the conservative side.
"Democrats are nicer to us," He says simply.
Shafie is similar to the average respondent in CAIR's poll. About 55 percent of the respondents said that they considered themselves to be moderates, 26 percent took a liberal stance, while 16 percent located themselves on the conservative end of the political spectrum. The top five issues mentioned by the respondents were jobs and the economy, education, health care policy, Medicare and Social Security, and civil rights.
On a whole, those surveyed were more sympathetic the Democratic Party. They also reported that their identification with Dems had increased over the last fours years. In 2008, 49 percent reported that they were closer to the Democratic Party. As of 2012, that number had grown to 66 percent.
By contrast, affiliation with the Republican Party stayed almost flat over the same period—rising only one percentage point, from 8 percent in 2008 to 9 percent today. One possible reason for this trend is that many Islamic Americans like Shafie view the GOP as a prickly or even hostile entity. While 49 percent of respondents said that the Democratic Party was friendly towards Muslims, only 12 percent felt the same about the Republican Party. Over half said that the GOP was unfriendly towards Muslims. Only 6 percent said that the Democratic Party was unfriendly to their community.
Nevertheless, these stats do not automatically translate into votes for Obama, though he did enjoy support from 68 percent of those surveyed and only 7 percent said they planned to vote for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. A quarter of the respondents remained uncommitted.
Why? Most Muslim voters supported Obama in 2008. Like many others, Islamic Americans had high hopes in 2008, said Cawo Abdi, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, and the last four years have been disappointing. Muslim Americans are disillusioned by fitful economic growth, one of their primary concerns during this election. Obama has a mixed reputation with regards to foreign affairs as well. While some were pleased with his administration's response to the uprising in Libya, many are disturbed by the administration's failure to close the infamous prison at Guantanamo Bay and its increasing use of drones in Muslim countries.
Mustafa Adam, of Minneapolis, is a Somali and former Obama supporter who enthusiastically voted for the president during the last election. This time around, he is disillusioned by the Obama administration's actions abroad, but he is equally rankeled by what he percieves as a series of betrayals at home.
"The main issue is how Obama uses his Justice Department in cooperation with local police authorities to violate the civil rights of Muslims all over America and going as far as planting spies in Mosques," Adam said, referring to the controversy surrounding apparent efforts by law enforcement to infiltrate mosques in New York City and California.
Indeed, civil rights have been a sticking point between many Muslim voters and the Obama administration, Saroya said. Saroya said many Minnesota Muslims are seeking a candidate who will commit to addressing these serious issues facing their community. Muslim Americans have felt increasingly that their civil liberties and even physical safety are under siege. More than a third of those surveyed—35 percent—said they have experienced increasing religious or ethnic profiling or discrimination.
"A lot of people are looking for an alternative, but there really isn't one," Saroya said.
The other option— the Republican Party—is widely regarded as anti-Muslim, she said, a feeling that has grew as the election cycle wore on. GOPers have frequently been described as "Islamophobic" by critics of the party, thanks in no small part to Minnesota's own Michele Bachmann, and some have charged that Republicans have persecuted Muslims in their own midst.
Officials with CAIR's Minnesota branch have noted an increase in violence and harassment against Muslims during the election cycle.
"There is a direct correlation between hate rhetoric and acts of violence," Saroya said. "And the things right-wing politicians have said during this election year do contribute to it."
Republican legislation has also alienated Muslims in the U.S. After the Tea Party sweep in 2010, bills banning Islamic sharia law were introduced in almost every state, including Minnesota (courtesy of Lakeville Sen. Dave Thompson, who ultimately dropped the bill). Such bills would make Islamic marriages, wills and other faith-specific contracts legally ambiguous, if not illegal.
Because of that, to many Muslim Americans Romney is not an acceptable alternative.
"It is also clear that the extreme and often incoherent Romney campaign contributes to this uncertainty. Thus though disappointed with Obama, many Muslims cannot see Romney as an option," Abdi wrote in an e-mail from South Africa, where she is currently conducting research. "The Republican Party’s primary process included some incendiary comments about Muslims that are hard to forget."
"Trust towards Romney is thus broken not only because of what has transpired in the primaries, but also in his campaign’s portrayal of Obama as a Muslim, as if being a Muslim is a crime, in order to win the conservative votes," Abdi added. "Many Muslim Americans believe that he is exploiting an Islamaphobia which has recently become very mainstream for conservative, right wing pundits and some politicians in the Republican party."
Whatever the case may be, turnout should be high. The national poll indicates that 91 percent of registered Muslim voters planned to go to the polls on Nov. 6.
Are you a member of Minnesota's Muslim community? Who are you planning to vote for? We're still taking quotes. E-mail Burnsville Patch Editor Clare Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or call direct at 952-258-9223.