A FREE DVD CONTAINING anti-Muslim propaganda recently appeared as an advertising supplement in newspapers here in North Carolina and in other electoral swing states across the country. "Obsession: Radical Islam's War on the West" was filled with scenes of Muslims flying planes into buildings, bombing people, burning American flags and screaming with homicidal rage. Although the video dutifully offered a disclaimer that most Muslims are not fanatics, its horrific images and sinister music conveyed an emotional message about Muslims that was unmistakable. The video appeared in the midst of a presidential campaign in which John McCain has conflated the terms "Islamic" with "terrorism" and "radical extremism." Barack Obama continues to deny allegations that he is a Muslim (as if that were a bad thing). Joe Biden refers to such allegations as a "smear campaign."
Most Americans may be too distracted by the Wall Street crisis and other recent news to pay attention to how Muslims are being portrayed as our nation heads to its historic election. But these messages have not escaped the notice of one of the least-discussed — but potentially most important — group of American voters: Muslim Americans.
There are more Muslims in the United States than many people realize — anywhere from four million to six million, most of whom are U.S. citizens. Michigan has significant numbers of Muslim-American voters. So do Ohio, Virginia, Florida and other swing states where even a small group of voters might determine the results. These citizens vote at roughly the same levels as other Americans.
As someone who studies their voting patterns, my guess is they're now likely to support Sen. Obama.
Muslim Americans weren't always so politically active. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the Muslim American community — largely made up of affluent, well-assimilated, residentially integrated people — was content to enjoy the benefits of living in a pluralistic, democratic society without getting too involved in politics. Who could blame them? Many originated from countries where religion and politics didn't mix very well. Those who did get involved in politics tended to vote on issues of the day, just like other Americans. In 2000, this translated into overwhelming support for George W. Bush, whose social conservative values resonated with Muslim Americans, which ironically put them on the same side as the Christian right.
After 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, Muslim Americans felt increasingly besieged. Many concluded they could no longer sit passively on the sidelines if they wanted to be part of American society. Their participation at the local level in 2004 resulted in nearly half of 100 Muslim American candidates nationwide winning election to positions ranging from a mayor in New Jersey to a state senator in North Carolina.
Ordinarily, this would have indicated growing political integration with the larger society, a familiar story for groups in the United States. But as the recent DVD illustrated, Muslim Americans continue to face fear from other Americans.
Campaign ads that now remind Americans to be concerned about Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and the war in Iraq result too often in Muslims and others with dark skin feeling like they're the ones being watched at airports, even though they are American citizens who obey the law, pay taxes and raise families much like everybody else.
Rather than focusing on the bank bailout and other domestic issues like other Americans, some Muslim Americans still find themselves feverishly denying any ties to al-Qaida and Islamic extremism. Rather than promoting conservative social values like they did in 2000, many are spending their time and money on public advertising campaigns, such as the ones currently running on buses and subways in New York and Seattle that aim to correct popular misconceptions about Muslims.
It's unclear whether those who mailed the "Obsession" DVD so close to the election were seeking to scare people into voting for Sen. McCain. But if that was their intent, one wonders whether they also stopped to consider the impact on millions of Muslim Americans who are already concerned about how their religion is being portrayed. In previous elections, many of them could be counted on to vote for social conservatives. This time around, that seems a lot less likely, including in the states where even a small shift could determine who wins the White House.
Read, an associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University, is a Carnegie Scholar studying Muslim American political assimilation.