Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney can afford to ignore Muslim voters in the US presidential election campaign.
Republican tactic of fear-mongering risks Muslim vote
Since the attacks of September 11, American Muslims have been grappling with questions about their identity and their role in US society. As Republicans convened in Tampa, Florida this week looking ahead to November's election, American Muslims' evolving national and political philosophies could play a decisive role in US partisan politics.
In the ugly mishmash of prejudice, racial profiling and ignorance since 2001, many American Muslims have become more assertive about their identity. After an exponential rise in Islamophobia and bigotry, 55 per cent of US Muslims say it has become more difficult in live in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.
Undoubtedly, some TV commentators and right-wing politicians have contributed anti-Islamic vitriol and hateful rhetoric, but American Muslims are at fault, too. The Muslim population in America has grown substantially since the early 1970s, but many Muslim immigrants showed little or no interest in domestic issues and the political process. They were mostly focused on building mosques, and their involvement in US policy debates was limited to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, September 11 changed everything, jolting American Muslims into greater political action and forcing them to re-examine their domestic priorities. According to one poll, half of American Muslims have increased their political and public-relations activities since that day in 2001.
The exact number of American Muslims is unknown, since the US Census Bureau does not count people by faiths. But there is an agreement that the US has between five million and six million Muslims, and most analysts accept that the number will more than double in the next two decades. By 2030, then, US Muslims will hold as much electoral influence, by numbers, as Jewish Americans do today.
American Muslims were in tune with Republican conservatism on issues such as abortion, gay rights and religion, and voted overwhelmingly for George W Bush in 2000. But after September 11, a barrage of discriminatory policies, civil rights concerns and the Iraq war drove them to the Democratic Party. The best available data show that 89 per cent of American Muslims voted for then-Senator Barack Obama, while only 2 per cent voted for Senator John McCain.
The 2010 midterm elections showed an increased partisanship and polarisation in US politics, and also gave Republicans a new tool to win conservative votes: the politics of fear-mongering. "Americans are learning what Europeans have known for years: Islam-bashing wins votes," Michael Scott Moore wrote in the Pacific Standard magazine in 2010. Many of the 85 new Republican House members disparaged Islam during their campaigns.
Scare-mongering to court conservative votes may have worked in 2008 and 2010, but it could very well cost close races for Republicans in 2012 and beyond. Each year, a large number of American Muslims become newly registered voters and an estimated 2.75 million Muslims live in toss-up states such as Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
Polls show that two out of three Muslims desire political unity and feel that they should vote as a bloc for a presidential candidate. Aslam Abdullah, editor of the weekly Muslim Observer newspaper, says there are about 15 close races for Congress in districts where Muslims are concentrated and could cast decisive votes.
In 2000, almost 60,000 Muslims in Florida voted for Mr Bush; he won Florida - and the presidency - by a razor-thin margin of 537 votes. Since then, registered Muslim voters have more than doubled in the Sunshine State and now number an estimated 124,000. Neither Mr Obama nor Mr Romney can afford to lose that many votes when they are running neck and neck in recent polls.
Another recent poll, conducted by Pew Research Center, showed that Mr Obama had a 76 per cent approval rating among American Muslims, although he is a paradoxical choice. On foreign policy, Mr Obama's record has been a mixed bag of realist and difficult options. He failed to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, accelerated drone-strike campaigns and opposed Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
On the other hand, his pledge to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, action on Libya and support for Arab Spring movements gained him support. While relations with the Muslim world have improved in comparison to the Bush administration, Mr Obama's 2009 promise in Cairo to start "a new beginning" is still an elusive dream.
On the domestic front, Mr Obama has also not lived up to the expectations. In 2008, candidate Obama criticised the Bush administration's policies of torture, the Patriot Act and excessive surveillance of Muslims, and promised to close Guantanamo Bay within a year. None of these promises have materialised.
Since September 11, American Muslims have made the right choice of political assimilation to confront forces of ignorance and bigotry. As an American, I have faith that the country can overcome any racial challenge, and as a Muslim, I see a bright future for Islam in my America.
Muhammad Babur is a US-based columnist who writes on political, social and international issues
On Twitter: @MLBabur