IOWA CITY, IA— As the 2012 presidential caucus election draws near, a sizeable segment of the Muslim vote remains a mystery and up for grabs.
“If I was going to vote, I would vote for Ron Paul,” said Sehiha Kraina, who lives with her husband and young daughter in Iowa City. She has lived here for 12 years.
But Kraina, 27, a European-Muslim from Kosovo, isn’t sure if she will vote in the 2012 presidential elections – and she’s not alone.
About 26 percent of Muslim-Americans don’t see themselves as part of any party, said Karam Dana, an associate at the Center for American Political Studies and the Department of Government at Harvard University. Dana co-led a survey of Muslims with Matt A. Barreto, an associate professor at the University of Washington.
Although their population in the U.S. may be small, the voting power could become significant in a close election.
More religious Muslims are less likely to select a political party. Barreto, in a 2009 study with Dino Bozonelos of the University of California at Riverside, found that Muslims who practice their religion everyday were over 30 percent more likely to cite no political party.
Most Muslims have remained Democratic leaning since President Barack Obama took office, but recent events, particularly his opposition to the Palestinians effort to become a member of the United Nations, contribute to their political ambivalence. Moreover, a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States has fueled wariness.
Kraina cites several reasons for favoring Ron Paul. One key point is his position on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which is to remove American troops from the region. But, ultimately she remains on the fence on whether to vote
The Muslim voter after 9/11
A Pew Research Center survey in 2011 found that 19 percent of Muslim voters were Independent or had no party preference, and 70 percent affiliated with the Democratic Party or were Democratic leaning.
Brian Gaines, a political science professor specializing in voting behavior and elections at the University of Illinois, says Muslims will usually vote Democratic. He notes that generally the Muslim population in modern U.S. politics doesn’t follow suit with other religions’ voting patterns.
“Muslims are unique in that the more religious they are, the more Democratic they tend to vote,” said Gaines. He finds it unlikely that Obama would lose votes from this population to a Republican candidate.
However, Gaines says it is hard to draw conclusive data from surveys that do not over-sample the Muslim population.
Muslims in the U.S. haven’t always leaned Democratic. Before the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration, many Muslim-Americans were Republican voters Dana said.
“The way Muslims were treated changed the way they vote,” Dana said, referring to the generally negative feelings towards Muslims after the 9/11 attacks. “Anti-Muslim attitude has not been something they are comfortable with.”
According to the 2011 Pew Research Center findings, 55 percent of Muslim-Americans say it has become more difficult in live in the United States since the 9/11 attacks.
Shams Ghoneim, a native Egyptian and the coordinator for the Iowa chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, agrees that the backlash of anti-Muslim sentiment has dramatically changed the way Muslims live in America.
“It has been 10 years of on-going unawareness,” said Ghoneim in the wake of the 10-year 9/11 anniversary. She advocates for education on Islam,
including an accurate understanding of the controversial Shariah law among members of Congress.
Muslims in the 2008 election
Obama campaigned heavily prior to his presidency with both the U.S. Muslim and Jewish communities, advancing ideas concerning social justice and peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine.
According to a Gallup poll, he had an 85 percent job approval rating from the Muslim-American population within his first 100 days of office.
In 2009, Obama made a speech in Cairo, Egypt, to the Muslim world.
“…I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition,” said Obama.
Since then, Muslims have become skeptical and disappointed with the current administration, Dana says.
Now, 76 percent of Muslims in America approve of Obama’s performance, a rating that is higher than what he receives from the public overall.
Palestinian statehood bid
Since the 2008 elections, Muslim-Americans note feeling isolated as a minority population – although one of the largest religions in the world. Recently, topics concerning this group have been pulled back into vogue through a combination of contentious events.
National issues, such as the Murfreesboro, Tenn., community opposition to the building of a mosque in 2009 as well as the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York City, highlighted this minority population in the media.
Obama’s decision in September to veto Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ proposal for membership to the United Nations could alter where he finds support in his campaign for reelection.
Ruba Omar, 26, a Palestinian who has been living in Iowa City for four years, said, “It kind of broke my heart.” She feels betrayed by the current administration.
Ghoneim was also disappointed in the president’s decision but feels that he was stuck between a rock and a hard place and would still consider voting for him.
Obama’s reasons for excluding Palestine from U.N. membership include an argument that Israel and Palestine need to reach a compromise through continued peace talks and negotiations.
While not all Muslims advocate for Palestinian statehood, Obama’s foreign policy decisions still seem unfavorable to both supporters and those who oppose U.N. recognition of Palestine as a state.
“I’m afraid that our foreign policy in [the Middle East] has created a monster,” said Ghoneim. “Violence breeds violence.”
Palestine has observer status in the United Nations and hopes to obtain a ranking similar to the Vatican in order to put pressure on the International Court of Justice to end Israeli occupation.
Dana explains that there are two schools of thought on the issue in the Palestinian-American community. In one school, people support the creation of a Palestinian state. In the other – “Intellectual Palestinians” – support the Palestinian right of self-determination. But those in latter school don’t think that the U.N. bid for statehood recognition would change the ongoing situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or for Palestinian refugees around the world.
Despite Muslims’ disappointment in Obama’s position, most of the Republican presidential contenders don’t offer much solace.
Tex. Gov. Rick Perry has charged that Obama actions have been too lenient to Palestinian groups that he considers extremist, and he accuses the president of abandoning Israel.
Two other GOP candidates for the party nomination, Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann, took equally strong stances against Obama’s foreign policy in light of the Palestinian bid for statehood.
On the other side of the Republican spread, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul has found support from the Muslim population for his outlier views on the Middle East. Paul says the United States needs to immediately stop its military involvement in the Middle East, repeal the Patriot Act and limit funding to Israel.
On domestic issues, Dana says Muslims are similar to other immigrant voters and are concerned with issues like security, education and economy.
“The economy is one of these things that all Americans care about,” said Dana.
(In an earlier version, the names of Dana Karam and Dino Bozonelos were misspelled. IowaWatch apologizes for the errors)