Muslim-Americans are not known for their political influence in Washington. But some Muslim activists are vowing to change that. A voter registration drive is targeting the estimated six to seven million American Muslims in hopes of strengthening their political clout.
The new voter registration drive is being launched by the Muslim American Society in hopes of registering hundreds of thousands of American Muslims in advance of next year's presidential election.
"We feel that the Muslim community must, indeed, be very active in the civic process," explained Mahdi Bray, Executive Director of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation. "We are not going to continue to be marginalized in our society. We are going to reach out. We are going to work with other groups and we are going to make a difference in 2004 and years to come."
Mr. Bray says the American Muslim community still feels politically vulnerable in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the backlash it spawned, sometimes violent, against some Muslim Americans.
He argues that greater political influence in Washington will ensure that anti-terrorism laws passed by Congress will not threaten the civil rights of Muslim-Americans.
"The Muslim community itself is facing a situation in terms of the sacrifices of those liberties and those rights and we feel that the only way to protect them is to do what all other groups have done in America, and that is to mobilize ourselves in a civic way and to register our people to vote and make our voices heard," he said.
The registration effort is getting encouragement from other groups committed to expanding grass roots involvement in the political process.
Roger Limoges is with a group called the Interfaith Alliance, a non-partisan advocacy group that includes representatives from 65 different religious beliefs and traditions.
"For any community or group of people, voting is the best way to get involved and to make a difference," he said. "At no other time in our history is it more important for the Muslim community to unify and strengthen their political voice."
Organizers say a particular concern is getting younger Muslim Americans to register to vote.
Tanzila Ahmed is with a group called EnviroCitizen, a grassroots organization that promotes environmental concerns to young people.
Ms. Ahmed will be going to college campuses looking to register young people. She says many Muslim Americans have been reluctant to get involved politically, especially since the September, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"By registering young people to vote, you are creating a voting bloc of young voters," she explained. "And by creating this voting bloc of young voters, you are making politicians pay attention to you because you have this power of the voting bloc.
And what I realized in the post-9-11 backlash is that there wasn't a voting bloc of young Muslim voters out there and that there is no reason for politicians to pay attention to us, which is why that I feel that the young voter movement is so important towards Muslim issues right now," she added.
Among the first to register under the new program is Fatimah Popal, a young Muslim-American woman who hopes many others will follow her example.
Popal: I just want to say that I am a Muslim. I am a woman. I am young and I am American. And as an American, I think it is very, very important for my voice to be heard.
Bray: And now you are a voter, too!
In addition to canvassing at shopping malls and mosques, the Muslim American Society will offer online voter registration through its web site.
The program is similar to one launched a few years ago by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which sought to register 100,000 Muslim Americans before the 2002 congressional elections.