Many analysts say Arab and Muslim-Americans are a growing force on the U.S. political scene. With large populations in American states where the key two political parties are nearly even in strength, their vote could make the difference in next year's presidential election. From Muslim cultural events in Washington to a recent Arab American Leadership conference, their voices are catching the ears of U.S. politicians. VOA's Brent Hurd has this report.

During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, prayer is recited at sunset every day. It echoes through the Islamic world to mark the end of the day's fast. Muslims often gather in homes and mosques to celebrate the breaking of the fast -- an event called the iftar. Today, some are gathering at Capitol Hill here in Washington to share their ceremony with members of the U.S. Congress and their staff. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam designed to help Muslims feel empathy for the poor and hungry.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic relations, hosted the event which attracted about 130 people. He says it is part of an effort to promote an accurate portrayal of Islam, a religion he says is often distorted by today's headlines:

?The biggest problem for Muslims in the United States is lack of information. We find that anti-Muslim bias is most often based on ignorance and when people know Muslims and they know about Islam, they come into contact with the Muslim community, that level of prejudice and bias goes way down. I think people have many misconceptions about Islam. If all they know about Islam is the daily headlines about violence and terrorism, then they form an opinion about Islam. But that's not what Islam is about. 99.99% of Muslims will live and die and never come close to an act of terrorism or political instability. That's the reality of Islam. The aberrations you see should not be taken to generalize the faith of Islam and one fifth of the world's population.?

The Congress is not the only top U.S. government body hosting such events. President Bush has held iftars for the last three years at the White House. Many American-Muslim leaders welcome these events. Others say they do not go far enough to address U.S. policies that affect Muslim and Arab communities in America.

James Zogby, President of the Arab-American Institute believes that is changing. His organization promotes Arab-American participation in the U.S. political system. Nearly a third of American Muslims are of Arab decent.

Last month Mr. Zogby hosted a national leadership conference in Dearborn, Michigan. Many political analysts say it was a major triumph for Arab-Americans. Virtually all the Democratic candidates for the U.S. presidency and the chairman of President Bush's re-election campaign attended the event. Mr. Zogby says the Arab-American community has come a long way: ?It was a victory that came after two decades of very hard work. The results were there for everyone to see. Participation of eight of the nine democrats, chairman of the President's campaign and the chairman representing the administration meant that Arab-Americans have crossed the threshold and are fully recognized participants in the American political process.?

James Zogby recalls it was not that long ago when presidential candidates would not accept invitations to speak at such events. He says the Democratic Party rarely associated with Arab-American groups in the 1980s: ?Up till 1988, we had a very tough time in the Democratic Party. For four years the Democratic leadership would not talk to us. Walter Mondale returned money to Arab-Americans in 1984. In 1988, Michael Dukakis rejected the Arab-American endorsement.?

Over the last twenty years, Mr. Zogby and other Arab-American leaders have built relationships with both political parties and encouraged Arab-Americans to vote locally and nationally. ?The strategy is voter registration, organizing the vote, and making sure the vote becomes visible. We did all of that. We integrated Arab-Americans into the two political parties and we made sure that we did events, invited candidates, and built up local bases of support, not just on a national level, but in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. When people began to see Arab-Americans organizing around the country, they stood up and took note. We formed Arab-American Democratic clubs, Republican clubs and earned our place in political parties. We've developed relationships now over these twenty years that are real.?

James Zogby says U.S. politicians are aware of the growing Arab-American voting block, especially in populous eastern and Midwestern states. The state of Michigan has the most Arab-Americans - almost half a million.

Osama Siblani is President of the Arab American Political Action Committee and publisher of the weekly Arab-American News. He predicts Arab-Americans could make the difference in next year's presidential election. ?If it is going to be a hotly contested presidential race, which it looks like it is going to be in 2004, then Arab-Americans will play a major role in it.?

Some analysts say Arab and Muslim-Americans have already played a big role in a presidential election. An estimated 55,000 Muslims voted for George Bush in Florida -- a very closely contested state that helped him win the 2000 presidential election.

Yvonne Haddad, professor of Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, says at that time the Muslim community believed George Bush would address their concerns: ?What appealed to them is that he came and met with them. He was the first presidential candidate who met them and took them seriously. He sat down with them. During the debates, he said he was against the profiling of Arab-Americans. Under the anti terrorism act, they were being profiled already. They thought he was going to appeal it.?

Although President Bush has made some goodwill gestures toward Arab Americans, Professor Haddad says many are disappointed. They are particularly concerned about the Patriot Act - a law that has expanded the government's powers of surveillance and detention. The government says it has been a successful tool in the war against terrorism but Arab and Muslim-Americans say it has eroded civil liberties.

Osama Siblani of the Arab American Political Action Committee says many Arab-Americans in both the Republican and Democratic Party are concerned: ?We have to remember that after September 11, we had several arrests and people detained and civil rights have slipped away and we have been subjected to a great deal of pressure here to silence the debate on domestic and foreign policy.?

As the 2004 election approaches, political analysts say Arab-Americans will pay close attention to both U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and civil liberties here at home. Analysts say whichever way they cast their vote next November could determine the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections.