American Muslim leaders have announced plans to promote civil rights as a priority when endorsing a political candidate. This is, in part, a response to what they consider unfair treatment of Muslim Americans following the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Muslim leaders like Nihad Awad see strengthening the political voice of Muslim Americans as a way to protect civil rights they say were abused in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Awad directs the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights group. "There is no secret that there has been erosion of civil rights after 9/11 towards Muslim-Americans and Arab Americans in the country. Our reports have shown 64 percent increase in cases compared to previous years. And, therefore the issue of civil rights is very important to the Muslim and Arab American community because they feel without freedom of expression, without protection to their identity, they cannot function in the society as full citizens and as a respected segment of the community," he said.

Muslim and Arab Americans complained of racial profiling and discrimination when federal authorities investigating the 9/11 attacks detained thousands of immigrants and shut down Muslim charities suspected of terrorist links.

Mr. Awad says Muslim leaders want to register their concerns in local, regional and national political campaigns to make political leaders take notice. Leaders of the Islamic Society of North America, meeting last weekend in Chicago, announced plans to register one million Muslim voters during this election year and to promote civil rights as the key concern when endorsing a candidate, including the 2004 presidential race.

But how effective a tool will that be, considering the U.S. Muslim population numbers fewer than six million?

Mr. Awad said minority groups in the United States are starting to see the impact of their growing political participation. "I think minorities have an important role to play in elections, witnessing the 2000 elections that the two [presidential] candidates were competing over 500 or so votes," he said. "That signifies the importance of individual votes. And, I am sure minority votes can play a critical role in tipping the balance."

Mr. Awad acknowledged that in the past Muslim voters focused more on foreign policy issues when choosing candidates. But he said domestic concerns, the economy and civil rights, are registering higher on the list of priorities. "We are not a one-issue community. We are an issues-based community, and when we make a collective decision in terms of who will get the votes of the majority of Muslims, I think foreign policy will be taken into consideration, but it is not the only issue. Domestic issues are more important for us," he said.

In addition to encouraging more Muslims to vote, Mr. Awad says Muslim groups also are urging members to take a more active role in local and regional politics, including running for office.