A Moment With…Omar Sacirbey

By Sarah Breger

A June 2011 Pew poll found that 76 percent of Muslim Americans approved of President Obama’s performance in the White House—a figure far above the national average. The Muslim American community also voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in 2004 and in 2008, a major shift from 2000, when more than three-quarters voted for Republican George W. Bush. Despite these numbers, many Muslims are disillusioned with the president and the changes they believe he promised but hasn’t delivered. While the Muslim electorate is far from monolithic, and its numbers make up just a small fraction of the country’s population, Muslim voting power may prove significant in a close election.

Moment’s managing editor Sarah Breger speaks with Omar Sacirbey, a Boston-based correspondent for the Religion News Service and other publications, on this often-overlooked portion of the electorate.

MM: You recently wrote an article on presidential hopeful Ron Paul’s support in the Muslim community. Is there a “Muslim vote” in America? What are some factors that contribute to the Muslim vote?

OB: There’s more diversity in the Muslim vote this time around than in past elections. There’s a number of reasons for that. The community is becoming more diverse in terms of immigrants and American-born Muslims, and Muslims who came here when they were very young. Regarding Ron Paul, there is a mix of factors as to why this is happening. One is disappointment in Obama. When Obama won the 2008 election Muslims were hopeful, but those hopes have been somewhat tempered. Now, three years into his administration, many Muslims are disappointed that he hasn’t gotten the United States out of Afghanistan; they’re disappointed that he hasn’t done more, in their view, for the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and they’re disappointed in regards to civil rights issues, such as the Patriot Act and policies on indefinite detention, and so on. When they hear Ron Paul, they’re turned on by his statements on getting the United States out of Afghanistan and out of foreign engagements altogether; his desire to cut aid to Israel, indeed, to cut all foreign aid in general but again that he is including Israel; as well as his strong opposition to the Patriot Act and what a lot of Muslims—and others—see as draconian civil rights policies.

MM: Do Muslim Americans align with his social policies?

OB: There’s a mix. A lot of people are willing to overlook disagreements on these social issues in favor of these broader issues. Just like maybe some “values voters” might be willing to overlook Newt Gingrich’s divorces in favor of his conservative agenda.

MM: And are there areas where winning the Muslim vote is vital? 

OB: It’s hard to imagine the Muslim vote being a “make or break” kind of a vote, but it could make the difference in some states where there is a fairly large Muslim population, such as Michigan or Ohio, which are swing states. Possibly even Pennsylvania, where the Muslim population is probably smaller than in Michigan or in Ohio, but perhaps still big enough that in a state that’s going to be closely contested it could make a difference. There’s also a fairly significant Muslim population in smaller states, like Iowa. Again, it’s hard to see them making a huge difference, but if it’s going to be a closely contested election, every vote really will count.

MM: Are there candidates who are actively courting the Muslim vote?

OB: In this field—no. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum are viewed by Muslims as pretty much anti-Muslim candidates. I think you’d be hard pressed to find Muslims who support these guys. We will likely see similar behavior from Obama as in the past election, where a lot of Muslims were disappointed that when opponents would say, “Oh, he’s a Muslim,” or has Muslim sympathies, he wouldn’t say, “Well, I’m not a Muslim, but what’s wrong with being a Muslim?” like Colin Powell did. A lot of Muslims were disappointed in that, but others understood it and are willing this time around to forgive him for that

MM: Will the recently proposed anti-sharia legislation and surrounding discussions factor into voting decisions or serve to galvanize the Muslim vote in any way?

OB: It wouldn’t surprise me, because it has become such a prevalent issue since the whole process was initiated in Oklahoma—a lot of Muslims really are upset by this. They consider sharia to be personal and private and don’t want any kind of mixing between religion and government. They’re really offended by these types of actions, and scared by what they consider to be ignorance and hatred of their faith by these people who are in government. The anti-sharia movement has been a catalyst for many Muslims to become more active, even just getting out more in their communities. If you have a kid in your local elementary school, you’re maybe that much more likely to go to a PTA meeting, to go to a school board meeting, just getting out there and being visible. I think if that’s been the case, then it stands to reason that there could be a backlash against this anti-sharia movement, and a desire by Muslims to stand up and vote against people that are advocating these kinds of laws could be a factor that gets them out to the polls in November.

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