Jen'nan Ghazal Read
is an associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University and a Carnegie Scholar studying Muslim American political assimilation
A free DVD containing anti-Muslim propaganda recently appeared as an advertising supplement in newspapers, including The Inquirer, in electoral swing states across the country.
Obsession: Radical Islam's War on the West
was filled with scenes of Muslims flying planes into buildings, bombing people, burning U.S. flags, and screaming with rage.
Although the video offered a disclaimer that most Muslims are not fanatics, its horrific images and sinister music conveyed an emotional message about Muslims that was unmistakable.
The video appeared during a presidential campaign in which John McCain has conflated the terms
. Barack Obama continues to deny allegations that he is a Muslim (as if that were a bad thing). Joe Biden refers to such allegations as a "smear campaign."
Most Americans may be too distracted by the Wall Street crisis and other news to pay attention to how Muslims are being portrayed as our nation heads to its historic election. But these messages have not escaped the notice of one of the least-discussed but potentially most important groups of American voters: Muslim Americans.
There are more Muslims in the United States than many people realize - anywhere from four million to six million, most of whom are U.S. citizens. Michigan has significant numbers of Muslim American voters. So do Ohio, Virginia, Florida and other swing states where even a small group of voters might determine the results. These citizens vote at roughly the same levels as other Americans - and my guess is they're now likely to support Obama.
Muslim Americans weren't always so politically active. Before Sept. 11, 2001, the Muslim American community - made up largely of affluent, well-assimilated, residentially integrated people - was content to enjoy the benefits of a pluralistic, democratic society without getting too involved in politics. Who could blame them? Many originated from countries where religion and politics didn't mix very well. Those who did get involved in politics tended to vote on issues of the day, just as other Americans do. In 2000, this translated into overwhelming support for George W. Bush, whose conservative social values resonated with Muslim Americans.
After 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, Muslim Americans felt increasingly besieged. Many concluded they could no longer sit passively on the sidelines if they wanted to be part of American society. Their participation at the local level in 2004 resulted in nearly half of 100 Muslim American candidates nationwide winning election, to positions ranging from a mayor in Bernards, N. J., to a state senator in North Carolina.
Ordinarily, this would have indicated growing political integration with the larger society. But as the recent DVD illustrated, Muslim Americans continue to face fear from other Americans.
Campaign ads that now remind Americans to be concerned about Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the war in Iraq result too often in Muslims and others with dark skin feeling like they're the ones being watched at airports, even though they obey the law, pay taxes, and raise families much as other American citizens do.
Rather than focusing on the bank bailout and other domestic issues, some Muslim Americans still find themselves feverishly denying any ties to al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism. Rather than promoting conservative social values as they did in 2000, many are spending their time and money on public advertising campaigns aimed at correcting popular misconceptions about Muslims.
It's unclear whether those who mailed the
DVD so close to the election were seeking to scare people into voting for McCain. But one wonders whether they also stopped to consider the impact on millions of Muslim Americans, who, in previous elections, could be counted on to vote for social conservatives. This time around, that seems a lot less likely, including in the states where even a small shift could determine who wins the White House.