There Was a Time When Presidential Candidates Fought to Earn the American Muslim Vote
By: Dr. Sami Al-Arian
With various polls at a nail-biting dead heat, and a nation nervously awaiting the end of an election season that feels like it’s gone on for years, it’s difficult not think back to another close election.
In 2000, as the national polls were similarly close, it might be hard to believe, but the two candidates were actually interested in reaching out to a little-noticed community to win their votes: American Muslims. On Oct. 10, 2000, on the eve of the second presidential debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore, I received a phone call from a prominent political operative. The Bush campaign’s liaison to the American Muslim community asked me what the bottom line was for getting the community’s endorsement of the Republican candidate for president.
This moment signified the culmination of a three-year campaign I had been heading to ban the use of secret evidence in U.S. immigration courts, a practice that was almost exclusively used against Arab and Muslim immigrants to deny them bail and condemn them to solitary confinement indefinitely. The use of “secret evidence,” which was introduced by the Clinton administration, was widely deemed unconstitutional by experts. It was allowed to happen because of a provision in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. After my brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, was arrested and detained indefinitely based on “secret evidence,” we began a national movement to end the practice. During that time, I approached numerous senior officials and political leaders from both parties.
By the fall of 2000, the legislative effort to repeal the use of secret evidence gained the support of 129 members in the House of Representatives as well as several key senators. By September 2000, following a successful hearing in the House Judiciary committee, the bill passed the committee by a vote of 28-2. A similar bill had also been introduced in the Senate and my Republican interlocutor, who called me that night in October, had been helping to fast track the bill through the Republican leadership in Congress.
As soon as George W. Bush and Al Gore secured their respective nominations, I engaged both presidential campaigns in an effort to solicit their support on an issue of major concern to the community. Although I received lukewarm support from both campaigns, it was not until that evening in October that I sensed a serious attempt from one of the major parties to obtain the support of American Muslim voters. My Republican liaison had told me at the time that the request had come directly from Karl Rove, the senior strategist in the Bush campaign.
After consulting with other American Muslim leaders, I responded that an outright endorsement would be contingent on Bush’s categorical condemnation of the use of secret evidence and his support of the pending legislation to repeal it. I also requested that the statement come directly from the candidate himself and not simply from the campaign or one of its surrogates. My friend ended the call by stating both conditions were reasonable and promised to get back to me.
We expected that Bush would make a statement condemning secret evidence during one of his routine campaign stops, so we were stunned to watch as he did so before tens of millions of Americans the very next evening on live television during the second presidential debate (min. 47:30).
After he was asked a question about racial profiling, Bush went out of his way to address an issue of concern to an otherwise voiceless community, declaring, “There are other forms of racial profiling that go on in America. Arab Americans are racially profiled in what is called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we have to do something about that.” He added, “My friend Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan is pushing a law to make sure Arab Americans are treated with respect.” In his brief comments, Bush had successfully addressed the two requests we’d made the previous day.
After the debate, my friend asked if the endorsement would be forthcoming in light of Bush’s unequivocal statement. That evening the most influential American Muslim organizations at the time (with the exception of a major African-American Muslim organization) agreed in a conference call to endorse Bush.
Two days later, I received a call from my Democratic liaison with the Gore campaign. She asked if anything could be done to stop the upcoming endorsement. I told her that it was too little too late, as the Democrats had ignored the community for months. However, on the following day, October 14, Gore announced his support for repealing secret evidence after meeting with a small group of Arab Americans.
When the official endorsement of Bush was announced on October 23, the leadership of the American Muslim community identified six swing states where American Muslim voters could actually make a difference. I was assigned to mobilize the community in the state of Florida and our campaign kicked into high gear. Needless to say, it was Florida that handed Bush the presidency that year when he was declared the winner by only 537 votes out of over 6 million votes cast. (In 2000, 63% of Muslims in Florida were registered as Democrats, 26% were Republicans, and 11% independents). In a scientific study of 1,070 Muslim voters in Florida, the 2000 Muslim vote was as follows: 73% Bush, 19% Gore, and 8% Nader. In other words, American Muslims in Florida flipped thousands of Democratic Muslim votes to Bush because of the secret evidence campaign.
On the night of the election, when the state was called for Bush (before the recount and subsequent ruling by the Supreme Court), my elated Republican friend called and thanked me on behalf of the Bush campaign. Within a few weeks I was invited to a meeting in Washington on the eve of the inauguration and was warmly received by many Republican leaders including Newt Gingrich, John Sununu and Tom Davis.
The Repeal Act was reintroduced in the new Congress within a few weeks (gaining more than 100 co-sponsors), and I was assured that the administration, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, supported its passage and repealing the use of secret evidence. After months of waiting in frustration, I received a call in late August 2001 from my Republican interlocutor informing me that the administration had concluded its study and was ready to end the use of secret evidence. He also added that a meeting with the president had been scheduled to make the announcement. Even though he did not specify the purpose of the meeting, Karl Rove referenced it in his memoir Courage and Consequence when he wrote, “The president was to have met at 3:05pm with American Muslim leaders after his planned return from the Florida education event. He had been scheduled to spend forty minutes, first with a small group in the oval office, and then with a larger one in the Roosevelt Room.” Unfortunately, that day, when George W. Bush was scheduled to meet with American Muslim leaders to discuss ending the use of secret evidence, was Sept. 11, 2001. Needless to say, the meeting never happened.
Lessons learned and the 2016 elections
In retrospect, the American Muslim community and their institutions, especially among the immigrant communities, seem to have paid dearly in light of the excesses of the administration’s hostile policies toward them in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks including arbitrary arrests, selective deportations, shutting down institutions and charities, use of torture and black sites, pre-emptive prosecutions, targeting American Muslim leaders, the persistent use of entrapment, no-fly lists, and mass surveillance as well as waging unnecessary and costly wars. Such aggressive tactics and overreaching policies have infused a nationwide Islamophobia and created a besieged and terrified community unsure of its status in American society.
Important as they were, the concern of American Muslim leaders at the time was not centered on any ordinary domestic or foreign policy issues. But we believed that winning the civil rights battle was critical to the political empowerment of a vulnerable minority community and to ultimately gaining respect within American society. We considered the repeal of secret evidence to be a defining moral issue and a critical civil rights cause. We were focused on winning this issue as a way to have a seat at the political table.
In recognition of the community’s role in the 2000 election, the Bush administration invited its leadership to a series of meetings after the elections to discuss important policy issues. At one of those meetings at the White House in June 2001, an anti-Muslim official at the National Security Council sought to have my son, a congressional intern with Democratic leader David Bonior, removed from the meeting. Without hesitation, the entire Muslim delegation ended the meeting in protest and held an impromptu press conference in front of the White House. Within hours of the incident, several apologies were offered: a public apology from the White House press secretary, a private apology to my son from the Secret Service, and a letter of apology sent by Bush to our family.
Contrast this event with another meeting in the fall of 2010 under a supposedly friendlier White House. On that occasion, another individual was excluded from a meeting, but the remaining members of the delegation shamefully proceeded as if nothing happened. The person who was removed was the late Dr. Jamal Barzinji, an icon in the American Muslim community, and a pioneer who devoted much of his life to building the community’s institutions and seeking its empowerment. It’s a lesson worth noting: when the American Muslim leaders stood with a 20-year-old intern, the community was respected and admired, but when they abandoned a 70-year-old intellectual and leader, the community was practically insulted with impunity.
An important lesson from our secret evidence campaign is that serious and sustained political engagement can yield positive results. Many politicians and political candidates are willing to support issues based on principles and moral values but often times they are afraid that in the heat of political campaigns they would have to pay a punishing political cost for their principled stand. But if such politicians are supported and rewarded, they not only would be willing to take bold and courageous positions but would also force their opponents to support such principled positions once they realize their popularity, and even compete for their votes. In our campaign it was critically important to engage many civil rights and community organizations as well as the media in order to win in the court of public opinion as a prelude to our political engagement.
Secondly, it is also significant to note that there are many powerful enemies and detractors in important governmental positions. They seek to marginalize and divide the Muslim community. Therefore, it is incumbent on its leadership to act in unity against attempts to divide them.
Another lesson to remember is that politicians and public officials are seldom loyal or willing to stand firm on principles when pressured by the media or their opponents. But an enduring relationship between a politician and the community must be based on principles as well as ethical and moral standards before any consideration for short-term interests. Similarly, aspiring American Muslim leaders should not act expediently and trade easy access to power in exchange for abandoning the unity of the community, or failing to take a principled and firm positions on critical issues.
Subsequent campaigns have demonstrated that the Muslim vote is often embraced during elections, but has very little to show for it when it comes to any political benefit after votes are cast. American Muslims must make clear to individual campaigns and to political parties that they expect to be included in policymaking and to be granted equal access to high-level appointments, based on merit and a desire for diverse representation. Regardless of the wisdom of supporting a particular candidate on a single issue, even if it is of prime importance to the community, American Muslims must strive to come together and deliver a block vote in order to be relevant in the American political calculus. But this political involvement must also be based on upholding important principles and cherished values regardless of the political cost.
Since the tragic 9/11 attacks, neither party has seriously embraced the American Muslim community or defended its rights. Most legislations that blatantly target Muslims in the U.S. have overwhelmingly received bipartisan support. Most politicians rarely condemn racist government policies that scapegoat American Muslims including profiling, community surveillance, harassment by government agencies, charity shutdowns, pre-emptive prosecutions, and entrapment. While most of the Republican leadership displays raw contempt and Islamophobic tendencies, Democratic leaders show only a superficial embrace or lukewarm support while shying away from any meaningful defense of the trampled rights of the beleaguered and besieged community.
However, in this election year the American Muslim community is facing a monumental decision. With his Islamophobic beliefs in full display, and his pure hatred, ignorance, and arrogance, Donald Trump presents a clear and present danger not only to the welfare of the American Muslim community but also to its very existence.
So how should American Muslims vote?
To have a clear conscience, the overriding principle in this election must be that Donald Trump should never become president, not only because he would be horrible for American Muslims and other minorities, but more importantly because he would be a nightmare for the country as a whole.
Secondly, politicians from both parties must understand that scapegoating or ignoring Muslim issues have political consequences. There are many races across the country this year that will be decided by a few thousand votes or less. If political candidates want the Muslim vote, they need to earn it. And to earn it, the community’s most pressing issues have to be seriously addressed. The American Muslim leadership needs to display more courage, confront their siege mentalit, and address the core issues affecting their terrified communities.
In about 42 states and the District of Columbia, the electoral votes are most likely going to follow the past six elections by giving the Democratic candidate an advantage of 246 electoral votes to the Republican’s 192. The remaining eight states (New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada) are considered swing states. American Muslims who are disenchanted with the Democrats in the safe states can afford to think about developing alternatives by voting for a third party candidate such as Jill Stein. But American Muslims in the eight swing states, as well as in few others where they could deliver a substantial block vote to secure their victories such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, should not sit out this election but should help prevent Trump from carrying any of these states by either voting for the Democratic candidate (especially in the swing states) or by at least participating in a vote pact.
As George Bernard Shaw once stated, “Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.”