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For American Muslims, Influence in American Politics Comes Hard

New York Times
October 27, 2000

When Salam Al-Marayati read yesterday that Hillary Rodham Clinton would return $50,000 in political contributions from members of the American Muslim Alliance, he got a sinking feeling.

It was happening again, Mr. Al- Marayati said. A prominent Muslim American — in this case, Agha Saeed, who is president of the alliance — was being punished for pushing Muslim Americans into the political mainstream, he said.

"Agha Saeed was successful in unifying the Muslim vote and for the first time in creating a voting bloc," Mr. Al-Marayati said. "It is no surprise that he is now the target. It happens to any of us who is successful in gaining access for Muslims."

Mr. Al-Marayati, who is executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, an advocacy and educational organization, is not regarded as a man who sees a conspiracy around every corner. But he has been there before himself.

Last year, Mr. Al-Marayati was appointed by Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader, to a Congressional counterterrorism commission in what had been considered a political breakthrough for Muslim Americans. His appointment, however, was withdrawn after he was denounced by Jewish organizations that accused him of condoning terrorism against Israel; they cited statements that blamed the Israeli government for provoking Palestinian anger and violence. A Christian Arab-American was named in his place.

Yesterday, as Mrs. Clinton's campaign aides began returning about 100 checks from members of the American Muslim Alliance, Muslims across the country were reminded of how difficult it remains for them to make inroads into American politics and how disputed remarks about other parts of the world can derail the acceptance of Muslim Americans here. They also contend that extremist views by Muslims carry far greater negative consequences for Muslim Americans than extremist remarks in support of Israel do for Jewish Americans.

At the center of the Muslim Americans' frustration in New York, perhaps more so than in any other part of the country, is one issue: their overriding sympathy for the Palestinians in the Middle East troubles, which is out of step with mainstream political sentiment and longtime political realities here.

Mrs. Clinton said on Wednesday that the checks, from a fund-raising event in June, were being returned because of "offensive and outrageous" statements attributed to members of the American Muslim Alliance, including support expressed by Mr. Saeed for the right of Palestinians to use "armed resistance" against the Israelis. She has been supported in her views by a variety of Jewish organizations. Mrs. Clinton's opponent, Representative Rick A. Lazio called the donations "blood money" on Wednesday, and he did not publicly raise the topic yesterday.

But Mr. Saeed insists he was expressing a commonly held view among Muslims about the Middle East — one that has been advanced by members of the United Nations — and not advocating violence or terrorism.

"I am pro-Palestinian, but at the same time I am willing to have a reasonable settlement with the Israelis," said Mr. Saeed, who teaches ethnic studies and political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University, Hayward. "I have also said that I support the peace process and that the conflict there was political, not theological. But none of those things are being mentioned."

The fund-raising event sponsored by Mr. Saeed's group for Mrs. Clinton and the endorsement this week of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas by an umbrella Muslim American organization that includes the American Muslim Alliance were political activities gleaned from the basic textbook of American politics.

Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, blacks, Asian-Americans and Jewish Americans have all read the same chapters and plotted the course to mainstream influence, but not with equal success. For example, Asian-Americans felt particularly maligned by the campaign finance investigations of President Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996.

Mr. Saeed, Mr. Al-Marayati and a growing number of Muslim Americans across the country have spent much of the past decade trying to make inroads in politics and to avoid those pitfalls. Four of the biggest groups recently formed a joint political organization, the American Muslim Political Coordination Council Political Action Committee, which made its first major Muslim American presidential endorsement this week — for Mr. Bush.

But like other immigrant and ethnic groups before them, Muslim Americans have seen their efforts rebuffed, resisted and blocked by the groups that came before them. There is still no Muslim member of Congress. There are more than six million Muslim Americans, but a crescent-and-star sculpture did not join the Christmas tree and menorah in the park in front of the White House until 1997. It was only during the Clinton administration that the White House began holding dinners for Muslim Americans celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast.

No one likes to give up a piece of the American pie, said John L. Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. But unlike members of the other immigrant and ethnic groups, Muslim Americans have encountered an extraordinary roadblock presented by their religious connection to the Middle East, and it is both real and intangible, Mr. Esposito said.

"Americans have been raised in a country that is predominantly Judeo- Christian," he said. "Their experience with Islam is negligible. What they have to operate on is stereotypes."

Stephen Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development in Manhattan and a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum, said Muslim Americans have a legitimate complaint about how they have been treated politically. He agreed that they face unusual challenges because of general ignorance about their religion, but he also said some of the blame lies with the groups themselves.

Mr. Cohen said some Muslim Americans have blurred the view of themselves in the United States by moving back and forth between mainstream organizations and those that support militant groups, like Hezbollah and Hamas. A similar situation has existed among some Irish-Americans, he said, who have tried to influence foreign policy toward Northern Ireland but at the same time have helped finance the Irish armed struggle.

"From a pure, cold political perspective, the Muslim Americans have gotten enormous mileage out of this $50,000 contribution because it brings up the contradiction of who is allowed to influence American politics," Mr. Cohen said. "It is a legitimate question, and I think the Muslims have a right to a voice. But we need to draw a distinction between the difficulties that come with having different views about the Middle East and the difficulties coming from fundamentalist views that have also been supportive of actions against American interests directly."

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Jewish organizations support the right of Muslim Americans to become more involved in the political process and have even given advice to some groups. But he said some of the complaints about the Muslim American failures have more to do with the substance of their views than the color of their skin or the tenets of their faith. His group strenuously opposed Mr. Al- Marayati's appointment to the terrorism commission, he said, because of his statements, not his religion.

"They are frustrated because the American people don't buy their message," Mr. Hoenlein said. "It is not that they have anything against their religion or their right to express their view, it is just that they don't agree with them."

Mr. Al-Marayati said organizations like his are spending most of their time preparing the next generation of Muslim Americans to move Muslim issues to the center of the political discourse. Although speeches about the Middle East get the most attention from the news media, he said Muslim groups from California to New York hold candidates' forums, educational sessions about Islam, voter registration drives and other community activities.

"We are paving the way for young Muslims, who are proud American Muslims, to be a vital component of American pluralism," Mr. Al-Marayati said. "Right now, we are taking the hits for them. In doing so, we are helping the rest of America understand who we are."

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