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A View From The Mosques

It’s Friday afternoon at the Jamia Masjid Hanafia mosque in Queens, and congregants are spilling out of the two-story building. Some wear skullcaps and long robes. Others are clad in suits and ties as they slap each other on the arm and kiss cheeks in greeting.

With Election Day looming, seemingly everyone at the Woodside mosque – even those who voted for President Bush in 2000 and 2004 – is backing Barack Obama. For many, the war in Iraq is a top issue. So is the slumping economy, which they blame on poor decisions by the Bush administration.

“Republicans don’t care about this country,” said Mohammad Janjua, a 48-year-old originally from Pakistan who runs a legal aid organization in Sunnyside. “McCain says he will push Bush’s policies, but that’s not what the country needs.”

Call For Change

At the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on E. 96th St., worshippers also appeared to be leaning toward Obama.

“After talking to many members, they are looking to vote for Democrats because they want change,” said Imam Shamsi Ali.

The attitudes at the two New York mosques are in keep with a national trend: More Muslim and Arab Americans, who for years were evenly split among Democrats and Republicans, are voting blue in the 2008 election.

A recent study commissioned by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found the number of Muslims who identified themselves as Republican declined from 17 percent in 2006 to 8 percent. Meanwhile, 49 percent of Muslims polled said they were Democrats. The poll found that 87 percent of American Muslims vote regularly.

A separate study by Zogby Poll, on behalf of the Arab American Institute, found that while 54 percent of Arab American voters support Obama, 27 percent support John McCain.

“As a community we are not married to either party, but give support to those candidates whose campaign addresses our issues that we consider relevant and important,” said Faiza Ali, a spokeswoman for CAIR, the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in the country.

The Arab American Institute attributes the shift in part to recent immigrants from the Middle East, who tend to vote Democratic, as well as a response to the conservative policies of the last eight years.

And while many Muslim and Arab Americans are worried about the same bread and butter issues as other voters, there are also paying close attention to civil liberties, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and foreign policy.

Multiple Concerns

“I have lived here for 26 years, so what happens here concerns me the most – the economy and keeping jobs in the U.S.,” said Nadeem Kirmani, vice president of Jamia Masjid. “The only way to make a point is through voting.”

The false claims suggesting Obama – a Christian whose middle name is Hussein – is secretly a Muslim, also has upset many in the Islamic-American community.

“I am voting for Obama,” said Rougui Sall a Senegal native who attends services at the Islamic Cultural Center. “I think it doesn’t make a difference what name you have. If he had a Jewish name it wouldn’t be such a problem.”

Despite stereotypes of being clannish and reclusive, Muslims are highly integrated into American society, according to a 2006 CAIR study. About 86 percent celebrate Independence Day. They are also highly educated, with more than 60 percent holding a college degree – twice the number of other registered voters in the U.S.

Many local mosquegoers say they inspired by Obama because he is an outsider who, through hard work and dedication, is standing at the threshold of the most powerful job in the world. Many see commonalities with the candidate: Obama’s skin is dark, he spent a part of his youth in a Muslim country and didn’t grow up a child of privilege.

“No way could a black guy with that name be able to be in this position if he wasn’t speaking the truth and connecting with people,” said Mohamed Toure, 40, who works in the clothing import business and is originally from Senegal. “His background has given him a unique perspective to understand many different kinds of people. And that’s what a leader needs.”

Deep Reservations

Some Muslims, however, are cynical about both candidates – and the electoral process.

Babul Miah, 24, who recently attended an Islamic forum at the Manhattan mosque, said he refuses to vote in this or any other presidential election as long as the Electoral College exists.

Still, he said, “I don’t want McCain to win.”

“Every speech I hear from both McCain and Obama, it’s ‘We’re going to attack Pakistan,’” said Mohammad Younas, a 54-year-old Woodside resident who was born in Pakistan. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re both against Muslims.”

But Younas is voting for Obama. “He gives us another option,” he said.
“We don’t care if he’s Christian, Jewish or Muslim,” Younas added. “We just care about this country because this is our home.”