by Sarah Brown
Al Jazeera English, June 5, 2008
As the US city of Philadelphia prepares for its most closely watched political primary in generations one significant part of the population seems to have already picked their man.
Muslim-American community leaders, activists and voters in the city of brotherly love, as Philadelphia is known, say Barack Obama is by far their preferred candidate.
Philadelphia’s Muslim community is one of the most significant, in terms of size and in terms of prominence, of all US cities.
There are up to 70,000 people worshipping in 34 mosques in the city alone, leading one local leader to describe Philadelphia as “a Mecca for US Muslims”.
The community is also becoming increasingly politically active, ahead of both Tuesday’s crucial primary vote and the November election itself, with pressure groups holding workshops about the primary systems in a bid to educate the community and mosques holding voter registration drives.
Iftekar Hussain, chairman of the Council on Islamic American Relations in Pennsylvania, says the primary marks a watershed for many Muslim-Americans as they will be participating in far larger numbers.
“One of the main things I’ve seen with Pennsylvania Muslims is that four or eight years ago I’d I talked to Muslims about the primaries they had no idea – they thought it was the November elections and that was it,” he says.
“This time I’ve seen lots of Muslim participation and you will see it in the primaries which is something you didn’t have before, and this has come through a learning process in the Muslim community.”
This increase in political awareness is paying enormous political dividends for Obama’s campaign.
Salima Abdullah, a secretary at the Foundation for Islamic Education, an Islamic school for children on the outskirts of Philadelphia, has spent the past few weeks working for the Obama campaign – hosting fundraisers, canvassing voters and signing up new ones.
She says she is convinced he is the candidate to set the country in the right direction.
“He stands for change and he has a new perspective … he gives hope. You feel the energy and you feel charged,” she says.
“As a Muslim I feel he’ll be the best candidate to negotiate peace with Arab countries, men respect men more as he would be on better ground … with Muslims abroad.”
In fact such is the enthusiasm among many voters that some have even changed life-long political allegiances.
The al-Aqsa Islamic Society in Philadelphia is a large mosque which also houses a school where children in the playground shoot hoops in the basketball court before heading off for afternoon prayers.
Amin Elarbi, the president of the society, says he switched from the Republican party only a month ago – along with three family members – to vote for Obama.
“Both Clinton and Obama … value the human rights and the civil rights of the people and this is very important to us, we understand our country is involved in a war and our kids are dying for something that was misplanned,” he says.
“That said, I will vote for Obama, but if Ms Clinton was the candidate I would vote for her, too.”
With the economy, the Iraq war and social issues such as healthcare leading concerns of many Muslim-Americans the community is also leaning towards Obama because its demographic is mainly comprised of African-Americans – an overwhelmingly Democratic voting bloc.
However Philadelphia’s Muslim community is far from homogenous – its predominantly African-American members have been in the city for generations – it also has sizeable populations of South Asian, Arab and African descent, sometimes referred to as the “immigrant Muslim” population.
The community has also, in terms of voter allegiance, weathered a potentially damaging split following the controversial 2000 US election which brought Bush into the White House.
In 2000, the city’s immigrant Muslim community voted for Bush, mainly for his socially conservative values which aligned favourably with those of Arab-Americans, however this, Hussain says “rubbed off very badly” with the city’s African-American population.
“It created a series of very tense conversations in the city and there was a sharp divide, but then 9/11 happens and Bush occurs and there was this ‘I told you so’; from the African community, and the immigrant community switched and went Democratic and has been so ever since,” he says.
Now, however, both sides appear to be favouring Obama – himself an African-American and son of a Muslim, although not, as some have attempted to insinuate, a Muslim himself – the frontrunner.
In discussions with members of the United Muslim Masjid in south Philadelphia, a predominantly African-American mosque which serves around 150 families and runs local schools and businesses, the names Hillary Clinton and John McCain are not even mentioned, aside from in negative references to their stances, or previous votes, on the Iraq war.
Awareness of the election is at an all time high, while many community members, they say, have given money to political candidates for the first time, or have switched from independent voters to Democrat just to cast their vote.
Talk is consistently of Obama, and how much – or how little – he will change the existing political system, although the tone is cautious, particularly on his attitudes towards Muslim-Americans.
“As for domestic foreign policy well I know he’s not coming to a masjid [mosque] anyday soon [and] he’s not had any alliances with any national [Muslim] figures,” says Qasim Rashad, president of the UMM.
Rashad says that, while the support amongst Muslim-Americans is there, whether Obama can win is entirely different matter, as while the Illinois senator will probably “landslide” the state’s cities on Tuesday, the state’s more conservative rural regions will be another matter.
“But I think overall Muslims have hope and Muslims and African-Americans are going to vote for Obama based on the whole campaign strategy of hope, that this guy will be a change for the better. After all it can’t get any worse,” he says.
His colleague, Abdul Rahim, director of operations for UMM, agrees.
“I don’t think anybody’s looking for anyone doing anything special for Muslims, just do what you’re doing for the whole county and we’ll benefit.
“No-ones saying look out for us in particular, not even as African-Americans, just as men and women. We deserve part of the American dream, whatever that is.”