Breach of Faith

At the Muslim Al-Noor school in Brooklyn, New York, all girls wear the hijab. Heads covered with white cloth scarves fill the classrooms, and long blue or green robes hide any Western-style clothing worn underneath. A few are modest beyond what's mandatory, wearing chador-style coverings that expose only the eyes, but the robes and headscarves do little to suppress the very New York accents that bubble through the halls as the girls giggle and talk about school and sports and friends.

Before the election, 20 journalists were invited to Al-Noor to hear students and administrators reflect on living as practicing Muslims in America. The principal, Nidal Abuasi, told the group that the school's teen-pregnancy rate is between 1 percent and 2 percent -- all among girls who marry before they graduate. Otherwise it is zero.

A few years ago, such a conservative religious institution would not have interested Democrats. Much has changed. In 2000, 31 percent of America's 6 million Muslims voted for Al Gore; in 2004, more than three-quarters voted for John Kerry. What has shifted is not the community but the way its members perceive their interests: Before September 11, natural conservatism pulled them toward the Republicans; after the attacks and the Bush administration responses, domestically and abroad, American Muslims saw themselves oppressed by the very conservatism that had once appealed to them.

“There was a lot of talk in this election about values,” says Ingrid Mattson, director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and vice president of the Islamic Society of North America. Pointing out that American Muslims are generally thought to be conservative on abortion and gay rights, she says this time around these voters were asking themselves, “Is it better to be in an alliance that, say, includes activists for gay rights, or to be [in] an alliance with, say, Christians who support putting more religion in the classroom or faith-based initiatives? … [A] few years ago, they thought [the latter] was a natural alliance, that those talking about religion embraced pluralism of religions in America. But I think a lot of people realize now that is not necessarily the case, so there has been a shift.”

In late October, Georgetown University's Project MAPS (Muslims in the American Public Square) published a Zogby poll that showed Muslims making dramatic shifts away from the Republican Party. “On morality and religion and family and marriage, [Muslim] opinion is very much conservative,” says Zahid Bukhari, the project's director. “However, on universal health care, welfare, [helping] the inner city … they are very Democratic. So the community is difficult to pigeonhole.” And this time around, Bukhari says, yet another set of values trumped all. “[T]he overarching concern for Muslims,” he says, “[was] domestic: civil liberties, harassment, the banning of Muslim organizations, and fear.”

Fear was evident in the classrooms and at a school assembly, when the girls of Al-Noor School talked about being called “terrorists” after the September 11 attacks. Some revealed that they had transferred to this school to find a haven from schoolyards where a headscarf or a Muslim name was grounds for taunting or physical violence. Adding to the community's anxiety were the PATRIOT Act and Special Registration (required of aliens from 25 countries, 24 of which are predominantly Muslim or Arab), not to mention news from Guantanamo Bay, the war in Iraq, and the human-rights abuses at Abu Ghraib. Nor did it help that neoconservatives, whose enthusiasm for invading Iraq, Iran, and other Muslim countries is well-known, dominated the administration's foreign policy.

Plus, post–9-11, American public opinion had taken on an anti-Muslim tilt. A new study from Cornell University published in mid-December found that 44 percent of Americans believe civil liberties for Muslims should be cut back in some way; 27 percent, meanwhile, feel that all Muslims should be required to register with the federal government, and a similar percentage support federal surveillance of all mosques.

All these elements helped flip the Muslim vote from 42 percent for Bush in 2000 -- and higher when you break out the more traditionally Democratic African-American Muslims from the pack -- to between 72 percent and 90 percent for Kerry. “I did not vote for Gore, but not for Bush either,” says Maysoon Zayid a Muslim Palestinian-American comic who lives in New Jersey, of the 2000 election. “But in this election I was a staunch Kerry supporter.” Zayid, who as part of her stand-up routine thanks the Justice Department for assembling eligible Arab men in one place, says she was upset and “hysterical” the night of the election. A second Bush Junior administration, she says, is a “very frightening prospect for Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.”

For the moment, Muslims are seeing the Republicans as the party for white Christians, liberal only with civil-liberties violations. The Cornell study of American attitudes toward Muslims, civil liberties, and Islam found that religious Christian voters support restricting the freedom of American Muslims even more than the general population. Does it make sense “[f]or Muslims to support a party predominantly controlled by the evangelical Christian right or by neocons?” asks Mukit Hossain, founder of the Muslim American Political Action Committee, a national Muslim group that endorsed Kerry. “[T]here is nothing for Muslims there now.” He is seconded by the Council of American Islamic Relations' Mohammed Nimer, author of The North American Muslim Resource Guide, who says, “With so much anti-Muslim expression and rhetoric in conservative ranks, it would be hard to see how any sizeable Muslim constituency can comfortably identify itself as Republican.”

But while Muslims voted as a group in 2004, Democrats can't assume this community will remain firmly their camp. Some, like Jim Zogby at the Arab American Institute, dismiss the appearance of a voting block as a onetime anti-Bush event. And Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, says American Muslims remain fairly disappointed in and uneasy about the Democrats. “Kerry did very, very, very little to embrace the Muslim and Arab American vote,” says Jamal, and “the Muslim community was very upset with this.” It was a weakness the Bush campaign tried to exploit, with last-ditch efforts to meet with Muslims in swing states like Michigan.

It's possible, of course, that once the political climate changes, American Muslim voters will find themselves once again allied with political conservatives. Or, when the anti-Bush spirit dissipates, they may simply decide that neither party represents them and focus on community rather than national politics. “In 2004 you did see Muslims really turn out in huge numbers,” says Jamal. “But [eventually] they may opt not to participate at all.”

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.