By Michael Conlon
Friday, October 27, 2006; 8:23 AM
CHICAGO (Reuters) - At less than 3 percent of America's 300 million residents, Muslims are still on the fringe of political influence and power, experts say. But that may be changing.
A voter registration and get-out-the-vote drive is under way in the Muslim community before the November 7 mid-term election. And it comes at a time when their interest in politics may have been sharpened to a new edge by the expected election of the first Muslim to the U.S. Congress.
That will likely come in a heavily Democratic Minneapolis district for 43-year-old Keith Ellison, a native-born convert to Islam who would also be the first black member of Congress from Minnesota.
His candidacy "is being followed very closely in the Muslim community throughout the country," said one activist in Chicago, where more than 1,000 new Muslim-American voters have been registered in recent weeks.
Ellison's likely election would carry "a great symbolic meaning" but future political gains will be one step at a time, cautioned Louise Cainkar, research fellow at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
"Muslim-Americans are emerging as a voice to be recognized in American society," she said. "I don't think they have power yet. You must first acknowledge you have a right to be part of the discourse. They are working on that now and to some degree they have attained that."
"But there are a lot of people who don't want that voice to emerge," she said, a common theme in American history where Irish, Jews and other newcomers were repeatedly treated with suspicion and discrimination by those already established.
Cainkar said experts believe there are 6 million to 8 million Muslims in America. While the total is a small percentage, they tend to live in urban pockets where concentration can lead to political punch.
Ellison's primary victory, tantamount to election in his district, came with heavy support from Somali immigrants living there.
Nationally about 2 million Muslims are registered voters -- including 30,000 added to the rolls in recent weeks, according to Mukit Hossain, who is heading up a voter registration drive for the Muslim American Society.
'STRONG SENSE OF URGENCY'
This year "there is a great deal of concern and a strong sense of urgency to come out and vote in large numbers," he said. "We are callously eroding civil liberties and dismembering civil rights," while pursuing a foreign policy that targets Muslim countries, he added.
The group, which has set up voter registration booths in mosques across the country, is concentrating on 12 states. A recent poll found that 42 percent of Muslim voters were Democrats compared with 17 percent Republicans, with 28 percent having no party affiliation.
But in terms of public office, Muslims have not gained much of a foothold above the local board level, said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations' Chicago office.
"Ten years ago the biggest challenge to the Muslim community was its own political immaturity or organization and understanding of the political process," he said. But since then Muslims have become engaged around issues.
"The biggest challenge we face today is no longer political maturity but resistance from right-wing groups who see Muslim engagement as problematic. We're already seeing that with the Keith Ellison saga. It's become a question of who he is and his past associations," Rehab said.
Ellison once had ties to Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan but has renounced him.
The chance to flex political muscle, however, is evident among Ellison's supporters.
"He's making history," said Somali immigrant Abdi Kahin, 31, shortly after Ellison won the primary. His election would show "we are a diverse nation that can elect whoever we want."