Muslims Strive for Tolerance -- and Votes

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Mukit Hossain has been up since 5 a.m., crisscrossing Northern Virginia in his tiny 10-year-old pickup truck to help turn out the Muslim vote in a presidential campaign that has left many Muslims feeling marginalized. He has stopped five times to pray in the truck, which is covered with political bumper stickers. One says "We Need Syeed" -- Afeefa Syeed, a candidate for Loudoun County supervisor -- and he thinks that may be one reason a state trooper stopped him last week and asked all kinds of personal questions before giving him tickets for a cracked windshield and not wearing his seat belt.

As he heads up Interstate 395, Hossain says his best investment last year was the GPS device that tells him how to get where he's going. The only advice the voice does not give is where to go to escape the suspicion many Muslims encounter -- suspicion that follows a man to his job and his children to their schools, lives with his family on their street, hangs over him as he tries to participate in a democratic society.

The sun is high and the air cold when he pulls into the Muslim American Society Center in Alexandria to meet with Ibrahim Ramey, director of its civil rights division. Ramey, a Virginia native who converted to Islam, sees an anti-Muslim sentiment running through the campaign season.

Republicans spread a false rumor that Barack Obama, whose middle name is Hussein and whose paternal grandfather was Muslim, is secretly a Muslim himself; Obama, a church-going Christian, denied it, and many said he did not go far enough in denouncing the racism behind the claim. At a rally, John McCain corrected a supporter, saying Obama is not an Arab but a family man.

"There is a subtext of extreme distrust that filters in the mainstream," Ramey says, "that Muslims are not patriotic. That Muslims are unworthy of trust. The comments generally tend to underscore an element of deep racism and xenophobia in the political establishment. Sometimes, it's spoken openly. Sometimes, it is spoken in code."

"The rhetoric of anti-Muslim sentiment has become more acceptable in public gatherings and in the right-wing media," Hossain says. "It has made Muslims very, very concerned that there is a rekindling of the post 9/11 paranoia," when many Muslims were detained for questioning simply for being Muslim and many more feared being attacked in the streets.

So Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant who laughs when he tells you he has just bought a farm in rural Virginia "where the real Americans live," organizes. The 48-year-old dictates news releases. He distributes get-out-the-vote literature. He gives speeches at mosques. He calls taxi drivers, promising monetary help for those who take time Tuesday to get people to the polls.

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"Many of the Muslims who came to this country came from countries where voting was a dangerous and dirty thing to do," Hossain says. "We have to convince them that voting is not only safe and clean, but it is a civic responsibility."

In the center parking lot, he hands Obama volunteer David Kirshbaum, 53, a stack of yellow cards printed with a mild endorsement of the candidate by the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee: "Muslim Americans were upset that Senator Obama, when called a Muslim by fear and hate mongering bigots, failed to make a principled stand . . . by not asking what's wrong in being a Muslim anyway while he asserted his own faith. However . . . now that has become a target of racial slurs and pejorative epithets, it is incumbent on us to make the same principled stand we had asked of him. We must challenge the politics of bigotry and divisiveness."

It took Colin Powell, a Republican, to break the tension.

"Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" Powell said last month on "Meet the Press." "The answer's 'no.' Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, 'He's a Muslim, and he might be associated with terrorists.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America."

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