An article Saturday about registering Muslims to vote incorrectly reported how long Muna Aman has lived in the United States. She has been in this country for nine years and has been a U.S. citizen for two. (Published 09/21/1999)
As Mohamed Hirse left his weekly prayer service yesterday, the 31-year-old network engineer performed his first official duty as a newly minted U.S. citizen: He registered to vote.
Along with dozens of other men and women at the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque near Baileys Crossroads, Hirse stopped at a small table stocked with about 100 Virginia voter registration forms. He picked up a pen and proudly filled in the blanks, taking a step that millions of other Muslims have not.
"Being the first generation here, we have to make sure that America is an inclusive society," said Hirse, who came to the United States in 1979 when he was 11 years old. "We have to protect the rights of Muslims and a lot of foreigners."
Recognizing that, a wide-scale voter-registration drive is underway by the American Muslim Council, a Washington-based group that is attempting to instill a sense of electoral duty in new citizens such as Hirse.
There are an estimated 7 million Muslims in the United States, many from countries where fair elections and free voting are rare, said AMC Executive Director Aly Abuzaakouk. He estimated that fewer than 1 million Muslims are registered to vote in this country.
"When you are voteless, you are weightless," Abuzaakouk said. "It's a matter of education. A lot of them don't realize how important voting is. We are targeting that, by the election 2000, we should have at least 2 million Muslim voters."
The key to that effort is local voter drives.
Abuzaakouk said there are about 200,000 Muslims in the Washington area, half of them in Northern Virginia. There are no data showing how many are registered to vote, but Abuzaakouk said his organization believes that, whatever the number, it is too few.
"It's a matter of not knowing, and ignorance of the importance," he said.
At the Fairfax County mosque yesterday, volunteer Ahmed Saad, a 34-year-old financial adviser from Alexandria, was manning the registration table. Saad said his fellow Muslims need to be taught to recognize the connection between casting their votes and getting results.
As the Friday afternoon prayer sessions ended, sending hundreds of Muslim men streaming out of the mosque's front doors, Saad made his pitch.
"Are you a U.S. citizen?" he yelled into the crowd.
"Have you registered to vote?"
"Sign up here to vote in the election!"
Khalif Hayow, 44, stopped at the table to renew his registration. A citizen since 1986, Hayow recently moved to Vienna and echoed the concerns of many Muslims regarding the county's public schools. He said Muslims have special concerns regarding racism directed at their children by other students at school. The only way to solve those problems is to elect politicians who understand the issues, he said.
"I come from Somalia, where people don't vote," he said. "People don't understand until they are out of this country how important it is. Muslims are here in the millions, but they don't have a voice."
Several women, who left their separate prayer service at the mosque and stopped at another voter table, also emphasized the issue of education. Public schools often teach subjects--such as sex education--that Muslims find especially objectionable. In addition, it is often difficult to persuade teachers and principals to give Muslim students time away from classes to pray and to allow girls to cover their heads.
Muna Aman, who has been in the United States for two years but has not yet voted, picked up a registration form yesterday. Aman takes a pragmatic approach toward voting, making a direct link between supporting a candidate and the stands he or she takes on issues of importance to Muslims.
"One day, when they need us, we're going to be there, voting for them," she said. "If we register, we're going to have a voice."
CAPTION: Abdiaziz Aweis, of Alexandria, registers to vote after prayers at a Falls Church mosque.
CAPTION: Volunteer Ahmed Saad, right, helps Mohamed Hirse register to vote. There are an estimated 7 million Muslims in the United States. Many are new citizens.