By Sabrina Siddiqui
WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama travels across the country to raise funds and court voters, one group that was drawn to his candidacy four years ago has expressed a feeling of being further and further marginalized.
Muslim Americans could play a critical role in several battleground states come November. But while they supported Obama overwhelmingly in 2008, their votes are hardly guaranteed this go around.
Early in the Obama administration there was little reason for complaint. The president openly criticized the Bush administration’s policies of torture, signing of the Patriot Act and excessive surveillance of Muslims, and vowed to shut down Guantanamo Bay within a year. In a 2009 address in Cairo, Obama marked “a new beginning” for the United States, one in which the war on terror would no longer be synonymous with its marginalizing approach to Muslims.
But many of the promises have been left unmet. Nearly four years later, Guantanamo remains open, and just last year the president signed into law a four-year renewal of some of the Patriot Act’s most controversial provisions. And in some instances, administration policy has alienated the Muslim-American community. The continued drone strikes in Pakistan and revelations about Obama’s secret “kill list” of terrorist targets are among the list of policies that have caused some Muslims to re-think whether they will vote for Obama again this fall.
“This year there are many issues that are of great concern, looking at the last four years of President Obama, especially concerning civil rights,” said Naeem Baig, chairman of the American Muslim Taskforce, a coalition representing 13 of the country’s largest Muslim organizations.
“A good number of people are asking, why should we support the president when he did not deliver on many of the promises he made?”
The AMT endorsed Obama in 2008 but has not yet made an endorsement this cycle. Baig says it would be premature to leave any options off the table. “There’s a very strong voice asking about a possible third-party candidate,” he said.
A significant number of the nation’s 2.75 million Muslims live in key swing states, such as Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Virginia. And while younger Muslims rallied around Obama in 2008 and mostly identify themselves as Democratic, the older generation represents a socially and fiscally conservative group that can be swayed in either direction. In 1992, they voted two to one for George H. W. Bush and, although they gave Bill Clinton the same margin in 1996, they were drawn back to the Republican party by George W. Bush in 2000.
One of the last polling of Muslims, conducted almost a year ago by Pew, showed a 76 percent approval of Obama’s job performance. But many of the Muslim community’s grievances have emerged since then, including the issues of drone strikes in Pakistan, the president’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act — despite its funding of programs that the community considers anti-Muslim — and surveillance of Islamic centers and students by the FBI and NYPD.
The Obama campaign was not available for comment.
Groups such as the Arlington Young Democrats Muslim Caucus in Virginia, who are mobilizing a grassroots effort to encourage Muslims to turn out and vote this cycle, are finding it harder to make the case for Obama.
“In terms of pushback, we’ve talked to a lot of people who said they wouldn’t necessarily vote for Mitt Romney, but when it comes to pledging their support for Obama they are still undecided,” said Ahmad Ishaq, one of the group’s founders and co-chairs.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim to serve in Congress, argues that Muslims shouldn’t be on the fence. “The Muslim community doesn’t have a real choice in this election, because Romney is awful and completely stands in opposition to the interests of the Muslim American community,” Ellison said. “If there’s anything about Obama you don’t like, triple it when it comes to Romney.”
Muslims can find some solace in the end of the war in Iraq and the administration’s openness to dialogue with their community leaders. According to a New York Times report, top White House aides have had policy discussions with Muslim and Arab-American advocates on topics such as foreign policy, the economy, immigration and national security. Many Muslims also held a favorable view of the president’s swift action on Libya and welcomed his initial support for the building of a community center near Ground Zero in 2010.
Still, Ellison acknowledged that Obama has disappointed Muslims, pointing to “legitimate issues” worth raising about the drone program and the inaction over NYPD surveillance.
“We have every right as Americans to get answers to these questions,” he said. “We can raise a range of things and we will, of course. But let’s raise these issues with an administration we have some chance of persuading — not an administration who just doesn’t want to hear it.”
Haris Tarin, director of the Washington office for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public service agency, said Muslim Americans, like many other communities, projected a lot of expectations on Obama in 2008, calling some of them “unfair.”
“I think the Muslim American community is willing to give the president another chance,” Tarin said. “They understand that it’s been a very polarizing four years.”
To combat apathy among its contingency, MPAC is pushing a national campaign to ensure that Muslims are civilly and electorally engaged this cycle.
However, Baig, the American Muslim Taskforce chairman, is not so quick to dismiss the presumptive Republican presidential candidate. Baig highlighted the contrast between Romney and his former opponents, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Herman Cain, with regard to rhetoric around the Muslim community during the GOP primaries.
“He took on a much lighter tone in the debates and made it clear that people of all faiths are welcome in this country,” Baig said. “Coming from a religious minority himself, Romney could open up and meet with Muslims to try and undo some of his party’s damage in isolating, even shunning, the community.”
Erin Mershon contributed to this report.