Democratic Muslims Unite for Kerry

As a nationwide political force, American Muslims may not yet be huge, but in population they are — and Democratic Muslims Tuesday heralded their 40 delegates to the Democratic National Convention as their biggest contingent yet.

"Muslims need to be involved in politics," said Zafar Tahir, 42, a Pakistani-born American who calls himself an "American first. An American leader who happens to be Muslim." Tahir is one of seven Muslim delegates from Texas at the convention this year to throw support to John Kerry (search ). He said he has a strong message to other Muslim-Americans and new immigrants to this country.

"Learn the system, learn the process — be a part of the process here," he said. Then, pointing to his suit lapel, where he had a pin memorializing the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he added, "What happened on 9/11 was very important. I think Muslims should be as patriotic as anybody."

According to some experts, more than 3 million of the nation's 6 to 8 million-strong Muslim population voted in the 2000 presidential election. Analysts say that a strong majority voted for George W. Bush (search) after an aggressive push by Republicans to get American Muslims behind a unified voting bloc.

But not every Muslim agrees that's how it went down. "I challenge that. I was a Democrat then and I am a Democrat now," Tahir said.

Gathering at the Islamic Society of Boston (search) in Cambridge on Tuesday, Muslim delegates and local leaders said the Democratic Party offers more to Muslims, particularly recent immigrants. They cite the prospect of equal treatment and justice.

"The Republican Party has been a disappointment for them," Zeenat Khan, an American-born woman of Indian background and member of the Massachusetts State Democratic Party, said, referring to the immigrant population. She said many Muslims have been disenchanted by President Bush's foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq.

"They are against the war in Iraq," she said, as well as what they see as discriminatory measures in the USA Patriot Act (search), the legal framework for prosecuting the War on Terror (search).

"It looks like he's become a lot more aggressive than we thought," said Texas delegate Majedah Elazzah, who immigrated to the United States from Jordan 20 years ago. "He's caused more damage than Saddam Hussein himself. The way he handles foreign policy is not healthy."

But not every Democratic Muslim is as critical. "I bring a different perspective," said Tahir, who agrees that the former Iraqi leader had to go, but wants to see more resources focused on Afghanistan (search), where he believes the terrorist threat still seriously exists.

Meanwhile, Texas delegate Inayat Lalani, 65, a retired surgeon from India, said it is the failure of American Muslims that they have not projected a greater sense of empathy and unity with other non-Muslims, particularly after Sept. 11. He also said that aside from their differences, Muslim Americans like himself are coalescing around an anti-war, civil liberties platform.

"We have some really dynamic people; we have a formula to get all the groups together," whether it be Sunnis or Shiites or Muslims from different sects to get on board with the Democratic agenda, said Lalani.

But these delegates freely admit they aren't as unified with their Democratic cohorts on social issues, particularly on gay marriage (search) or abortion (search).

"Personally, I am as far left as I can get, but I don't think I speak for all Muslims on those issues," said Lalani.

Lalani said Republicans have squandered the headway they made with the Muslim community before Sept. 11 when they reached out on civil liberties (search) issues, like the use of secret evidence against Muslim immigrants in federal prosecutions by the Clinton administration. Much of that goodwill was lost, he claimed, after Christian conservatives like Pat Robertson (search), who are close to the Bush administration, made comments calling the Muslim faith violent.

"They get the red carpet treatment at the White House — what are we supposed to make of that?" he said.