American Muslim Democrats talk challenges, celebrate progress

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Harpreet Sandhu, a Sikh from the Bay Area, had just left a breakfast for California’s delegates at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday when several Muslims there for a meeting greeted him and clasped his hands.

They sympathized with Sandhu, a 53-year-old U.S. Postal Service employee, for the Aug. 5 attack by a white supremacist at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., that killed six worshipers. Sandhu said it reminded him of the killing of a Sikh who was mistaken for a Muslim three days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Sandhu said the violence made him think of the false attacks on President Obama by those who insist, despite all proof to the contrary, that he was born in another country and that he is Muslim. Some polls, including by the Pew Research Center, indicate almost 20% of Americans believe the Hawaii-born, church-going Obama is a Muslim.

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“That hatred I’m seeing from some of the people who talk about President Obama, who say he’s a foreigner and a Muslim -- these people are not ignorant,” Sandhu said. “They’re just hateful.”

About 100 Muslims are attending this week’s convention, part of the American Muslim Democratic Caucus, apparently the largest Muslim delegation ever to attend a major U.S. party political convention. That’s up from about seven Muslim delegates at the Democratic convention in 2000, and more than 50 four years ago.

Aftab Siddiqui, 58, a delegate from Arlington, Texas, said the increase reflected greater political engagement by Muslims.

The Sept. 11 attacks “really changed the perspective and we had a realization as a community that we don’t have the luxury of waiting for the next generation,” he said. “We need to step up to the plate and fight for our rights, otherwise our children will continue to have problems.”

Siddiqui said of course Obama is not a Muslim, but if he was: “So what?”

At the caucus meeting Thursday, Rep. Keith Ellison, (D-Minn.), one of two Muslims in the House, said the suspicion and hostility Muslims sometimes face reflects a prejudice that other religious minorities, including Jews and Catholics, have battled in the past. The Mormon church has also been vilified at times, but now a Mormon, Mitt Romney, is the Republican nominee for president.

“We’re not voting for him, but we’re proud that America would do that,” Ellison said to laughs.

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He also reminded the audience that in some predominantly Muslim countries, some people are prevented from worshiping as they wish. So whatever travails Muslims face in American should be weighed against the freedoms guaranteed by law.

“None of these things shake our faith in this great country,” he said.

Scott C. Alexander, an associate professor of Islamic Studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said both the extreme right and left are prone to conspiracy theories and intemperate accusations. Some of the thousands of protesters who descended on Charlotte this week, for example, hoisted signs and used bullhorns to accuse Obama of being a foreigner, and not Christian.

Alexander said the persistent, pejorative insinuation or outright claim that Obama is Muslim speaks to a broader phenomenon with echoes of the past.


“I think Muslims and certain folks in the U.S. are the post-Cold War era ‘other,’” he said. “The ‘other’ that we need to fear.… (Obama) can produce a birth certificate and it’s not good enough.”

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