Since coming to America as a 2-year-old, Animar Daghestani was content to let others make decisions about how to run his new country. But when the United States invaded Iraq, the 29-year-old school teacher did something he never did before: He registered to vote.
Daghestani also plunged into politics himself this year, nearly winning a seat as a county committeeman and vowing to try again next time.
"A lot of Muslims are starting to get political because of Iraq and what's going on overseas," he said. "They're starting to wake up and realize we need to get another president in here and stop the war."
As the third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks approaches, Muslims and Arab-Americans in New Jersey and across the country are becoming more politically involved. They are running for office, raising money for their favored candidates, forming political action committees and registering to vote.
"This is the silver lining to Sept. 11, the Patriot Act and the mass detentions," said Aref Assaf, a Palestinian activist from Denville. "It has pushed us to be proactive and take a stand, to be part of the political process. Now they're realizing that America's politics is about numbers: dollars you donate to your favorite candidates, or votes you can generate for them."
Most foreign-born Muslims traditionally focused on events in their homeland, even decades after settling in America.
"But after Sept. 11, everyone learned that civil rights and domestic policies are just as important," said Ghassan Shabaneh, who teaches political science at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. "From that moment on, they saw it."
More than 1,200 men, mainly Arab and south Asian Muslims, were taken into custody by the government as part of the investigation into the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Virtually all were held on immigration charges, typically for overstaying a student or tourist visa, and only a handful were charged with serious crimes.
Coupled with a wave of bias attacks against Arabs - or those perceived to be Arabs - the detentions caused many Muslims to lay low.
In 2002, still reeling from the aftermath of the terror attacks, only 30 Muslims ran for local or state offices in the United States, and only 10 were elected, said Agha Saeed, founder of the American Muslim Alliance and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who tracks Muslim political involvement.
That contrasted with the 700 Muslims who ran and 153 who were elected in 2000, Saeed said.
This fall, Saeed expects close to 100 Muslim candidates to seek office.
One of them was Michael Berry, a loan officer for BankOne in Dearborn, Mich, who sought a seat in the state legislature in his first run for office. The Democrat placed second in a field of 13 candidates.
"You want to be able to get into mainstream America and show we're just as red, white and blue as anyone else," he said. "We're all proud of our heritage and where our parents and grandparents came from. My parents came from Lebanon at a young age, and I was born here. This is home for us."
In New Jersey, Mohamed Khairullah is seeking re-election to the borough council in Prospect Park, a community near Paterson that has its own sizable Arab-American enclave. Elected just two months after the 2001 attacks, the Syrian native and former Saudi resident wants more Muslims to follow his path.
"After Sept. 11, we realized we had to get involved in the political system to get the harassment that had been put on us off our shoulders," he said over plates of marinated shish kebabs, hot peppers and steaming rice at a Paterson restaurant. "We couldn't get it off us unless we got involved. There were people who didn't know us and didn't understand us that were deciding what we can and can't do. If we want our voices to be heard, we have to be part of the organizations that make the decisions."
That effort has to start with small steps, he said.
"We have to do the little things: Write letters to the editor, run for the board of education, run for council, join political clubs and slowly climb the ladder," he said.
Money is huge part of the equation. Assaf, the Palestinian activist, held a fund-raiser at his Morris County home for Khairullah, collecting $10,000. Most striking was the attendance of many non-Muslim politicians and office holders.
Sherine El-Abd is on the New Jersey steering committee of President Bush's campaign. A few months ago, she founded the Egyptian-American Political Action Committee, and hopes to raise enough money for the president's campaign to qualify as either a Pioneer ($100,000) or a Ranger ($200,000). Surrounded by more than 20 ceramic or plastic elephants in the living room of her Edison home, the event planner (and former campaign worker for Democrat Walter Mondale) said Egyptians like herself have been politically active, but only as individuals.
"The only way we can effect change is to be part of the political process," she said.
Ibrahim Mohamed, the imam of a Seattle mosque, said the nation's Muslim population - estimated at between 1.2 million to as many as 6 or 7 million - could make it a political force.
"Their civil rights needs are not going to be addressed if they are a non-player in the political process," he said. "We need all elected officials to realize the sheer number of Arabs and Muslims in this country that pay taxes and are involved in the economy but whose voices are not being heard and whose needs are not being met. We need to understand and make it clear we are as American as anyone else."
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