Watch CBSN Live

U.S. Muslims Set Political Agenda

National Muslim leaders at their largest convention of the year announced plans to register 1 million Muslim voters and make civil rights a top issue in any endorsement of a presidential candidate.

Upset by government scrutiny of their community in the domestic hunt for terrorists, they are mobilizing to express their anger at the polls.

"A defining moment of Islam in America is approaching," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group based in Washington. "We cannot surrender our future and our destiny to hate in this country."

Agha Saeed, head of the Muslim American Congress, led the crowd in a chant. "I am an American, I am a Muslim and I vote," he said, joined by thousands gathered for the Islamic Society of North America meeting, which ends Monday.

Muslim leaders made their first unified endorsement in a presidential race in 2000, backing George W. Bush. Many thought he would take a harder line against Israel, and, based on statements he made while campaigning, would protect the rights of immigrants facing deportation.

Muslims say they have been bitterly disappointed on both counts.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush won points with American Muslims by visiting a mosque and declaring Islam a peaceful religion.

But since then, the federal government has detained hundreds of immigrants, shut down U.S. Muslim charities suspected of terrorist ties and gained broad new powers to monitor citizens under the USA Patriot Act.

The Bush administration said these moves have been crucial for U.S. security. American Muslims say they are being scapegoated.

A White House spokesman referred questions about the presidential race to the Bush campaign, whose spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment Sunday.

It is unclear what effect Muslims can have in the 2004 elections.

Estimates of the number of U.S. Muslims vary dramatically from 2 million to 6 million. But immigrant Muslims generally are highly educated professionals with the means to make significant campaign donations.

Also, their community has matured dramatically in the last four years.

The assault on Islam that followed the suicide hijackings in New York and Washington compelled Muslims around the country to defend their faith.

National Muslim organizations, including Awad's, reported a dramatic increase in donations and membership. Immigrant Muslims who had taken little interest in U.S. government began inviting their mayors, governors and even FBI agents into local mosques to learn about the community.

Muslims see the recent fight over Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes as another sign of their political progress.

President Bush nominated Pipes, an outspoken critic of militant Islam, to a federally funded think tank called the U.S. Institute for Peace, angering Muslims who consider him a bigot - a claim Pipes denies.

After an intensive Muslim-led campaign to block the nomination, President Bush appointed Pipes in recess on Aug. 22, bypassing the Senate approval process where his confirmation was in jeopardy. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was among the lawmakers who opposed the nominee.

"For the first time, someone on Capitol Hill was advocating our issues," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council based in Los Angeles.

On Sunday, one of the Islamic Society's partners, black Muslim leader Imam W. Deen Mohammed, announced his resignation from the American Society of Muslims but pledged to continue working on Muslim issues. His organization represents American black Muslims, while the Islamic Society was founded by immigrant Muslims.

By focusing on civil rights in 2004, Muslim leaders acknowledge they could end up endorsing a candidate who would disagree with them on foreign policy, particularly on backing the Israeli government over the Palestinians.

Until recently, the plight of the Palestinians dominated political discussion among American Muslims. But Muslim leaders say they must now be pragmatic as they seek greater influence in government. They are pledging to broaden their alliances by working to improve education, fight crime and protect the environment.

Said Awad: "We are not a one-issue community."

By Rachel Zoll

View CBS News In