Muslim American Voters and the Re-Election of Barack Obama

Nearly a year after Barack Obama’s re-election, the hate crime against Columbia University professor Prabhjot Singh reminded Muslims and South Asians that Islamophobia is hardly a thing of the past. Furthermore, debates over military intervention in Syria and ongoing drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen serve as constant reminders to many Muslims that Obama’s presidency has been, at best, a symbolic gesture toward improving relations between the US and Muslims worldwide. My time in the field studying what I call IRO’s (Islamic representative organizations) coincided with the year prior to the 2012 election. The presidency proved to be a pressing concern to IRO members.

In 2000, the American-Muslim Political Coordination Committee had endorsed George W Bush for the presidency. The attempt to unify Muslim voters into a bloc was largely successful: Bush received over 70% of the Muslim vote in the 2000 election.

By the time I began fieldwork, tides had turned. There was palpable regret at handing the Muslim vote to Bush, who was blamed for the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act and the initiation of warfare in the Muslim world. I heard from several long-time Republican Muslims that the Bush presidency was enough to encourage them to switch party affiliations. Obama energized many Muslim voters, receiving nearly 89% of the Muslim vote in 2008. Shortly after his election, Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Muslim world cemented the sense that this president was prioritizing positive US-Muslim relations.

Yet a sense of déjà vu would soon wash over Muslims as the era of Islamophobia continued uninterrupted under Obama. I had just begun fieldwork when Obama signed the US Patriot Act Extension, allowing continuation of what was seen by many as an unwarranted and unconstitutional tool of surveillance and criminalization. Obama also defaulted on the promise to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and many felt he distanced himself from issues of import to his Muslim supporters.

While statistically, Muslims supported Obama in 2012 (indeed, he did once again secure most of the Muslim vote), my fieldwork reveals a deep ambivalence about Obama specifically and the election in general. IRO members felt trapped in their options for political engagement. Some reacted with outrage and disappointment in Obama’s complicity in Islamophobia, while others were optimistic that, with time and Muslim support, his politics would shift. The vast majority were caught between harsh condemnation and unreserved optimism.

Yet, in spite of this ambivalence, there remained a sense that voting was a way for U.S. Muslims to exercise an important civic duty. At an IRO event, I was told, “this isn’t about Democrats or Republicans, George Bush or Peter King. It’s about being active Americans.”  Another IRO member told me, “It’s not so much about who we vote for. It’s about becoming true citizens. I’m visibly Muslim. I have a beard, and my wife wears a hijab. When people see us at the polling place, they’re going to know that we’re here, we’re invested in this nation.” In other words, voting, influencing elected officials, and being a visible force in US politics illuminates the project of what I call positive hypervisibility. This is part of a larger strategy of Islamophilia, a type of representational politics that positions certain Muslims as ideal U.S. citizens, implicitly in contrast to the image of the anti-American terrorist.

Yet while voting was understood as a way for Muslims to achieve full cultural citizenship, it was accompanied by frustration about transformative politics. “I’m kind of ashamed to say this at a gathering like this one. But I’m not sure I’m even going to vote for Obama. He’s basically a kinder, gentler version of so many things the Bush Administration stood for. Especially when it comes to foreign policy in the Muslim world. I know, it’s bad. I’m not supposed to say that. We’re all supposed to be on the Obama bandwagon here. But…” Sumaiya trailed off, and shrugged. She was not the only one to express such ambivalence.

Much of the official messaging emanating from IRO’s reflects optimism in the political process, yet this was a sentiment I rarely encountered in the field. Upon the assassination of Osama bin Laden, for instance, IRO’s issued press releases enthusiastically thanking President Obama for bringing bin Laden to justice. Yet one interview after another at IRO events in the months that followed revealed that members did not applaud the assassination. In fact, while all those I spoke to rejected the acts of terror for which bin Laden claimed responsibility, many were anxious about the extrajudicial killing fanning flames of anti-American sentiment.

The election followed the same logic: officially, IRO’s expressed faith in the political system and encouraged members to vote. Yet my fieldwork revealed the sentiment that voting politics were unlikely to catalyze change in a system that was largely ‘fixed.’ I argue that the disconnect between this “off-the-record” sentiment, alongside the official messaging of IRO’s, illuminates a key feature of the U.S. as imperial homeland. While Muslim Americans are relatively free to form these organizations, there is a sense among members that their politically transformative potential is limited. Members articulate the ‘impossibility’ of certain discourse and action, an impossibility which is emblematic of living at the heart of empire. In this new imperial formation, a multicultural citizenry is in fact touted as justification for U.S. empire while geopolitical critique is stifled.

This sense of political impotence is constitutive of Muslims’ experiences since 9/11. Given the poles of bigoted Islamophobia and multicultural inclusion, many see their options for expression and activism constrained by the good Muslim/bad Muslim binary. Opposition to U.S. foreign policy and militarism would fly in the face of liberal discourse that frames American Muslims as patriotic and politically moderate. Can IRO’s engage politically without silencing members’ stances on foreign policy, terrorism, or the military industrial complex? I argue that this tension is at the heart of representational politics in the new imperial homeland.

Maggie Dickinson is the SANA contributing editor. 

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