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Program seeks to mobilize Muslims politically

BURTONSVILLE — BURTONSVILLE - In the nearly quarter-century since Zainab Husain came to the United States, voting never seemed to matter. Born in India, Husain raised a family in Perry Hall, worked as a medical lab technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital and never registered to vote.

"Now, things have changed," said Husain, 46, as she filled out a voter registration form yesterday at a Montgomery County mosque. "I think every vote counts."

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Husain joined hundreds of other Muslims yesterday at the Idara-e-Jaferia Islamic Center in Burtonsville for a daylong "Current Awareness" program to mobilize Muslim political participation in post-9/11 America. In addition to the voter drive, the program included seminars on building relationships with non-Muslims, improving the image of Muslims in the news media and balancing Islamic faith with American identity.

By day's end, organizers said they had registered 275 voters.

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Yesterday's event is part of a growing effort around the country to build a Muslim voting bloc, which many Muslims hope might help unseat President Bush. Worried by what they see as attacks on their civil liberties under the Bush administration, Muslims are trying to build political consciousness.

As the election season approaches, the Arab American Institute plans voter drives and rallies in Iowa before the Jan. 19 caucus and in Michigan before its Feb. 7 primary. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is coordinating a nationwide voter drive at mosques in early February.

Among yesterday's speakers was John L. Esposito, a Georgetown University professor and one of the nation's leading Islamic scholars. Esposito pressed his audience to become more educated about its faith, reach out to neighbors, set a good example in the workplace and resist those who preach isolationism.

"You know there are mosques and Islamic centers that are very isolated," said Esposito, whose stature allowed him to speak candidly.

Esposito also criticized what he called the "Muslim couch potato," who sits around complaining about the U.S. invasion of Iraq or negative portrayals of Muslims in the news media, but never donates money to a political cause or lifts a pen to write a letter of complaint.

"You're a loser as an American," Esposito said, drawing laughs from the crowd, which was segregated by sex: women, in hijab - or head scarves - on the left, men on the right.

"And," Esposito added, "God and I make this judgment: You aren't a very good Muslim."

Esposito's message seemed to resonate, especially with young people such as Sajjad Husain, who stepped outside in the subfreezing air to correctly fold an American flag he had found rumpled in the office of the Islamic Center. Husain - an aerospace engineering student at the University of Maryland, College Park - said he tries to live as an example of Islam and know his faith intimately so he can explain it to friends.

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"I'm going to be a good student, have integrity, honor. That's how people get to know me," said Husain, 19, who manned the voter registration table. "Then I can teach them about my faith."

In another seminar, "Political Awareness," Sohail Husain - no relation - provided tips on how to pressure reporters into presenting what he called a more accurate and more positive image of Muslims.

"What is the most powerful weapon of mass destruction?" asked Husain, a 27-year-old physician visiting from London. "The media!"

Among the seminar's materials were form letters criticizing and praising newspaper coverage related to Islam. One began like this:

"Dear Editor (his/her name),

After reading (newspaper's name) on (date), I came across the following (name of article and its author). I find it hard to believe that an editor could allow such ... racist and sectarian remarks to be made in a newspaper in these times."

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A tip sheet encouraged writers to focus on one or two instances of "bias" in an article and said that "mentioning that you are part of an organized campaign may lessen the impact of your letter."

The United States has a long tradition of political organizing among immigrant groups, most prominently Irish and Italians. Because of their relatively recent arrival and relatively small numbers, Muslims are still in the early stages.

Muslims began arriving in the United States in significant numbers after the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which removed strict immigration quotas. Most Muslims spent the next couple of decades focusing on family life and building community infrastructure - including mosques, schools and social service organizations - said Mohamed Nimer, research director at CAIR.

CAIR, the Washington-based civil rights and advocacy group, estimates that there are 6 million to 7 million Muslims in the United States though other surveys have put the number as low as 1.1 million.

Many Muslims were jolted into political consciousness in 1995 with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Suspicion fell on Middle Easterners until authorities arrested a pair of Americans.

"People felt, 'Look, we're easy prey," Nimer said in a phone interview last week. "Anybody can say anything about us, and we can easily fall through the cracks of any political crisis."

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The fallout from 9/11 has exacerbated fears stirred in 1995. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the work of 19 Muslims, thousands of Arabs and Muslims were registered and detained in the United States.

For Azmat Husain, one of organizers of yesterday's program, the moment of political consciousness came in spring 2002. Some schoolmates at Long Reach High School in Columbia left a note in his Ford Taurus telling him, "Don't bomb us" and "Go back to your country."

Husain, who was born in the United States and is now a biology major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, learned of similar offenses in Howard County. He starting spending more time at the Islamic Center, became head of its youth group and began working on Muslim political education.

"We've always taken voting for granted," said Husain a 19-year-old. "But now we see it affects us and our brothers and sisters around the world. We need to get our voice out."


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