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Muslims nearly impossible to elect in Bible Belt

Florida Times Union, May 2, 2010

Muslims nearly impossible to elect in Bible Belt
By Jeff Brumley

The smart money says a snowball has a better chance you-know-where than a Muslim has being elected to statewide or national office from Northeast Florida - or anywhere else in the Bible Belt.

If the recent hullabaloo surrounding Parvez Ahmed's appointment to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission didn't confirm that, maybe this does: Observers of Southern politics and religion can't recall a single Muslim candidate running for major office.

"I thought about it, and I couldn't come up with any names," said Ken Wald, a political science professor and expert on religion and politics at the University of Florida.

"Of all the places, the South is the least likely for that to happen," Wald said.
The reason: The region is dominated by evangelical Protestantism, "a religion that has intellectual difficulties with religious diversity."

Not that the rest of the country is welcoming Muslims into public office with open arms.

There are just two Muslims in Congress. The first, from Minnesota, was elected to the House in 2006. The other is from Indiana. Both candidates caused consternation among conservatives nationwide.

"Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies," commentator Glenn Beck asked then Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."
Sadie Fields, executive director of the Georgia Christian Alliance, said similar questions would plague any Muslim running for office in the South.

"The real stumbling block would be the trust factor," she said. "In light of the threats to our national security that occur on a semi-regular basis, I think it would be very difficult for a confessing Muslim to convince Christians to vote for them."
Evangelicals in particular feel that way about Islam, which relegates Jesus to mere prophet status, as well as Mormons, who have added to the Bible with the Book of Mormon.

The latter explains why Mormon Mitt Romney had to repeatedly speak about his faith during his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2008.

"Some Christians are concerned that Mormons describe themselves as Christians," Wald said. "You used to hear the same thing about Catholics from evangelicals, who more or less felt the pope was the Antichrist."

But unlike Catholics, Mormons and Muslims have yet to enjoy the political clout that comes with being the largest single religious group in the nation, Wald added. Both groups typically rank well below other religious groups - but still above atheists - in political polls.

In Florida, a Muslim running for governor would have trouble raising money or getting their message past the accusations of connections to terrorist groups.
"If you had a Muslim who was born and bred in the United States, achieved success personally and had a record as a military hero, that is what it would take to dispel some of the images that are out there," Wald said.

Questions of national loyalty

Mario Piscatella doesn't think it would take that sterling of a resume for a Muslim to win office in Florida or anywhere else in the South.
It's about convincing voters a candidate is best qualified to improve their communities, said the political consultant and veteran Democratic campaign manager from St. Johns County.

"If the candidate got into the race to spread their Islamic faith, that's probably going to be a tough race," Piscatella said. "If it's because roads are in disrepair, then that's what they should be talking about."

One piece of advice he'd give a Muslim candidate is to give up trying to win over evangelicals and others who are convinced all Muslims are terrorists. "Those folks who were against Parvez were never his to get."

That means not trying to emphasize values Muslims share with conservative Christians, like viewing gay marriage, divorce and abortion as immoral.

Stick to the main issues

If questions of national loyalty and terrorism are raised, the candidate should answer them and then move the discussion back to the economy, taxes, roads or whatever a community's main issues are, Piscatella said.

"If you have done those things right, the majority of the people aren't going to pay attention to the fact that you're a Muslim or a Jew or a black guy in a white district," he said. "They want to know what you can do for this country, this community or whatever you are running for."

Issues or not, a Muslim would have almost no chance getting elected in Duval County at the moment, said Marcella Washington, a political scientist at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

"That's not going to fly here in Jacksonville," she said. "The city has always been on the cusp of being extremely conservative when it comes to religion."
Washington is convinced the difficulty Ahmed faced resulted in part from his dark complexion and the fact he isn't American born.

"Any Arab-American can now sympathize with the plight of African-Americans," she said.

Coupled with the belief of some that "every single Muslim is an enemy" because of 9/11, getting elected to the mayor's office or City Council in Duval County "would be an uphill battle," Washington said.

'Going to take time'

Former Jacksonville mayor and state legislator Tommy Hazouri got a little taste of that when running for office in the 1980s and '90s.

Seeing the firestorm that engulfed Ahmed "brought me back to thinking of when I ran for mayor," said Hazouri, a Christian of Lebanese descent.

An opponent claimed an Arab could never win the mayor's office, a fact proven wrong by his 1987-1991 stint in the mayor's office and another 12 years in Tallahassee.
On another occasion, opponents doctored photographs of Hazouri, a current Duval County School Board member, to make him resemble former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"I would have hoped that we would have taken a giant step forward," he said. "I don't think we've come far enough."

"In an evangelical region, like the Bible Belt is, I think it would be very difficult for a confessing Muslim to get elected to office," said Fields of the Christian Alliance.

Such a candidate would at a minimum have to admit that 9/11 and the Fort Hood shootings were terrorist acts and then go a step further by publicly condemning them, Fields said.

The Rev. Larry Lowry of Jacksonville said evangelicals would also have deep concerns about that candidate's intentions, if any, to infuse legislation and government with Muslim values.

Conservative, born-again Christians will also want to know if the candidate "has any ties to any type of terrorist groups, and how do they feel about those kinds of things?" said Lowry, a local pastor and bishop of the Church of God of Prophecy's
Northeast Florida congregations.

One Muslim leader said the ongoing War on Terrorism has helped put all Muslims under a microscope that makes it hard for them to even be appointed to office as the Ahmed case demonstrated.

"Our only exposure in the media has been as terrorists," said Mohammad Ilyas, Southeastern president of the Islamic Circle of North America and a member of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. What's needed are education efforts and interfaith dialogue to chip away at the myth that all Muslims are extremists, he said.

In the near future, Muslim candidates for public office should include that kind of information in their campaigns.

But history, Ilyas said, proves this situation won't last forever. There was a time when Jews and blacks were considered largely unelectable in some parts of the country, but that is no longer the case.

For the time being, Muslims with political ambitions may have to aim low, seeking seats on school boards or city councils.

"It's moving forward," Ilyas said, "but it's going to take time."

jeff.brumley@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4310

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