Since Gaithersburg software engineer Saqib Ali was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates this month, he has been flooded with calls and e-mails from across the country asking: How'd you do it?
The calls come from American Muslims like Ali, who, longtime political watchers and Muslim activists in the area say, is the first Muslim elected to a statewide -- or districtwide -- office in Maryland, Virginia or the District.
Although the 31-year-old made little of his faith during the campaign -- in fact, he bucked those who said he should put it on his campaign literature -- he is part of a concerted march of Muslims into civic and political life. His campaign was part of a push that began after Sept. 11, 2001, with worries about civil liberties and immigration policy and has blossomed this year.
Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison became the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. In the D.C. area, eight Muslims ran for office in Maryland this year, significantly more than in previous years, although only Ali won. And initial polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest that significantly more Muslims in Virginia registered and voted this month than in previous elections.
According to data gathered by the Muslim American Society and the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee, the number of Virginia Muslims who voted was up 13 percent from 2005. The vast majority of the estimated 51,000 Muslims who cast ballots in Virginia voted for Democrats.
There are no statistics from previous years on Muslim voters in Maryland, but according to a post-election poll done by the Muslim American Society and the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee, there are about 50,000 Muslim voters in Maryland, three-quarters of whom voted Nov. 7. A large majority voted for Democrats, the groups' data show. The Virginia Muslim PAC is gathering voting data throughout the country.
Data collection on U.S. Muslims is relatively new and imprecise, and even estimates of the community's size range from 1 million to 7 million. However, the available data mirror what activists and scholars of U.S. Islam say is indicated in anecdotal evidence: Muslims are quickly moving into the public sphere.
"It's very obvious that there is more involvement," said Zahid H. Bukhari, director of Georgetown University's Project MAPS, a long-term research project on American Muslims that estimates there are 1.5 million to 2 million registered American Muslim voters. "More Muslims are running for office; Islamic centers are becoming more of community centers; everybody is much more involved," Bukhari said.
Ali, whose parents were born in India and Pakistan, said he comes "from a family where they were always having political debates around the house, but then I found out that among all these family members who had all these grand ideas, none of them ever voted. There was a sense that, 'I don't like the way things are, but there's nothing I can do about it.' I thought: I'm going to show these people."
Starting in January, Ali will represent District 39, a horseshoe-shaped swath of land in Montgomery County. The area has a growing community of newly arrived South Asians and Latinos, and Ali said he focused on courting immigrants during his campaign in part because he thought they might not have voted before. He supports driver's licenses for residents regardless of their immigration status and in-state tuition for people who graduate from Maryland high schools; he opposes provisions of the federal Patriot Act.
"His pro-immigrant priorities completely jumped off the map for us," said Kim Propeack, advocacy director at CASA of Maryland, an immigrant rights group. "When I met him, I told him how happy I was to see someone with an unabashedly pro-immigrant attitude."
Ali did not talk much about his faith, however, which bothered some Muslims and non-Muslims, he said.
"I'm not hiding anything, but it didn't seem relevant. It doesn't make sense; no one advertises their church," he said.
In fact, candidates for public office often make faith part of their political identities. Maryland candidates Michael S. Steele, Douglas M. Duncan and Benjamin L. Cardin all spoke about their religious beliefs during their campaigns.
But running as a Muslim has its challenges. A Montgomery man was given a police warning during the campaign after he sat outside Ali's home with a sign saying "Islam sucks."
Amaney Jamal, a Princeton University political scientist who is working with the Pew Research Center on a survey of American Muslims, said that although civic engagement has been increasing, there has been a shift in focus from influencing Middle East policy to strengthening domestic institutions.
Muslim donors gave approximately $200,000 to Virginia candidates, up from $40,000 in 2002, said Mukit Hossain, director of the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee.
Attendance at Muslim-oriented political events was also up, activists said. More than 600 people attended the Virginia Muslim Civic Picnic this summer, an event held for state candidates that has grown since it began in 2001. About 1,300 people attended a candidates' night a few weeks before the election at Falls Church mosque Dar Al Hijrah, Hossain said.
And last December, the Maryland Muslim Council formed to help field and promote candidates, among other things. Since the election, Hossain said, he has received phone calls from Richmond, Harrisonburg and Fredericksburg, as well as from other states where Muslims want to know how to form local political action committees.
"In this election, we saw a level of mobilization and engagement of Muslims that has never happened before," said Ibrahim Ramey, director of the Muslim American Society's human and civil rights division, at a news conference after the Nov. 7 election.
Activists at the news conference said they were celebrating the high turnout and the fact that Muslims apparently influenced a key election with national implications: James Webb's successful Democratic bid for the U.S. Senate seat from Virginia. The partisan leanings also were clear from the Webb lapel pin that Hossain wore.
Now that Muslims are starting to figure out how to turn out their vote, the horizon is becoming more complex. Heated debates are beginning over how prominent a role mosques will play in organizing people, whether Muslims will focus on civil liberties to the exclusion of social and economic issues, and whether they will remain a Democratic bloc, as they have since 2004.
"I don't want us to become overly dogmatic and introverted or to become a ghetto, as has happened in European countries," Hossain said. "I think the Muslim community can do a great job of bringing focus to social issues, whether they belong to the Muslim community or not. I hope, as we mature, we become a progressive force for other issues, not just civil liberties."
Since Ali won his race, he has been busy answering those requests for advice. "What I tell them is, know your community well, work hard and don't be a one-issue candidate," he said. "And don't let anyone paint you as 'the Muslim candidate.' "