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Muslims eager to voice opinions

There are over 7 million Muslims living in the United States, and as many as one million of them are likely to cast ballots in the 2004 Presidential race, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations. NBC News Janet Shamlian reports on how one Iraqi-American family has been politicized by this year's election.
/ Source: NBC News

The Bairutys are like many young families. They have a busy household, with four children under the age of nine. But, while the dinner is all-American — turkey burgers and soup — the language around the table is Arabic.

Saad and Shayma Bairuty are Iraqi-American Muslims living in the Dallas area. Saad left Iraq over two decades ago. His wife, Shayma, fled Baghdad nine years ago, having grown up during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s.

Two of Shayma’s step-brothers were killed in that conflict. She describes her childhood as one spent in fear. When she finally left Iraq in 1995 to get married, four brothers and one sister stayed behind. She misses them dearly, she said, but doesn’t regret leaving.

“I love it here and I don’t want to go back,” the 26-year-old said. In addition to being a mom, she attends college part-time.  It’s something, she said, she would never have been allowed to do in Iraq.

“Here, it’s so comfortable. Life is easy. Women can talk. We have many rights and it’s just completely different,” she said.

The right the Bairutys treasure most is the chance to vote.

They are among the 7 million Muslims living in the United States. Of those, as many as 1 million are likely to cast ballots in the 2004 Presidential race, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations.

That’s significantly higher than the number who voted in 2000. Voter-registration drives in mosques and Muslim communities across the country have delivered thousand of new voters to the process.

Diverse group driven by similar issues
Nihad Awad heads the nation’s largest Islamic advocacy group, The Council on American Islamic Relations. He said Muslims are becoming more involved in politics because they are deeply concerned about foreign policy and their civil rights here at home.

“I have never seen such interest in the political process within the Muslim community as this year,” Awad said. “Today, the Muslim community feels its future is at stake and they have to define their future by going to the polls.”

He pointed out that American Muslims are a diverse group from many ethnic backgrounds. Only about 25 percent are from the Arab world. About 30 percent are African-American and about 30 percent are from South Asia.

While from different ethnic groups, they share the common need to have a voice. “Freedom has to be protected at home before we can spread it to other nations,” Awad said.

Patriot Act and Iraq are major concerns
That’s an issue for Saad and Shayma Bairuty. They fear their rights have eroded in the three years since 9/11 as a result of the Patriot Act, the Bush administration law that gives new tools to law enforcement authorities in their battle against terrorism.  

The legislation has been criticized by by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds that it infringes on civil rights.

“Freedom, democracy and things this country stands for have diminished since I came to America 25 years ago,” said Saad Bairuty. “It’s not like before, and I wonder what’s to come in the future.”

They are also deeply concerned about Iraq.

“We are glad Saddam is out, don’t get me wrong,” said Saad Bairuty. “But what President Bush did, the way he did it, is not good for this country and not good for the Iraqi people.”

Impact on election
Islamic leaders like Awad believe the Muslim vote could impact the election.

“Even though we are a small part of the electorate, there are large groups of Muslim-Americans in key battleground states.” Polls indicate that Sen. John Kerry has an edge over President Bush in attracting Muslim voters this time around. But, Bush attracted 80 percent of that vote four years ago.

As for the Bairutys, they have become passionate about politics and have watched all the debates.

They voted for Bush in 2000 but have decided he won’t get their support again. Living in Texas, they realize the state will probably go Republican.

They will cast their ballots anyway.  “We have to vote. It’s not just a right, it is a responsibility,” said Saad. “I want my children to see me exercise it.”