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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Members of Muslim and Jewish Lobbies Discuss Their Role in US Politics

Dates: September 25 & 26, 2002

Event Recaps

As part of the Church, State and Society seminar, the Boisi Center organized a number of panels addressing the theme of religion and democracy. This included two separate panels of religious lobbyists.

The first, on September 25th, featured Keith Weissman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Rob Leikind of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and was moderated by David Little, the Dunphy Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Harvard. Many Muslims believe that America’s foreign policy towards the Middle East is largely engineered by American Jews and this session was a unique opportunity for the group to directly address these issues in an intellectual setting. Weissman explained that lobbying is one way that Americans have of making their interests known to their government officials but that it can never guarantee outcomes. He acknowledged that AIPAC is considered one of the most effective lobby groups in Washington, DC and that some reports claim that American Jews contribute 50% of the Democratic Party’s budget and close to that percentage to the Republican Party. Rob Leikind presented another aspect of the Jewish lobby, explaining that the ADL was founded in 1913 in response to the lynching of a Jewish man in the South. Since this time, the ADL has fought to support the Jewish community in America by protecting constitutional freedoms for all groups, not just Jews. Leikind described how his organization combats anti-Semitism on a national level by promoting general goals of human rights and tolerance. This has led the ADL to make common cause with a number of underrepresented groups including the poor, labor, and ethnic minorities on a wide range of issues. Leikind attributed the success of the ADL to its support of broad based principles rather than narrowly Jewish interests, yet both lobbyists stressed that their main job is to mobilize the Jewish population in America to fight for rights of Jewish citizenry at home and abroad. While there was clear disagreement around the table over the handling of recent events in the Palestinian Authority, the conversation was respectful as well as lively and continued over food and drinks at a reception following the panel.

The following day, Jason Erb of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Eric Vickers, the Executive Director of the American Muslim Council (AMC) and Sohail Hashmi, a professor of International Relations and Islamic ethics at Mount Holyoke College, convened in a second panel on the “Muslim Lobby in the U.S.” Professor Hashmi gave an overview of the political mobilization of Muslims in the US (see our website for a copy of his paper) and Erb and Vickers spoke on the activities of their organizations, which have largely been involved in anti-discrimination advocacy and support for the civil rights of American Muslims. When asked about the issue of Palestine, both lobbyists explained that perhaps 10% of their agenda was focused on international issues. In part this is because of ethnic and national differences among the Muslim population in the United States, which make political mobilization difficult to achieve. Mobilization around issues related to Palestine has also lagged because most Muslims in the US are not from the Middle East and have differing views of the politics in that region. Both lobbyists focused on the need for Muslims to unite and form a strong political base as a minority within a majority, much as Jews have done. Erb stressed that Muslim lobbies were only formed in the last 10-12 years, but have started to have a larger political influence both in respect to direct lobbying, and in voter turnout. Vickers advised that Muslims need to develop their political influence by forming alliances with other groups so that the Muslim voice could be better heard in the political arena. He used the ADL as a model that American Muslims would do well to follow and pointed out that the AMC has collaborated with the ADL on a number of social justice issues. Hashmi spoke on more general themes related to the political experience of Muslims in the United States. He spoke of an anti-Muslim stereotype that he felt existed in America that keeps Muslims out of political life. He also said that the beliefs of Muslims also make it harder for them to mobilize within the existing two party system. Muslims do not have a natural home in either major political party as they tend to be conservative on cultural and moral issues but liberal on economic and social justice issues. Nonetheless, all three speakers expressed an optimism about the growth of the Muslim lobby in America.