Lynnwood man may become one of first Muslim presidential electors in U.S.
Native of Pakistan among those chosen by state Democratic Party
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Last updated August 6, 2008 12:11 p.m. PT
By GREGORY ROBERTS
If Democrat Barack Obama carries Washington state and the nation to win the White House in November, he won't become the first Muslim president of the United States.
That's because, despite Internet rumors, he's not a Muslim.
But Jeff Siddiqui is – and an Obama victory in the state and nation would give Siddiqui a small but possibly historic role in choosing the next president.
Siddiqui, a real estate agent who lives in Lynnwood, is one of 11 presidential electors designated by the state Democratic Party.
|Andy Rogers / P-I|
|"My basic message is that Muslims are no different from Christians ... Jews, anyone," says Jeff Siddiqui.|
If Obama wins Washington, those 11 – one for each of the nine congressional districts in the state, and one for each of the state's two seats in the U.S. Senate – will assemble to cast their ballots for Obama on Dec. 15, when the electors from each of the other states and the District of Columbia also will meet.
If Republican John McCain wins Washington, the state's 11 GOP electors will cast ballots instead.
Whoever gets the majority of the 538 electoral votes nationwide becomes president.
With Obama leading in the polls in Washington state, Siddiqui – along with Lesley Ahmed, a Democratic elector from Seattle who coverted to Islam in 1996 – are poised to join what is likely a limited group in the nation's history: Muslim presidential electors. For Siddiqui, his religion has played a key role in shaping his path to the Electoral College.
A native of Pakistan who gained U.S. citizenship in 1986, Siddiqui, 56, is a relatively high-profile representative of the Muslim community in and around Seattle, giving speeches at schools, churches and community organizations, writing Op-Ed pieces in newspapers and providing guest commentary on radio and TV. His mission is to counteract the image of Muslims as fanatical terrorists and extremists that, he believes, is propagated in the media, popular culture and even the government.
"My basic message is that Muslims are no different from Christians, atheists, Jews, anyone," he said last week. "We're human beings. We should be treated just the same."
Siddiqui never participated officially in the political system until this year, when – drawn partly by curiosity, and partly by his concerns about Muslim bashing and the war in Iraq – he showed up at his precinct's Democratic presidential caucus in February.
"I went there to cast my ballot initially" – for Obama, who, Siddiqui contends, was the only candidate in either party not engaged in demonizing Muslims. "I had no intention of being a delegate. And while I was there, I thought, 'This could be the first step toward making our opinions known.'
"I raised my hand to be a delegate, and the next thing I knew, I was a delegate."
That led to successive rounds of caucuses and ultimately to the state party convention in Spokane. There, the Democrats settled on their delegates to the national convention in Denver in August and also held votes to pick their presidential electors.
Elector was not a position Siddiqui had intended to seek, but again, he wound up doing just that.
"I stood up and said, 'I want to tell you: I will use every opportunity I can as an elector to bring attention to the hate and bigotry that are being promoted in this country, and to fight against it,' " he said. "To my surprise, they loved it, and they said, 'All right, you're an elector.' "
Siddiqui – whose given name is Jafar – grew up in a family headed by a military officer in Pakistan. He was taught by nuns in Catholic missionary schools – "I had to go to catechism every day and if I didn't, I'd get whacked with a cane, and they weren't gentle" – until seventh grade, when the government forbade Muslim children to attend Christian schools.
He came to the U.S. in the mid-1970s to earn a master's degree in engineering at the University of Washington.
While serving as executive director of the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, a campus group that placed foreign students with host families during the students' first week in Seattle, he met a third-generation Washingtonian (and Christian) named Kathy who was on the organization's board. They recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and are raising two teen-agers.
Kathy Siddiqui is still a Christian; as for the children, Jeff Siddiqui hopes they'll choose Islam, but he knows enough not to force the issue.
Siddiqui recognizes that his role as an elector is strictly functional – electors in Washington state are legally pledged to support their party's candidate, and cannot vote otherwise – but he is not oblivious to its wider implications.
"You're entering history when you're an elector," he said.
P-I reporter Gregory Roberts can be reached at 206-448-8022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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