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Muslims Hope to Capitalize on Criticism

"We're a small community by population and many of our institutions are fairly young. It'll be a little while before we are really able to move the political needle," said Corey Saylor, government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Saylor said support from outside groups "is easily one of the most welcomed things in this whole scenario. ... You've seen energy in communities that we don't usually see."

But the challenge Muslim activists face is that support has come mainly from liberals, while anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be growing among conservatives.

In a recent CNN poll, 26 percent of Americans said they hold unfavorable views of American Muslims.

"I'm optimistic but not in the short term. It's going to be very bad going into 2012 because that's where the public is. People are able to say hateful things because people do feel concern or suspicion of Muslims," said Suhail Khan, a prominent Muslim conservative and the leader of the Conservative Inclusion Coalition.

Khan criticized Muslim advocacy groups for not working more with conservative leaders, who he said must lead the charge against anti-Muslim remarks in order for public sentiments to change.

"President [George W.] Bush, for all his faults, at the very least was going to mosques during the campaign and repeatedly sending out the message that our war is not with Islam," Khan said. "Now that that voice is not there, that's why you're seeing the mushrooming and the anger from the community. When Obama says the same thing, that has no effect."

Both as a candidate and as president, Obama has been careful to balance courting the Muslim vote with distancing himself from conservatives' assertions that he is secretly Muslim.

During the 2008 campaign, it was retired Gen. Colin Powell, a Republican, who unequivocally condemned those allegations. Powell defended Obama's Christianity and asserted, "What if he is [Muslim]? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America."

Muslim Advocates' Khera admitted that her group has not yet reached out to any of the Republican presidential candidates. But she said the group has been meeting privately with Republican leaders to urge them to speak up.

"They share our concern about the ugliness of the rhetoric," she said.

Their voices, along with statements of support for Muslims already made by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), will be more influential than efforts by Democrats in determining how Muslims are discussed this campaign cycle, Khan said.

At last week's debate, Romney's response to the Muslim question set him apart from Cain and Gingrich.

"I think we recognize that people of all faiths are welcome in this country," Romney said. "Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance."

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