Muslim Scouts Political Program Raises Eyebrows
by Linda Keay
September 23, 2007
Seeking to flip a Republican Senate seat, the Muslim American Society used Boy and Girl Scout troops last year as part of a massive get-out-the-vote campaign targeting Muslim voters in Virginia and elsewhere.
National leaders at the Boy and Girl Scouts of America say they've never heard of using Scout troops in such political activity and it violates Scout policy. They promised to look into the MAS program.
MAS Executive Director Mahdi Bray isn't keeping the fact that he tapped Scouts to run phone banks a secret. In fact, he's bragging about it. And while he claims the calls were non-partisan, he also is comfortable saying "Democrats would be a better choice" for his constituency.
In Virginia, incumbent George Allen was struggling to hold onto his Senate seat against former Navy Secretary Jim Webb. "We delivered 80 percent of the eligible voting Muslims to the polls," Bray said in July at an Islamic Circle of North America-Muslim American Society convention in Hartford, Conn. "48,000 Muslims voted in Virginia. 93 percent of them voted for Webb, seven percent voted for Allen. Webb won by a slim margin of 9,000 votes. Now I don't care how you slice it, dice it and I don't care whether you are a mathematician or not, you can figure this out, that if 48,000 Muslims voted and 90 percent of them voted for the successful candidate, then certainly, and he only won by a 9,000 vote margin – we made a difference."
Those numbers come from a study by a MAS official. While they were widely reported after Bray touted the study, these numbers have never been independently confirmed. Independent electoral consultants have expressed doubts about their reliability.
The Muslim American Society was founded in 1993 by the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian-rooted organization that aims to reestablish the Caliphate, a global state governed by Islamic law.
Bray, its leader, has called the war on terror "a war on Islam" and at a 2000 rally, gestured enthusiastically in support of Hizballah and Hamas. In addition, he has defended Hizballah on his Washington, D.C. area radio show.
Bray openly described the scouting program last November in a release posted on the MAS website. "MAS Dialing for Muslim Votes" described how the organization was using a Muslim Voters Database to target calls nationally and encouraged people to vote on November 7, 2006.
"The MAS CEE (MAS Center for Electoral Empowerment) phone banks are being operated by MAS Youth, chapter members and volunteers. Even MAS Boy and Girl Scout Troops are making calls," the release said.
"Through our MAS Youth department, Boys and Girls Scout Troops, we are training an upcoming generation that will be spiritually grounded and political (sic) savvy."
That last statement appeared to rankle Boy Scout of America Scout Executive Alan Lambert, who said he's never heard of Scouts participating in phone banks before. Although he believes learning civic responsibility is an integral aspect of Scouting, he doesn't like people taking advantage of children.
"We would expect that no organization would use children to play out their political desires," Lambert said. "From my perspective…we would sever our relationship with anyone who uses children to advance political agendas."
"If it's going on and it's inappropriate, we'll stop it tomorrow," he added.
MAS claimed these were national efforts, with MAS Scouts performing similar work in other states, including Tennessee. On Election Day, a MAS release said its troops in Nashville "ran two campaigns of calling on Muslims in Tennessee to go and vote for today's elections."
"The first campaign was on Sunday Nov. 5th, 2006 and the second was on Monday Nov. 6th, 2006. The Scouts used scripts and phone lists that were provided by MAS National in their call center campaign," the Election Day release said.
Girl Scouts of the USA's national office was in agreement with the Boy Scouts. Spokeswoman Megan Neuffer, said, "They are not allowed to participate directly or indirectly in phone calls or anything like that in any political campaign." That includes generic get-out-the-vote non-partisan calls, said Neuffer.
MAS is headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia. Girl Scouts from there and in Washington, D.C. are under the purview of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital. That office's Manager for Program Services, Brigid Howe, said any troop activities must follow Scout rules. That includes those splinter groups such as Muslim Scouts, or what Bray calls "MAS Scouts."
"I have not heard about anything like this," she said. Her reaction was similar to the national office's. It is not allowed, she said.
But Mary Layton, public relations director at the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital saw no problem. "Phone activity in and of itself is not off limits as long as it's part of a generic 'get out the vote' campaign," she said, "and not part of a partisan effort, including the phone bank component would not be off limits."
Layton pointed to things such as handing out League of Women Voter pamphlets and organizing mock elections, activities described by the Patriot's Trail Girl Scout Council (in Massachusetts). But in fact, phone banks aren't part of the 'I Promised A Girl Scout I'd Vote' patch program.
Michelle Tompkins, a spokeswoman at Girl Scouts of the USA New York headquarters disagreed with Layton's position, saying, "It's likely that it would be against the rules for kids to be involved in any kind of phone bank situation." When in doubt, "it's a pretty good idea" to go with the national office as authority for such a question, Tompkins said.
Scouts have even declined requests to hand out pamphlets, said Jim Waters, Assistant Scout Executive with New York's Hudson Valley Council of Boy Scouts of America. There are events in which Scouts raise the American flag at things like political conventions, but it's performed as a civic duty, not in efforts to elect particular people.
When such requests come in, Lambert said he has to discern between faith groups, "and an organization that may be using kids to advance their political agenda." A good unit leader who doesn't know about these things, he said, would call for clarification.
"We don't publish policies on every particular instance and I'm probably not going to find anything I could give you that says, 'You cannot participate in making phone calls for organizations like this.' What we do is we encourage leaders and adults to be reasonable and not put kids in situations that could be misconstrued."
Lambert, Neuffer and Howe said no permission or advice was requested from the national scouting organizations before the political activity took place.
After the elections, the MAS Center for Electoral Empowerment publicized the impact the 'Muslim Voter Mobilization Campaign' had in the Virginia Senate race. A surge in Muslim voters, who traditionally vote for Democrats, swung the race to challenger James Webb, MAS claims.
Mahdi Bray has claimed at times that these efforts are non-partisan, but at other times he's stated political preferences.
"There's nothing wrong with having kids, nine, ten years old on the phones, like we did for our last youth and our last Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts making phone calls and saying, 'Go to the polls and vote,'" he said at the July convention. "There's nothing wrong with having young people, 13 and 14 years old to go from place to place to pass out canvassing information."
While MAS affiliated Boy and Girl Scout troops nationally worked political phone banks, he emphasized the Virginia effort, where he said scripts read in part, "I can't vote, but my future can be decided by your vote. You vote."
He claimed the effort was non-partisan and said Muslims need to be flexible. But: "What I'm saying is that we realize, based on the analysis that the Muslims, the taskforce had come up with, that indeed that it would be better in terms of civil rights – who will be chairing certain important committees that raises civil liberties and like that, that in this case – the Democrats would be a better choice."
There doesn't seem to be any legal issue involved. But Rosanna Bencoach, Policy Manager for the Virginia State Board of Elections, said it amounts to "using them. He [Bray] was using the children."
Bencoach says she volunteered in politics when she was young, but it was as an individual, not through a group, although she's also a former Girl Scout. She said, "Girl Scouting and the political volunteerism were totally separate."
"I wish you didn't have to find these things. I wish these things weren't happening," Bencoach said. "But I guess I'm too much of an idealist."
In getting young people to become politically active, Bray added, "In the years to come, you ain't seen nothing yet."
"I'm a strong advocate for young people being groomed to be civically involved so that they can run the office. They have a legacy and they have the right to lead America. But they have to be groomed for it. And you prepare them for the political process."
Lambert, on the other hand, says the Scout troops aren't the place for such grooming. "I'm more concerned about the judgment of the adults that are serving as the leaders and role models of these kids. Whether or not they understand, we're not going to be placed in a position to advance any particular political agenda – we won't allow them to place us in that position."