Plitical Empoerment of Muslim Americans

Political Empowerment of Muslim Americans and the Presidential Elections
Mohammad Akhtar,Ph.D
President of Muslim Council of America

Theoretical Background:
Politics is all about power. To be a politician in any culture means to seek power for self serving ends. A politician typically is seen as someone less than noble, who cares less for the ideals such as peace, justice, truth and equality. How far does a politician go in self serving directions? That would depend upon the society, its level of development and organization. For instance in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some other countries from where we immigrants hail from, it is quite common that adversaries and people who come in the way are ruthlessly killed or, secretly eliminated. Of course, the tyrannical use of power to kill thousands of their own people in a ruthless manner can be witnessed most recently in Syria, Libya, etc.
Of course, we have democracy in America, thank God. Democracy, as practiced in America, though flawed in many ways, has a basic system of bringing changes by means of elections. Excesses committed by politicians in America are typically lying, cheating, and money laundering. In light of this background, we can now define our course of action and goals, and aims. Political empowerment of Muslims means that Muslims in this country must aim at representation in the power structure or/and having Muslims directly hold offices in the legislative, judiciary and executive branches of the government. Let us discuss about power in the direct sense. Would Muslims also have self- fixation of pursuing power? Yes, to an extent they would need it for their survival. The system understands the needs of Muslims as minority. The problem would occur only if they ignore America’s interests for all practical purposes in their survival game of power. This should be our guiding principle and Muslims need to realize that while competing for the race for power with others, if they were to succeed it has to be via American orientation.
We may as well spell out a second principle here, before we conclude this theoretical section - that America is a democracy and elections are the main vehicle to govern the country and to bring changes. Muslim immigrants who come from different backgrounds must learn the needed orientation.
Elections and participation by vote:
The single most important practice that I would like to stress here for Muslims is to participate in the elections and to vote. How can you participate or vote intelligently is open for discussions and can be material for writing a book. However, this article is meant only as a start to that discussion and serves as an open invitation to all of you to join heads and bring your ideas to this website.
This is an election year in America, and the timing is right. At this time generally the nation’s machinery gets active in digging the buried secrets of all the contestants and to divulge matters related to money embezzlement and illicit relationships that they may have been involved in. This has been a pattern over the past decade or so. For example, most recently, a serious contender for the Presidential nominee brought by Republicans had to drop out of the race when media confronted him on the issue of “another woman”. This is by no means limited to one party. When the Democrats were vying for the presidency in 2008, John Edward dropped out after reports surfaced of an extramarital affair. And of course we all remember Bill Clinton (and Monica Lewinsky) – it defined the ‘90s. This illicit relationship was uncovered while Clinton was President. Proceedings were brought against him and lasted for more than a year. Clinton came close to be impeached but escaped it. He had to add the weight of taking the oath in his defense and swear “I did not had sex (whatever that means) with this woman”. Similar themes have emerged in races at lower levels such as in New York and across the country. Your might wonder reflecting as to what is wrong with contemporary America where elections have become conversations about shameful affairs and inappropriate conduct. But, I would like to assure you that this kind of low-brow discourse is the unfortunate side effect of an open media that exaggerates, but calls on you to focus on the system as a whole, which by and large is working.
Muslim migrants need this reminder to the integrity of the system repeatedly if they are to participate in the electoral system because most of them have the negative transfer from their old country to wrestle with, where they learned that elections don’t work .
I would like to take the reader to the past 25 years ago when every Muslim migrant was unwilling to vote for the reason of negative transfer just mentioned above. In addition they also had religious concern; why should I as a Muslim vote a non Muslim (Kafir), it is haram. That sounds absurd now as you try to figure out the logic of it: a Muslim migrates to America and live with 99 %(or so) non Muslims; how in the world he will find Muslims to vote for? Sometimes religious zeal can blind people.
Let me add that an earlier organization - American Muslim Council - probably was the most powerful organization with emphasis on political empowerment for Muslims. It solicited the help of few Imams and Ulemas to declare a fatwa that it is all right for a Muslim to vote for a non Muslim. Let us come back to the present time when it is not only all right, but all Muslims must vote in America.
Muslims are indeed evolving and changing for better. Let me cite one more example to illustrate Muslim thinking of 15 years ago. I was President of the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and managed to bring Congressman Doyle to walk through the mosque that was completing construction. Many Muslims were unhappy with his presence in the mosque; I could hear few whisperings implying that, “now he is taking the Congressman and have him give us Khutba”. But now things are changing, and yes, we have come a long way by way of changing; let us to continue to learn and improve
In a democracy, there is accountability and power to your opinion, this is a fact, Muslims! Your opinion counts – not just as political rhetoric but in practical and legal terms. The American system does not just permit you, it encourages you to vote, facilitates that in all possible ways impartially, so that all citizens can be sure their vote is recorded. We have to change our old attitudes that says, “elections change nothing,” and need translate the new orientation into action. If you believe that Muslims are not terrorists, and the Patriot Act has to be changed, you need to get a whole block of Muslims together with other blocks of voters on your side and engage in that most American of pastimes – vote and lobby your congressional representatives! You can do it! Look at Obama’s victory in the last election. This is a living example of the change America is capable of, given that 100 years ago President Obama would have only been counted as three-fifths of a person in this country. Muslim Americans have encountered more than their fair share of discrimination in America, especially after 9/11; but change demands participation – not simply complaint and disagreement. All that we Muslims need is to go out and vote, and to vote with care and due diligence. Let us all commit to this as a first step because we have been gravely discriminated against under the Patriot Act. This might be the one issue all Muslim Americans can agree upon as a block, and that is all right for now. Discriminatory legislation has been overturned in this country before but never without active lobbying and organized participation of citizens. If we want to end this, we must actively work within the system to overturn it.
Guidance to the choice of issues:
An ideal next step for the Muslim American community is to determine normative issues that define their parameters as a voting block. About 10 days ago, I had the pleasure of listening to Congressman Andre Carson, a Muslim Congressman, who has an uphill battle in the coming election and came to Pittsburgh to speak. I wanted to listen to him because Muslims have only 2 congressmen. In a reflective mood the question occurred to me, that both Congressmen are colored and have Afro American background. Where are the people from the migrant community? In spite of socio-economic advantage, they are not on the scene. There were divergent thoughts that were running in my mind in search of an explanation. One thought, however, that got a bit strong was that the African Americans were born Americans and knew American ways better than the migrants. In his speech, Congressman spoke on Muslims political concerns. He is first and foremost American undoubtedly, and spoke in a manner that I wish other politically engaged Muslims would speak on the issues that affect our community. He was frank and transparent in discussing that it is difficult for him to express Muslim concerns to other representatives when so many of his Muslim constituents come to him with religiously oriented issues like Halal, Hijab etc, to which non-Muslim Americans cannot relate; they are at a loss to see any sense even. Carson should no doubt listen to his Muslim constituents concerns, religious or otherwise, but how he can. America is a pluralistic society with many religions existing simultaneously, but none are meant to be part of public discourse. Rather than define the needs of the Muslim American community in religious terms alone, Muslim Americans should discuss the social, legal and economic issues important to them – this is the language of American political discourse. Evangelical, Catholic and Jewish voting blocks of course express the religious needs of their communities, but the discourse is not limited to religious issues.
We must understand that the Muslim American community, just like the rest of the global Muslim community, is not a monolith. Every Muslim in America has his or her own views on hijab and halal, and we should leave these issues to internal discussions and to our scholars to ponder first and come up with some clarity over time. If Carson were to pursue these issues of religious concern, no matter how vocal and active he may be, it will mean a double loss - first, because Americans fail to understand it and, second because Muslims are divided on the significance of it.
To crystallize our thinking on political participation, Muslims are advised to follow those issues of concern which connects them to America at large, and not be carried by religious fervor. Muslims need to read Islam in the contemporary context. Our website has an assigned section on this topic, which can be used by Muslims and All Americans at large, to begin with. Muslims need to build some consensus and become one body, amongst them before they take it up to the level of voting by America. That is what lies ahead of us if we want political empowerment and be success at it.
At present, we have almost achieved consensus one issue that American Muslims need to replace the Patriot Act. Our next step is to focus upon future goals and derive at an intelligent answer in a couple of years. Short of it, Muslims may get passionate about one issue or another and go through trial and error and learn on the way. But political empowerment, I am afraid is a long and arduous road that has to be taken sooner or later.
I have covered above what might be considered as the general guidance for Muslims. Now there is the question of specific strategies that will be left for later. For example, on top of the list of strategies we have the notion of swinging states: how to best express our views in swinging states like Michigan and Florida. It means do something like what Muslims did in Michigan; in 2004 they got the block of Muslim votes all weigh in support Bush and that made the difference and made Bush to win the national election. So, we require one or two issues around which Muslims can rally and develop a big block of all Muslims. American media is beginning to recognize Muslim votes role in the swinging state – see the report in Colorado Independent published 4/6/2012 that highlights the following as its heading: Muslims are poised to play a major role in the Presidential elections.
Before concluding, I would like to share with Muslims their report card that shows that they have done exceedingly well so far in voter registration. Many surveys – by Zogby, Pew and the latest of all, by the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, put the number of Muslim registered voters close to 66% – the total number of Muslims, however, is uncertain as it is estimated differently by different surveys. If Muslims keep their feet on the accelerator a bit more and increase their registration, that would be tremendous. More importantly they need to use that big registration translate in actual voting that presupposes a hot issue that motivates Muslims, preferably an intelligent issue and also relevant to the American nation at large. That is the point.

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