Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2004, pages 80-82
ISNA Conference Prepares for November Election
Dr. Agha Saeed discusses a unified action plan for the November elections (staff photo Laila Al-Arian).
THE ROLE OF American Muslims in the upcoming presidential election was one of the hot topics at the Islamic Society of North America’s 41st annual convention in Chicago during Labor Day weekend.
On Sept. 4, leaders of national American Muslim organizations gathered to discuss building a grassroots strategy and a unified action plan for the 2004 election. Conference-goers packed the large meeting hall, even though a number of other sessions were taking place at the same time.
Ihsan Bagby, a social scientist and a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), described the panel, which consisted of members of the newly formed American Muslim Taskforce for Elections and Civil Rights (AMT), as “the product of a broad-based coalition of Muslim organizations.”
He briefly described the short history of American Muslim political participation, beginning in the 1990s, when, he said, Muslims “started paying attention to the public square.” In 2000, four major organizations, including the American Muslim Alliance (AMA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), decided to work together to develop a unified voice on issues important to the community.
Consequently, those organizations formed the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council (AMPCC), whose leaders held that a Muslim bloc vote would be “the best way to get recognition from politicians,” Bagby explained. After evaluating both candidates and contacting their membership, AMPCC endorsed Republican George W. Bush—a decision later criticized by many American Muslims.
In the four years since the first Muslim bloc vote, AMPCC leaders acknowledged they had made some mistakes, one of which was failing to include many African-American Muslim voices, Bagby conceded. AMT was the result of efforts to “make sure there are more voices at the table,” he explained.
As an umbrella organization that now includes 10 national American Muslim organizations, AMT will have held about 150 town hall meetings in various communities by the Nov. 2 election, Bagby said.
Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR, said his organization issues a weekly election update as a free service to subscribers to its e-mail. The update outlines “where candidates stand on issues important to Muslim voters,” he noted. “You play an important role [in the election],” Awad told the attentive audience, reminding them that the 2000 race was tight, and that “Muslims may determine the outcome this year.”
In a CAIR survey conducted in June, 54 percent of those polled favored Democratic candidate John Kerry, 26 percent favored Independent candidate Ralph Nader, and 3 percent supported Bush. Awad encouraged Muslims to get out the vote, “When you go and volunteer and show up on the day of the elections,” he said, “this is the true influence you can exercise on society.”
Jordan Robinson, chair of the Muslim Students Associations’ Political Action Taskforce, said MSA was working hard to “create political literacy” so that people can cast educated votes. AMT town hall meetings are helpful because they are bringing out the “youth vote,” he said.
Among the issues of concern to young Muslims, Robinson explained, are tuition increases and civil rights abuses at the university level.
Framing political participation in an Islamic context, Muslim American Society president Esam Omeish described voting as a religious duty. “Exemplary citizenship is not only compatible with Islam,” he maintained, “but it is required.”
Civil rights has emerged as one of the most fundamental issues facing the American-Muslim community, said AMT chair Agha Saeed. “Today, Muslims and Arabs are second-class citizens in the U.S.,” he noted. “Restoring our citizenship is a main priority.”
Saeed cited other issues of concern to the community as crime prevention, healthcare and education.
In this election, he suggested, American Muslims should use as starting points issues and principles, not political parties. Saeed, who is also AMA’s national chairman, gave the audience a four-page questionnaire to fill out in order to help AMT “refine its strategy.”
Five points AMT leaders are considering as criteria for evaluating candidates, Saeed continued, are the candidates’ positions on important issues and their records, accessibility, electability, and the community response.
Saeed echoed Bagby’s statement on AMPCC’s failure to include the input of African-American Muslims in the last election, adding that another mistake made by AMPCC leaders was that in assessing the candidates: they did not also examine “the coalitions that bring them to power.”
MSA Conference’s Civil Rights Session
|Georgetown University graduate student Younus Mirza helped found Students for Freedom Organization (staff photo S. Kandil).|
A session on civil rights called “Get up, Stand up; Stand up for your Rights: The State of Contemporary Civil Liberties” was held Sept. 5 at the annual conference for the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada, held alongside the Islamic Society of North America’s 41st annual convention in Chicago.
Laila Al-Arian, daughter of civil and political rights activist and Muslim leader Sami Al-Arian, opened the session with her father’s story. She gave a heart-wrenching, emotional account of an innocent man targeted for free-speech activities, whose rights were stripped thanks in part to the PATRIOT Act. Al-Arian, who has not yet been to trial, has been held in a federal penitentiary for over a year and a half.
Not only has the PATRIOT Act affected Al-Arian, but it also has caused problems for students on many American college campuses. According to laws passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the FBI now can question students about their activities in different campus organizations, as well as encourage campus police to spy on certain students. The FBI also has targeted foreign students studying at U.S. institutions.
Younus Mirza helped found the Students for Freedom Organization, which has passed student resolutions against the PATRIOT Act, and encouraged Muslim students from campuses across the United States to start campaigns for civil rights. The Georgetown University graduate student suggested that students should hold rallies, which, he said, create powerful “visual images.” He described a rally he and his classmates held at Georgetown last year, in which a number of students stood handcuffed in a popular area of the campus, to symbolize the post-Sept. 11 detentions of hundreds of Arabs and Muslims.
Mirza also urged students to send letters to express their concerns about possible civil liberties violations on campus to the president of their respective colleges or universities. He also suggested they launch a “Rock the Vote” campaign. Finally, Mirza encouraged the mostly young audience to obtain a “Know Your Rights” booklet “(available from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR) in the event of FBI visits or interrogation.
Making a Difference in World Affairs
A lecture at the ISNA convention entitled “Muslim World Affairs: Kashmir, Iraq and Palestine” drew an overflow audience of more than 240 people.
According to Mohammad Sarwar, the first Muslim elected to the British House of Commons, Muslims all over are being humiliated and killed because the Muslim character has been “distorted and misrepresented.” Muslims should take an active role in the community in order to change that perception, he said. In the United Kingdom, he added, the Muslim community is very active and has made many contributions.
Turning to the conflict over Kashmir, moderator Ghulam Nabi Fai noted that in a three-week time span more than 7,000 people were burned and killed in Kashmir. Sarwar agreed that the situation is critical, and urged that all parties—Kashmir, Pakistan and India—be involved in the peace process.
Moving on to another high-profile conflict, Ronald J. Young, founder and director of the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, said, “I believe that helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be the high priority of the United States.”
If this issue had been the priority over the past four years, rather than the war on Iraq, there would be peace, Young maintained. Because of the close relations between the U.S. and Israel, Young argued, it is possible to achieve a long-awaited peace in the Middle East. He also suggested that Americans should call on their president to visit the region and stay in Palestine and Israel until peace is achieved.
According to Sarwar, to fight terrorism effectively Washington must target its root causes, which, he said, are global poverty and global injustice. Because the United States is the most developed country in the world, with resources to make a change, he pointed out, it, along with other countries like the UK, should help poorer countries. Unfortunately, he noted, the U.S. pays less than .2 percent of its GDP for aid, and only to allied counties like Israel.
Peace cannot be established, Sarwar said, unless Muslim countries like Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and Kashmir are able to elect their own leaders. Muslims in any country must have representation in the government, he continued, and Muslims should participate in mainstream politics in order to gain power and have the ability to make changes in policy. United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 must be implemented in order for peace to be achieved, Sarwar stated. Peace will only be established through negotiation, or in other words, change, he concluded.
The session’s key message was that Muslims must register and exercise their right to vote in order to help make that change. If American Muslims are dissatisfied with the direction America takes them, they must stand up and do something about it.
Quoting an old proverb, U.S. Army Chaplain A. Rashid Mohammad summed up the session: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
MAS Freedom Foundation Rally
Attorney Martin Sklar (at podium) with Omar Abu-Ali, Ahmed’s father (r), and Mahdi Bray (at rear) (staff photo S. Kandil).
Muslim American Society (MAS) Freedom Foundation held an Aug. 20 rally in front of the Justice Department to protest the treatment of Ahmed Abu-Ali, the 23-year-old Palestinian-American student who has been held in Saudi Arabia for over a year.
Saudi authorities say the United States government ordered Abu-Ali’s detention, and that they are ready to release him pending a formal request from the State Department, according to an MAS Freedom Foundation press release.
Abu-Ali’s family is frustrated that Washington has not processed this request, even though a State Department official promised to do so three months ago. They say the official assured them that neither Saudi Arabia nor the U.S. has charged Ahmed, and that he is not under investigation.
Abu-Ali is a U.S. citizen who was born in Texas and grew up in Virginia. He was an honors student and valedictorian of his high school, not someone who would ever have harmed his country, family members say. Describing him as “kind and compassionate,” they say Ahmed frequently donated blood to his local hospital and volunteered with people who had suffered brain injuries.
Protestors held signs made by the Center for Constitutional Rights with a photograph of Attorney General John Ashcroft and the group’s Web site address, <www.peoplevashcroft.org>.
Executive director of the Freedom Foundation Mahdi Bray said the purpose of the event was to petition the government about Abu-Ali’s case, which he dubbed “an American tragedy.”
During the rally Morton Sklar, a lawyer for the World Organization for Human Rights, USA who is representing the family, said cases like Abu-Ali’s “undermine the credibility of our government to promote democracy and human rights worldwide.”
“We want this to end,” Ahmed’s younger sister, Tasneem Abu-Ali, pleaded. “Bring him home,” she urged, “and we will forgive and forget.”