Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 2000, page 72
Islam in America
A Growing Synergy: American Muslims and American Politics
By Muqtedar Khan
This year, for the first time in American history, both the Republican and Democratic national conventions opened with prayers by Muslims. The Republican convention was kicked off by a “Dua” (Islamic prayer) by Talat Othman, chairman of the Islamic Institute, and a “Dua” by Dr. Maher Hathout blessed the Democratic convention.
The dual recognition underscores not only the openness of the American system but, importantly, it indicates the growing political influence of American Muslims. At the Republican convention alone there were some 100 Muslim delegates. This is a remarkable achievement for a community that is still debating whether Islam is democratic or if it is permissible to participate in American politics. Once an internal consensus is achieved, the community with its current numbers and resources alone has the potential to become one of the country’s most powerful domestic constituencies.
It is obvious that the momentum in favor of engaging in national politics is increasing within the American Muslim community. Not only are more and more Muslims registering to vote, but Muslims also are actively engaging in politics on behalf of both major parties. In other full and partially democratic societies like India, South Africa, the UK and Singapore, Muslims who are in the minority are politically active and are full participants in systems that give them the opportunity to express and defend their special interests. Very rarely do they raise the twin questions of whether Islam and democracy are compatible and whether Muslims can participate in political systems where non-Muslims are in majority.
While it may not be clear whether democracy as practiced in the West is representative of how an Islamic polity would look in our times, we do realize that Islam advocates universal participation. All Muslims are enjoined to do good and avoid evil and struggle to establish justice and order on earth. If participation through democratic politics gives Muslims in non-Muslim societies an “easy opportunity” to make some difference in the right direction, then they should not hesitate.
Muslims cannot be just another ethnic group with special interests.
As far as I am concerned, there is no question that Muslims must participate in American politics. Islam does not advocate secularism, and avoiding politics on Islamic grounds is separating religion and politics—and therefore not permissible in Islam. Having said that, one must be very careful about how one plans Muslim participation in politics. Muslims cannot be just another ethnic group with special interests, particularly in foreign policy, like Jewish Americans or Cuban Americans. We are seeking change, not only in how the U.S. deals with Muslims overseas but also in how American society evolves at home. After all, our children will grow up and live in this society and we must work as hard as possible to make it morally safe and materially satisfying.
Muslims must therefore enter politics to enhance what is good and forbid what is evil. We should take the moral high ground, avoid partisanship and support, financially as well as politically (using our votes and checkbooks), all those who seek morally positive change, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. We must become the conscience of America, its inner moral voice. Only then can we guard our lives within the boundaries of Islam and also ensure an Islamic future for our children and grandchildren.
Muslims can participate in American politics at several levels. While I dream that one day Muslims will be nominated for president by both parties, until then we can make a difference by first educating ourselves. Find out what issues are driving the elections. Do these issues affect Muslim life here and overseas? Write letters to the candidates, call their local representatives and demand that Muslim issues be included in their platforms. Volunteer on both sides. Campaign within and outside the community. Get known. Let America know that Muslims are here and care about our shared future. Avoid wasting time and resources arguing with those who call all these activities “kuffar” activities. Particularly avoid the “Khilafa junkies,” who do nothing but subvert the activities of Muslims who are trying to make a change. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper, send e-mails to CNN and MSNBC expressing Muslim concerns and your opinion of the candidates and their positions.
Both Sides of the Aisle
Politics in America is at once simple and very complex. The domination of the two parties simplifies the ideological spectrum. If you are on the right go with the Grand Old Party (GOP) and if you are on the left, go with the Democrats. Yes, Muslims can be on both sides of the aisle! (Remember Amir Muawiyyah, who was very much on the right, and Abu Dharr, who was very much on the left.)
But the freedom that politicians enjoy to vote their consciences adds complexity and unpredictability to the system and makes it very interesting. To navigate this complexity one needs to follow very carefully not only the issues, but politicians’ records as well.
The good news is that deliberation over policy issues has become more and more public and inclusive. Candidates participate in hundreds of town meetings to present their views and hear from their constituents. Muslims must not only attend these meetings, we must participate. Let candidates and elected officials hear your concerns. Most importantly, let them know that you are there and are as powerful as every other American. Exercise your rights as Americans and demand that your concerns as Muslims be heard. Only then will American Muslims have a voice in domestic as well as foreign affairs. And, by adding our voice to the American discourse, we will be helping participatory democracy live up to its ideals.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is assistant professor of political science at Adrian College in Michigan. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and also serves on the executive committee of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists.