In November of 1998, a dozen Muslim Americans affiliated with the California-based American Muslim Alliance were elected to local political office. Twelve is a small number considering that there are thousands and thousands of political offices in the United States, ranging from school district, township and county representatives to state-wide office and federal office.
Although there are several Arab Americans in the U.S. Congress, none among them are Muslim, and there has never been a Muslim in the president’s Cabinet. The Muslim American holding the highest elected office is State Senator Larry Shaw of North Carolina. The only Muslim American to run for U.S. Senate was the late Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi.
Muslims and Jews are the second-largest religious minorities in United States, and Islam is the nation’s fastest growing faith. There are five to six million Muslims in the United States and some 1200 mosques. But despite these demographics, the Muslim community remains grossly under-represented in the political sphere. It is this lack of representation that concerns Muslims leaders in America. Says W. D. Muhammad, leader of the Muslim American Society, “You need a voice in America in order to get the benefits that America has to offer all of its citizens.”
There are however, efforts underway to establish a Muslim political voice. It’s an idea whose time has come, and Agha Saeed, national chair of the American Muslim Alliance is helping to lead the push. “People have achieved economic well-being; people have achieved social progress; people have achieved technical competence,” says Saeed. “Now they want to translate that into social influence.”
Building a political voice takes time and dedication from several generations of people. Each wave of incoming immigrants has made its way down the same path to political prosperity: the Irish, the Jews, the Italians. First there is a time of settling in; then an appreciation for the opportunity an open society presents; then a getting-to-know-you period, when community meets politician and politician meets community. It is when people know each other that political progress may begin.
The African American community has already walked the path, perhaps more painfully than any other group of Americans. “We have had to struggle for a place in this society as equal citizens, and we have some experience,” says W.D. Muhammad. “We can be of assistance to American Muslims in general. They can learn from our experience … But we have to all work together for one leadership, and that’s the leadership that would best benefit Muslims in America.”
At present there is no single leadership. There is no single Muslim American agenda. There are African American Muslims, Arab Muslims, South Asian Muslims and more recently the public has become more poignantly aware of the Albanian Muslim community. Muslims in America, coming from so many different nations and cultures, are bound to have great diversity of political thought. Azizah El-Hibri, a professor of Law at the University of Richmond, likens this diversity to the annual conflagration of Muslims that descend on the holy city of Mecca for the Muslim Hajj, or pilgrimage. Says El-Hibri, Muslim Americans live in a state of “permanent Hajj.”
For years the ethnic and cultural ties of individual Muslims and their families superceded concerns for the community as a whole. People worshipped in their ethnic enclaves and celebrated religious festivals with “their own kind.” It is therefore no wonder that a unified Muslim voice in the United States has been slow to develop. That there is a Muslim American agenda at all, is a testament to the dedication of a growing number of politically minded Muslims working to affect change at various levels of the political process. And the work goes on.
American Muslims are currently striving to raise consciousness and concern about important issues to a level of universal acceptance. There is also work being done by individuals and organizations such as the American Muslim Alliance to craft political agendas, drawing on the religious values of justice, peace, tolerance, and diplomacy that have been cornerstones of Muslim political thought throughout history.
As a result of this work, several galvanizing issues have come to the fore in the Muslim American community:
- The need for better education in schools, with emphasis placed upon accurate historical representation of Muslims and enhanced appreciation for Muslim belief and practice.
- The need for better education of the media and politicians to counterbalance the ongoing indictment of Muslims in the court of public opinion.
- The need to terminate the U.S. government policy of airport profiling which allows for the singling out and harassment of Muslims under the pretext that the program helps to reduce the threat of in-air terrorism.
- The need to support both Muslim and non-Muslim candidates who are sensitive to Muslim issues.
- The need to have a foreign policy agenda that will focus on more than political hotspots such as Palestine.
This is a short list; but one which will grow considerably as Muslim Americans awaken to the need for greater activity in the political sphere.
Michigan Congressman David Bonior says Muslim American participation has “accelerated dramatically over the last generation,” and notes that in the past ten years this participation has become a force to be reckoned with politically. In fact, it was in Michigan that all twelve of 1998’s Muslim American political officials were elected.
Eventually Muslims will be an accepted part of the American political and cultural mosaic. Progress may be slow, but influencing government to do the right thing, not necessarily the pro-Muslim thing, will serve both the Muslim cause and the betterment of society as a whole.