The "qualified endorsement " of John Kerry by The American Muslim Task Force may not be a giant leap but it is a big step in the right direction. The decision of AMT, which comprises a majority of national Muslim organizations, in itself is not as important as its having initiated a democratic process within the community that could result in such a decision.
The process of reaching a consensus is a difficult and tedious one. The difficulties are multiplied many times when consensus building is undertaken by an alliance of diverse groups. American Muslims are the most diverse segment of Muslim community anywhere in the world. The AMT has on the one hand, among its constituents, African-American Muslims with their distinct history and political perspective as well as a national youth organization inclined towards activism and on the other it has immigrant groups that are relatively conservative in their political outlook. The immigrants come from diverse backgrounds; some are from politically active cultures while others have grown up in countries where political activism means a knock on the door in the middle of the night.
The AMT decision falls short of my highest expectations but I am pleased because I know the historic importance of embarking on this journey of alliance building. I have been studying closely the formation of such an alliance by the various Muslims communities of India. This alliance was further able to reach an understanding with other religious minorities, secular groups and lower caste Hindus and work effectively to ensure that the Hindutva-fascist party in India did not return to power in the last parliamentary elections earlier this year. Muslims in India have a long history of negotiating electoral politics so they were astute not to allow the main secular party the Congress to take their votes for granted. They therefore voted for regional parties in some states. This ensured the Hindutva party's defeat while at the same time forced the new Congress government to remain dependent on its allies.
I also have intimate knowledge of the problems that confronted the formation of the first national alliance of the American Muslims, the Islamic Shura Council in the early 90s. More recently, the successful attempt by Indian Muslim Council-USA (www.imc-usa.org) to forge an alliance with different religious communities, secular groups and human rights organizations to counter the growing power of Hindutva-fascists in the US has convinced me that the alliance building process is not one to be taken lightly.
The American Muslim community in general and Muslims with past practical experience of alliance building in particular heaved a sigh of relief when a unanimous decision was reached by the AMT.
Reaching decisions through consensus building in an alliance means the constituent groups have to sacrifice some of their stands and interests. Such a process is bound to leave some groups more dissatisfied than others. What is crucial is that once a decision is reached the constituent groups abide by it enthusiastically.
The process of consensus building is a giant step forward for the Muslim community in the US which is a relative newcomer to American politics. To its credit it is learning fast and evolving even faster. The decision of Muslim immigrant groups by and large to endorse Mr. Bush during the last elections had resulted in a gulf between the immigrant and the indigenous Muslim communities. Activists among the immigrant communities were of the view that the decision to support the Republican candidate was rushed.
This year there is no such divide among the major Muslim organizations and communities. AMT, having conducted many a town hall meetings across the country, has not only received input from the local communities but has also succeeded in creating in them a sense of involvement. Somewhere the final decision reflects the desire within the community to cast a protest ballot against Mr. Bush thereby making AMT appear representative rather than dictatorial.
The learning process for the constituents of the AMT continued through the final meeting. When a disgruntled representative of one of the groups leaked the "tilt" towards non-endorsement as the final decision his organization apologized. Another affiliate organization that has chosen to remain "independent" rushed to "break" the news of "non-endorsement". When the final decision of "qualified endorsement" of Kerry was announced in the closed AMT meeting which did not include affiliate members the affiliate insisted on including a "dissenting" decision in the announcement. In deference to the spirit of alliance however it exercised discretion and refrained from announcing its dissenting view during AMT's press conference and announced its position separately. All these maneuverings are a natural part of the learning and alliance building processes. The affiliate organization must have realized that it would not be allowed by the full members to have the cake and eat it as well. It is hoped that it will be influencing future AMT decisions as a full member of the coalition.
Criticism of the decision is coming from diverse quarters. In the case of some organizations the disagreement is one of principle and in others it is about projecting a certain media profile. The reasons behind individual criticism of the decision also vary from genuine difference of opinion to personal ambition and a belief that an unattached status enhances chances of administrative appointments. These realities are in no way detrimental to the larger cause of American Muslims. The American Muslim community is not a monolithic community and any attempt to camouflage its inherent differences will make for inaccurate representation.
Independent experts on the American political system and electoral process like Khalid Azam have been pushing for a state by state endorsement. They were keen that in states where the election results are a forgone conclusion Muslims vote for a third party to strengthen their hand and to safeguard against being taken for granted by the Democrats. This would have been a better decision by far but unrealistic to attempt given the time constraints and the inadequacy of AMT grassroots structure.
The job of AMT is not over. Its next responsibility is to urge local Muslim communities to embark upon concerted efforts to ensure maximum voter turnout. Immediately after this it will have to commence planning for the 2006 Congressional and 2008 Presidential elections.
I will take the liberty of advising the AMT to focus on three major areas in its midterm planning:
A. Strengthening the structure
It should aim at developing a sound structure and with well thought out by-laws at all levels: national, state and county.
B. Broadening the base
It should embark on broadening its base by involving nationality and ethnicity based groups such as the Arab Americans, The Pakistani Americans, the Bangladeshi Americans, The Indian Muslim Americans, the Turkish Americans, etc.
It will serve the AMT well to take into account that several traditional Muslim groups are wary of getting involved in the political process of a pluralist society. AMT should arrange nationwide speaking tours by intellectuals, Islamic scholars and political leaders from countries such as India and UK, where Muslims have had longer experience in dealing with such issues.
C. Reaching out
The AMT must make it a part of its agenda to reach out to other immigrant communities, minority groups, civil rights organizations etc. and form an even larger coalition for Civil rights and Social Justice.
In the future the Task Force must try to endorse candidates at a state level and base the endorsement on the candidates' positions rather than their party affiliations. It must make more effective use of the mass media to keep the community well informed. It should time its actions strategically and hold its cards close and reveal neither too much nor too late.
In the ultimate analysis unless American Muslims are seen as caring human beings participating in the betterment of America and American society, as our religion enjoins us to do they will remain permanently engaged in the uphill battle against fear-mongering by Muslim bashers. Fear-mongering cannot be defeated through law suits and electoral politics. It can only be defeated by winning the other battle for hearts and minds through education and selfless service to the community we live in.
Dr. Shaik Ubaid is the president of Indian Muslim Council-USA, an advocacy group that promotes pluralism in India and the US.
May Allah bless you all
Javeed Ul Ghani