There is a unique phenomenon that can only happen in America and it has grabbed the world attention. It is that of Barack Obama, an energetic African-American senator running for the office of presidency in 2008. He has captured the imagination of the Democratic Party stalwarts, and its young soldiers with his vision for change. He is a charismatic speaker, captivating and mesmerizing the young and old through his measured demeanor and eloquent speech. With his diverse ethnic background who seeks dialogue over war, and his independence from well-trodden path of establishment politics, Muslims the world over especially American Muslims are fascinated by the prospects of his election as the next U.S. president, in particular, after the disastrous policies of the current administration.
Son of a Blackman from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, Obama was raised as a Christian. But since his grandfather was a Muslim, and he spent four years of his early life in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country in south-east Asia, it was enough for online conservative magazines and right wing bloggers to spread rumors that he was hiding his true identity and was a "secret Muslim."
With the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there is much Islamophobia prevailing in the United States. And Obama has carefully avoided his association with Muslims.
Even Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman from Minnesota who enthusiastically supports Obama felt snubbed when Obama turned down his offer to appear with him at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one of the nation's oldest Muslim enclaves. Ellison put the blame on his handlers rather than Obama.
More recent is the flap of two Muslim women with headscarves being moved from their seats behind Obama. Although the campaign later apologized, it shows their low estimate of the Muslim vote. "Muslims for Obama" have not received much recognition either.
More serious is his caving in to the powerful Israeli lobby. Immediately after declaring that he is the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, Obama joined a gathering of American Israeli Political Action Committee, AIPAC, and declared undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The world community especially its 1.5 billion Muslims were aghast at this display of subservience surpassing all previous administrations and violating the string of resolutions passed by the international community represented by the United Nations. Witnessing the vehement condemnation, Obama now says the status of Jerusalem is the concern of its two parties, the Palestinians and Israelis. This, together with Obama's call to bomb Pakistan if it does not follow the dictates from Washington, shows how marginalized American Muslims are in any political consideration.
In order to be effective, Dr. Aslam Abdullah a well-known activist recently suggested in an online article on "Islamicity'" website that we must collect accurate data about Muslims in each congressional district up to the precinct levels, with party affiliation and the voting pattern of Muslim voters. He called on dedicated people from the community to assume this responsibility, and initiate the process in each congressional district.
Apparently answering this call, a coalition of Islamic and research groups announced on June 1, 2008 the launch of a nationwide census project to collect accurate data about America's mosques. CAIR and ISNA will conduct the study over the summer and fall, and publish findings in a report to be released in early 2009.
The census is co-sponsored by a coalition of organizations including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Muslim American Society (MAS) Freedom Foundation, Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya (IMAM), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA), Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Hartford Institute of Religion Research (Hartford Seminary), and Religious Congregations and Membership Study 2010 (a project of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies). Dr. Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, who has the experience of similar projects will direct this study.
The census will contact every mosque and Islamic center in the U.S. to compile accurate information about the Muslim community, specifically relating to size, infrastructure development, the participation of women and youth, and the depth of involvement in American society.
The survey meets a critical need at providing a clear count of this diverse American community and in educating both Muslims and the mainstream Americans about Muslims and Islam. It will have powerful social and political implications both now and for years to come, insha Allah. Thus the first essential start has been made.
But along side other essential work must be taken up, if it is to have any significant impact. It is time that Muslim organizations develop strategies to achieve their long term objectives. For this they will have to develop a consensus in the community and involve it enthusiastically for achieving these objectives. For this, concerted efforts are needed to bring in the African American community with its extensive experience to fight for their rights in America. Thus each local Muslim organization should gather its community frequently, discuss and debate issues affecting them, with their pros and cons, in open meetings. They should involve the mainstream media to offer their viewpoints on important community issues.
To ensure success, Muslim individuals and organizations need to enlist other Americans to their causes. There are many areas of common domestic and foreign concerns where joint efforts could be launched in concert with other American organizations. By working together, their efforts would turn into a positive force that should impact American public opinion. It has to go on until a majority stands together with them. It is a long and arduous job but must continue in order to make America stand for just and moral causes that Muslims aspire for.
Mark Levine, a Middle Eastern historian writing online for Al Jazeera on "Obama's other Muslim problem" says: "Most of the generations X,Y Muslims I know, from Morocco to Pakistan, will not be swayed by Obama's lofty rhetoric unless it is backed by comprehensive changes in US foreign policy. Indeed, the young and educated citizens of the Muslim majority world are more politically sophisticated and historically knowledgeable of Washington's foreign policy than their generational cohorts in the US. They feel deeply and negatively impacted by these policies as they try to find coherence and stability in the increasingly chaotic post-9/11 landscape."
Among suggestions Levine offers, is that Obama must do is to "stop offering political, economic, and military support to repressive governments who torture political prisoners, discourage economic and political reform, and censor Facebook, YouTube and other key nodes of emerging Muslim public and cultural spheres."
And: "He must push US forces out of Iraq, now. And perhaps more importantly, Obama must hold all the countries of the Middle East -including Israel -to one standard."
Levine asks: Would a President Obama satisfy any of these demands? "Not likely," is his answer and he recounts Obama's various responses. Thus: "It becomes difficult to see how such views would enable the kind of "aggressive diplomatic effort" across the region the senator calls for."
And recounting Obama's stand on Iran and Iraq, Levine comments: "This suggests that as president, Obama would continue and even increase US military engagements in the region, against the wishes of the vast majority of its inhabitants."
"Luckily, a burgeoning coalition of people across the Middle East -in particular the younger generation -are not waiting for "President" Obama, or any one else, to save them."
And then Levine talks of a "growing community, religious and secular together" that is "challenging the sclerotic politics of their governments" and "the resistance" "extremism"-"in cyberspace, in the emerging media sphere, and when possible on the streets -with a positive, peace, justice and development oriented Islam."
Thus Levine concludes: "If an Obama administration is unwilling or unable to break free of the geopolitical and economic priorities that have long determined US Middle East policy, it will be up to the young Americans who helped elect him to join their counterparts across the Muslim world in demanding that their leaders finally walk the talk of peace, democracy and equitable development.
"If they do, an Obama White House could preside over the birth of a new and more positive relationship between the US and the Muslim world."
To which I as an American Muslim say: "Amen! It is about time."
Actually, it is past time for the United States to realize that its wider interests lie in seeking the friendship of 1.5 billion Muslims with their resource-rich lands rather than following the transient interests of special groups, and pursuing its disastrous hegemonic agenda of invasion and occupation. Believe it or not, the 21st century is destined to become the century of Islamic liberalism and tolerance -to live and let live, honorably - rather than resorting to the techniques of dead past of subjugating Muslim masses. It must be clear by now that no amount of soft-diplomatic propaganda and the rhetoric of freedom to bring in varieties of neo-colonialism would work in this enlightened age.
Siraj Mufti is retired from the faculty of the University of Arizona and as a chaplain from the U.S. Department of Justice. He visits federal and private prisons in Arizona for Muslim inmates.
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