AMERICAN MUSLIM ENGAGEMENT IN POLITICS
By Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
Minaret of Freedom Institute
Presented at the 1999 Meeting
of the American Muslim Social Scientists in Herndon, VA
Abstract: We survey the degree to which American Muslims have been or have not been engaged in the political process. We suggest reasons why this engagement has been limited to date, review evidence for its growth, and consider scenarios for the future of Muslim participation.
One possible definition of democracy is popular political participation. Although it is not one of the more common definitions, a case can be made that it is the most important. Political participation can take many forms, including voting, campaigning, running for public or party office, political organizing, lobbying, and politically related educational activity. Muslims in America have been underrepresented in all these areas of political activity.
The American Muslim Alliance, which is actively engaged in promoting Muslim involvement in politics, estimates that there are only about ten Muslims elected to public office in the United States. A major first occurred several years ago in the election of Charles Bilal, an African-American convert to the position of Mayor of Koutze, a south-east Texas town whose population is about ninety percent Christian. Since then the most significant advance has been the election of a Muslim to a state legislature. These successes demonstrate that it is possible for Muslims to hold win elected office even as minorities. Why then is it so rare?
To understand the impediments, we have found it convenient to divide the Muslim community into three categories: immigrants, converts (who prefer to be called reverts) and children of Muslims (whether immigrant or converted). The first two groups have severely limited political activity for apparently opposite reasons. The immigrants mostly come from countries with undemocratic political institutions in which political activity is unfamiliar, constrained, prohibited, or outright dangerous. They presume that any attempt to achieve major changes in the policies of the government through open political activity will subject them to risks of economic exclusion or outright legal retaliation such they would suffer in their home countries. The converts, overwhelmingly African-Americans, understand the history of the American political system and are aware the history of the co-option of the black community here by the political establishment. They remember how the noble goal of civil rights and equality of opportunity bred the welfare programs and the government schools that have institutionalized the underclass status of the mass of their brothers and sisters. In other words, the immigrants are insufficiently familiar with the political system and the converts are all too familiar with it.
Converts are especially active in the areas of mass mobilization. It is remarkable that African-Americans are predominant in demonstrations on immigrant issues like the counter-terrorism act at both the organizational and grass-roots levels.
The immigrants who are most actively involved in political campaigning seem to be the Pakistanis. This is to be expected since Pakistan is the Muslim country with the longest tradition of multi-party politics. For many years American Pakistanis were courted by Pakistani politicians who came here seeking votes for elections in Pakistan. Pakistani-Americans are at the helm of a number of organizations, sometimes with a broad appeal, with titles identifying the groups as a "Muslim" or "Asian" organization.
For the children of the Muslims, their goals are varied and I believe that as significant a fraction of them are as interested in political participation as are found in any other religious group. They, however, are impeded by the prejudice against Muslims and some of the ethnic groups to which they belong (especially Arabs and African-Americans), and especially by the iron door slammed in the face of any political activist that seeks to change American policy towards Israel.
There is evidence for growth in the involvement of a number of Muslim organizations in promoting political participation. I addition to the previously mentioned American Muslim Association, the American Muslim Council seeks to advance the political empowerment of Muslims through efforts to train and encourage them in the means of contacting legislators and administrative officials to promote their concerns. The Council on American Islamic Relations emphasizes civil rights issues and has assisted Muslim women whose jobs have been lost or threatened due to their choice to wear a headscarf.
A coalition of eight American Muslim and Arab-American groups have launched an effort to register Muslim voters in anticipation of the year-2000 election: The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Muslim Alliance, the American Muslim Council, Arab American Institute, Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the National Association of Arab Americans. The American Muslim Council has assembled a voter registration kit to facilitate the registration process. The American Muslim Alliance devoted its second annual leadership conference in Detroit last June to political education and to raising awareness in the minds of elected legislators of the presence of the Muslim community in America. They covered skills related to campaigning, critical evaluation of local politics, comparison of the political programs of the major parties and coalition building.
In 1997, the American Muslim Foundation did a study searching for voters with Muslim names. An artificial intelligence system was defined to do the search. Although no systematic check was done to ascertain the efficiency of the system in its search, the computer program found over 400,000 "probably Muslim" names from searching the voter rolls of forty-six states and the District of Columbia. Although a significant fraction of these voters may be assumed to be non-Muslims regardless of the efficiency of the program, it is also certainly true that a very large number of Muslims would be registered under names which are not recognizably Muslim.
An important area that has not been explored by any organized Muslim group is civic activism. Two individual Muslims who have been actively engaged in this area in Montgomery County, Maryland are myself and Samira Hussein. I am currently the elected President of the East Bethesda Citizens Association and Vice President of the Montgomery County Civic Federation. These offices have placed me in a position to influence political decisions in Montgomery County Maryland without holding political office. Mrs. Hussein is a relentlessly active Muslimah who has had a significant impact on educational policy in the county. As an Arab immigrant Mrs. Hussein has faced tangible prejudice and bigotry, yet she has received awards and citations for her activism. Because of her efforts the schools have taken notice of Islamic holiday dates in their calendars and the state of Maryland has urged them to make some accommodation for them for the Muslim students.
Discussions within the Muslim community for future effort to increase political participation have included recruiting and promoting Muslim candidates, organizing block voting in order to make the Muslim presence in the electorate more tangible to the elected officials. There is no serious effort to form an Islamic political party since the American system of voting would make it a hopeless cause. The American system is a winner-take-all system that does not give small parties a direct role in the formation of governments such as is the case in democracies with multi-party systems. At this stage, with Muslims only about 2% of the population, there is no chance of an Islamic party replacing one of the major parties. However, Muslims organized into a voting block or caucus that strikingly increased the vote totals of an existing third party such as the Reform Party or the Libertarians could have a strong influence on Republicans or Democrats who would hope to woo them in the future. Voting for a third party when neither major party will take an acceptable stand will force the major parties to court the voters rather than ignore them.