Muslims and the Contestations of Religio-Political Space in America


Muslims and the Contestations of Religio-Political Space in America

A deep look at the increasing participation and role of Muslims in American politics over the years

Policy Perspectives , Volume6 , Number1, January – June 2009


[Having gone through a process of maturation in the post 9/11 period, a new form of political engagement based on a re-thinking of the conventional paradigm of socio-political activism can be witnessed among the American Muslim community. Today, there is a change of emphasis from purely electoral politics to the politics of “social movements,” of coalitions with other progressive forces in America on a range of issues based on common concerns and objectives such as immigration, civil rights and health care. Progressive Muslim organizations in the US have effectively challenged those among their own community who objected to socio-political activity within a secular America. They have also been engaged successfully in building bridges with non-Muslim communities and groups. This new approach of coalition building has facilitated increasingly cordial interaction between Muslims and other faith communities in America. – Ed.]



“What type of Islam, and what type of Muslims?” has undoubtedly become a global question, but has assumed a particularly critical status in the context of the United States. It is now commonly perceived that despite the wide variety of voices that one hears from American Muslims, a uniquely American discourse is emerging from within this colorful mosaic. The evolution of such a discourse can be substantially linked to the problematic of the political to the crucial political junctions and disjunctions that the Muslim community in America has faced over the past three decades or so. Only from the perspective of the historical architecture of the socio-political positioning and maneuvering of “Muslim America” can one begin to grasp the impulses of the contemporary, post-9/11 era.


The African-American Muslim discursive tradition and socio-political struggle are now well-documented[1]. The articulation of race and identity politics in both America and Muslim America has been a seminal contribution of African American Muslim community[2]. Clearly, its manifest-tation in the modern period took shape within the broader civil rights era (in particular, the black nationalist or “black power” movements), with visionary and dynamic leaders such as Malcolm X emerging from its ranks[3]. But once the influx of a large number of immigrant Muslims from primarily South Asia and the Arab world began in the late 1960s and 1970s, a different type of “mainstream” American Muslim discourse evolved, one in which the immigrant voice became the dominant one[4]. The relatively affluent sections of this community established a number of organizations and institutions which reflected both the class and ethnic/national characteristics of these immigrant Muslims[5]. Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Muslims in America constructed a “hyperreality” of affluent religious bliss that remained largely aloof from the political affairs of the country – of course, on certain specific issues of Muslim concerns globally, i.e., Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, etc., Muslims did speak out. It was the influence exerted by a more professional, upper middle class section of American Muslims which engendered the shift from the politics of apathy and isolationist “community-building” to a certain elite politics of expediency. The culmination of the latter trend was the endorsement by the major American Muslim organizations of the candidacy of George W. Bush in the presidential election of 2000[6]. Widely criticized in retrospect for the unprincipled and unreflective nature of this decision, it was, at the time, the natural outgrowth of the lack of serious Muslim engagement both with the political process and the dominant ideological and institutional arrange-ments in the country. A more unified and mature structure of Muslim political networks, however, later tried to rectify their earlier mistake by endorsing the candidacy of Senator Barak Obama in the 2008 presidential elections.

The Impact of September 11

When the events of September 11, 2001 brought front and center the matter of Islam, the focus no longer was on Muslims’ engagement in the political process; rather, it was the politics of Islamic identity and the politicization of the Muslims socio-cultural sphere which became the preeminent issue of the day. Uncovering, contesting and repackaging Muslim identity around issues such as violence and terrorism, gender and ethnicity, the tensions between Islam and modernity or Islam and “the West,” acquired a sense of urgency and not only in the United States perhaps not seen since the colonial times[7]. Addressing the internal Muslim problematic was thought to be a prerequisite and sine qua non for developing a coherent position on Muslim participation in American social and political institutions. But in the midst of all this, it was also becoming evident that not only was a contestation occurring for the meaning or “soul of Islam,” but also for the meaning and soul of “America” the superpower that social forces both within and outside of the country were seeking to shape and re-shape to meet the demands of various interests, objectives, and ideals. The deep structures of American society and its power impulses also became open to questioning and challenge. Both “Islam” and “America” became ripe for intensified dialogical battles.

It is after this process of maturation of the Muslim community of America, with minor and major setbacks along the way, that one can now discern a new form of political engagement based on a re-thinking of the conventional paradigm of socio-political activism. Today, there is a change of emphasis from purely electoral politics to the politics of “social movements,” of coalitions with other progressive forces in America on an array of issues based on common concerns and objectives: immigration, civil rights, health care, etc. In the process, Muslims gained a greater appreciation of their own state of hybridity within America of their multiple identities and how these identities engendered engagements with an array of causes and objectives. Hence, the notion of a “principled Muslim politics” in America, one which articulates a broad agenda concerned with social justice is slowly morphing from the little narrative that it once was, to the grand one it is now becoming, from the Lacanian imaginary to the symbolic and, hopefully, eventually to the actual.


The Politics of Anti-Politics


Whether American Muslims should participate in the American political process was an issue of an intense debate before September 11, 2001 among Muslim community and religious groups. The African-American Muslim community, in its earlier, Black Nationalism phase, had also been engaged in similar debate. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the “Nation of Islam,” articulated a political theology that combined a strong dose of Black religion and nationalism with elements of Judaic-Christian mill-ennialism and Islamic eschatology[8]. The logical consequence of this theology was the denial of the moral legitimacy of American Constitution and the American legal and political system and an emphatic rejection of electoral politics[9]. However, with the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and later with the transformation of a large segment of the community from the “Nation of Islam” to the orthodox Islam under the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, the earlier policy of Elijah Muhammad to stay away from the American political process was also abandoned.


Ironically, Warith Deen Muhammad’s journey to the mainstream Islam was also his journey to the mainstream America[10]. By the early 1980s, W.D. Muhammad was not only asking his followers to play an active role in American public life, but was also campagaining enthusiastically for Ronald Reagan’s conservative political agenda. However, Minister Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the splinter group that claimed to carry the legacy of the founder of the Nation of Islam, continued to preach separatism and isolationism until the mid-1980s when he decided to endorse the presidential bid of Rev. Jessie Jackson and launched a massive campaign for voter registration among the African Americans[11]. While the politics of Minister Farrakhan continued to focus on race within the broader concerns of the African-American community, for example, his “Million Man March” gala event in Washington, DC, Imam W.D. Muhammad and his followers emphasized the gains of the civil rights movement and advocated assimilation and integration within the larger American society. In both cases, however, participation in the American political process was finally declared “halal.


The Immigrant Muslim Community: Ready or Not


With the influx of the immigrant Muslims in the wake of the immigration reforms of the 1960s, the discourse on politics of identity and substance came to be appropriated by Muslim organizations dominated by the Arab and South Asian Muslim immigrants[12]. Being “foreigners,” and first gen-eration immigrants, they were torn between the religio-cultural baggage of their countries of origin on the one hand and the magnetism of the “American dream,” on the other. As well-educated professionals, relatively affluent[13], and looking at the American political system with the prism of their own political experience of living under non-democratic, authoritarian regimes, their attitude toward politics in general, and the American politics in particular, could not be the same as that of the African-American Muslims.


The sociologists and historians of American immigrant and “ethnic” groups have identified five stages through which these groups become an integral part of the American “melting pot.” First, like most first-generation immigrants, Muslim immigrants were focused mainly on their economic well-being and preserving their distinct religious identity and practices[14]. A little later, their primary focus shifted to building Islamic centers, mosques, and national and local organizations. In the case of Muslim immigrants, however, the move from the third to the fourth and fifth stages came too soon and almost a generation earlier. According to the conventional wisdom, the fifth stage in the history of an immigrant community is reached when the third generation secures a firm socio-economic foothold in American society and begins to assert its political claims in the electoral process. In the early 1980s, however, prompted primarily by certain developments in the countries and regions of their origins, the immigrant Muslims started taking active interest in American politics, and especially the way it affected the interests of Muslims in the wider Islamic World. It was thus American foreign policy and developments in the Muslim World, rather than the immigrant Muslim community’s own specific problems, that came to be the driving factors in its involvement in the American political process.


The Politics of Distant Shores


The first such development was the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the subsequent American hostage crisis that brought, for the first time, the existence of Islam and Muslims to the attention of American people and American politicians. It is important to note that the first direct American experience at the popular level with Islam and Muslims came through, what came to be known in the American media, and even in scholarly discourse, as “Islamic fundamentalism,” “Islamic radicalism,” “Islamic militant resur-gence,” and the Iranian students’ slogans of “death to America.” Most Muslim organizations remained ambivalent toward the Islamic revolution in Iran. Whatever enthusiasm for the revolution was shown by those immigrants who were associated with the Islamic movements “back home” was mitigated by the elders of the established Muslim organizations who were more concerned about the political fallout of “Islamic radicalism” for American Muslims. While the Muslim organizations and leaders of opinion were still debating as to how to respond to the kind of Islamic resurgence represented by the Islamic revolution in Iran, and also struggling to formulate appropriate response to the negative backlash against Islam in general in the media, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979 came to their rescue.


It was here that the Cold War interests of the United States and the ideological and political interests of the Muslim Ummah converged and provided the opportunity to the American Muslim organizations to work closely with the U.S. government and American media to mobilize popular support for the Afghan Mujahideen, raise funds for the Afghan refugees, and lobby for the continued American backing of the Jihad in Afghanistan. The “good fundamentalists” of the Afghan Jihad, as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Brzezinski differentiated them from the “bad fundamentalists” of Iran[15], were the ones who first introduced the American Muslim organizations to the mechanism, logic and imperatives of the politics of lobbying and coalition-building in America. Not surprisingly, the American Muslim organizations were joined in this Afghan-American Jihad against the Soviets by the American conservative groups, Charlie Wilsons of the right-wing, and the American Jewish organizations as well. The support of the American Jewish organizations and intellectuals for Muslim community’s lobbying to press for American military action in the Balkans to stop the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s was also critical in Muslim organization’s experience of coalition politics.


The third critical development that both impelled the Muslim organizations to hasten their involvement in the American political process and also made them deeply aware of their lack of influence in American policy making institutions was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the defeat and the exodus of the PLO from Lebanon and the subsequent massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. The fact that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon had taken place either with an active collusion of the Reagan administration, or at least with an approving nod, deeply disturbed the American Muslim community and organizations and brought them face to face with the logic of American politics and power as well as with the inordinate influence of the Jewish community on America’s Middle East policy, and especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus, the mid-1980s witnessed the emergence or several national level Muslim political organizations and the activation of previously dormant Arab-American organizations in order to seek a niche in policy making circles. The initiative in this regard also came from the Arab Christian immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine who had preceded their Muslim compatriots in coming to America and were, therefore, relatively well-integrated in the larger American society.


“But is it Islamic?”


The debate on the Islamic religious legitimacy of participating in a secular political system like that of the United States was an echo of a similar debate taking place among the Western European Muslim immigrant communities in the wake of the reverberations of Iranian revolution. In the particular context of the American Muslim community four specific factors greatly influenced the scope and the nature of the debate: the theocratic particularism of Salafi ideology popular among the non-Ikhwan Egyptian Muslim immigrants; the increasingly strident incursion of Wahhabi Puritanism in the mosques and Islamic centers through the Saudi financial backing and the influx of Saudi imams; the non-political, pietistic and Sufi orientation of most of the prominent White American converts to Islam; and the increasing popularity of the South Asian grassroots Islamic movement, the Tablighi Jamaat that detests all politics, Muslim or non-Muslim, and regards it as a morally inferior activity. The upshot of these mutually divergent religious tendencies was the rejection of the idea of political participation by American Muslims. While the Salafis and Wahhabis, and later, those associated with the Hizbut Tahrir, regarded the American society as Dar-ul Harb or Dar-ul Kufr, and its political system based on secular principles, and therefore, haram for Muslims (“Khalifornia,” 1999), the Tablighis and the Sufis were of the view that political participation would distract Muslims from their primary religious obligation of self-purification and spiritual enrichment. For the Salafis and Wahhabis, participation in American politics meant accepting secular democracy and its underlying idea of popular sovereignty, which was tantamount to betraying the Islamic idea of the sovereignty of Allah[16].


The rejectionist camp was vigorously challenged by both the Muslim national organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and the Muslim American Society (MAS) and also by prominent Muslim scholars and intellectuals. Interestingly, their arguments in favor of Muslim political participation were based both on Islamic teachings and the imperatives of political pragmatism. Abdul-Aziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia, Sulayman Nyang of Howard University, Fathi Osman of a California-based Muslim think tank, Dr. Muzzamil Siddiqui of ISNA, and Taha Jabir Al-Alwani of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) wrote extensively on the compatibility of Islam, democracy and pluralism and reminded Muslims of their religious duty to strive for the common good and for the welfare of their fellow citizens through participation in public affairs. Sulayman Nyang went a step further and argued that the fundamental moral-political principles underlying the American constitution and the institutional structures that ensure the separation of power and checks and balances in the American political system were not only compatible with the Islamic values and principles of governance but were, in fact, inherently Islamic. Taha Jabir Al-Alwani and the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) that he heads and Muzammil Siddiqui of ISNA sought to develop a new fiqh al-aqaliyya (jurisprudence for Muslims living as religious minorities in democratic societies) that draws on the scriptural texts and the classical and medieval juristic formulations to validate the Muslim participation in the American political process[17]. The Palestinian intell-ectual-activist Ismail Faruqi of Temple University, although strongly critical of the moral-philosophical bases of American political ideas and practices, nevertheless, advocated active political participation by American Muslims, if only to influence American foreign policy toward the Muslim World[18].


“Why Can’t we be Like the Jews?”


The primary model for American Muslim organizations for political influence peddling and participation in public affairs has been the American Jewish community and its most successful lobbying networks working in Washington both in the legislative and the executive branches of the government. Muslims in America often compare themselves with the American Jews and lament the fact that despite being already numerically equal to the Jews, their influence on American foreign and domestic policies is nowhere near the influence exercised by the Jews. Ali Mazrui has argued that this difference in political influence between the two communities is due, in part, to the fact that (a) the Jewish-American identity is con-solidated enough to be focused on issues of common concerns; (b) Jewish Americans are more strategically positioned in American economy and finance; (c) they are also well-positioned in the media and academic and research institutions; and (d) they have long established their stakes in the American political and electoral processes[19].


While there is some degree of gratitude among thoughtful Muslims that the freedom of religion that they enjoy today in America is a result of the battles fought and won by their Jewish cousins and Catholics as well[20] for religious liberty and pluralism, the American Muslim organizations see the political network of the Jewish community as their main rival in terms of how the U.S. policies toward the Middle East are tilted in favor of Israel. It is here that the “Jewish lobby” is seen both as an adversary to contend with and as a role model to emulate in order to gain the level of success in, and access to, the corridors of power in America that the Jews have been able to achieve. The emergence in recent years of Muslim political action committees (PACs), civil rights groups and lobbying organizations such as Muslim Political Action Committee (MPAC), American Muslim Council, American Muslim Political Task Force, Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (AAAC), the Arab-American Institute, and host of other organizations at the national level are exact replica of American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) one of the most successful and influential lobbying organizations in Washington and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League[21]. The Muslim advocacy and civil rights groups both fight against and try to be like their Jewish counterparts. The most emotional issues in the electoral politics at the national level for both Jews and Muslims, particularly among immigrant Muslims, are the issues related to the U.S. policies toward the Middle East. While the Jews in America generally vote for the candidates who are more sympathetic to the state of Israel, Muslim voters, similarly, weigh heavily a candidate’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the question of Palestine.


The relevance of the Jewish model of socio-economic and political influence in America for Muslims is reflected in the following exhortation by a prominent Muslim community leader:


“Along with having advanced education in medicine, business administration, and computer sciences, the Muslims should also excel in the social sciences, law, communications, journalism, media, political science, sociology, and international relations. During this era of institution building, we should also plan to establish Muslim universities and hospitals, as well as think tanks and research centers for public policy in America”[22].


“Why Can’t they be Like us?”


One question that has been raised often by many observers of the American Muslim community relates to the extent of their differences from the “mainstream” American society. The general perception has been that American Muslims’ views on politics, religion, economy and society are totally antithetical to, and irreconcilable with, the views held by their fellow Americans. Several conservative and neo-conservative writers and right-wing radio talk show hosts have argued, especially since 9/11, that Muslims’ worldview and their ideas of politics and religion are so alien to the mainstream American thinking that, unlike other religious minorities that came to America, they are simply incapable of integrating themselves in American society. A more sustained discussion of this theme at the global/world-historical level is found in the writings of the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington who believes that a fundamental cleavage of values and norms exists between what he describes as “Western civilization” and “Islamic civilization”[23]. The Princeton Uni-versity professor of Middle Eastern Studies Bernard Lewis has also argued about the fundamental incompatibility between Islam and what he calls “the Judaic-Christian” values[24]. Muslims, according to this view, are seen as the ultimate “other” of the West.


A less strident school of thought, although not subscribing to the Huntingtonian notion of the fundamental incongruity between Islam and the Western world, nevertheless, does find Muslims rather deficient in, or at least different from, the mainstream American values and norms about politics, society and economy. “Why can’t the Muslims be like us” is a common refrain among this group of writers and commentators both in scholarly discourse and popular media.


However, despite the fact that Muslims constitute a small minority in the United States, and they are usually seen as “different” from their American compatriots, Muslim Americans are not what can be described as “the other” when it comes to their religious commitments and political views. A recent Pew Research Center report shows that in many ways “they stand out not so much for their differences as for their similarities with other religious groups”[25]. The most interesting finding of this report relates to the wide variety of religio-political choices that American Muslims seem to have made in order to balance their social and religious conservatism with their progressive politics. For example, in their level of religious commitment, Muslim Americans are closer to white evangelicals, but in their fundamental political views, they closely resemble black Protestants as well as those who are secular. However, on some social issues, such as homosexuality, pornography and abortion, Muslims’ conservatism is no different from that of white evangelicals. In fact, Muslims are even more emphatic than “evangelicals or any other group to support a role for government in protecting morality”[26]. Another important finding of the Pew research is that while Muslim Americans share a great deal with white evangelicals with respect to religious intensity, the two groups fall apart when it comes to their respective political orientation: Muslim Americans are found far more politically liberal than evangelicals, and much closer “to black Protestants, secular Americans and, in some instances, white mainline Protestants”[27].


In terms of party identification, less than 11% Muslims identify themselves as Republican, almost the same percentage as that of black Protestants (10%), but five times less than white evangelicals (57%). This is despite the fact that Muslim Americans voted in large numbers for President George Bush in the 2000 presidential elections. In the states with considerable number of Muslim registered voters (Michigan, New York, Illinois) Muslim votes made a significant difference for President Bush. Sixty percent Muslim Americans reported that they were either Democrats or lean towards Democratic Party. What was most important in the decision by the leading Muslim community and political organizations to endorse George Bush’s candidacy was the perception that Democrats are generally more pro-Israel and pro-India than the Republicans. This argument played well with both the Arab-American and Pakistani-American organizations. It is obvious from the subsequent debate in the Muslim press, especially after the invasion of Iraq and the unfolding of the Bush administration’s unprecedented pro-Israel Middle East policy, that the decision to endorse George Bush was forced on Muslim Americans primarily by the Arab-American organizations that were given assurance by the Bush campaign that he would repeal the Secret Evidence Act when elected. The fact that the Republican Party’s domestic policy agenda was seen as antithetical to the interests of minorities and also that almost 90% of African-American Muslims who constitute about 35% of the total American Muslim population identified themselves with the Democratic Party did not count much with the leading Muslim political groups.


Interestingly, the one-time Republican tilt during the 2000 pre-sidential election was amply compensated by Muslims by reverting to their “original” partisan and ideological preferences in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. Aggregation of the 50 state exit polls conducted by the National Election Pool showed that 85% Muslims supported the Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004. This brought Muslims closer to black Protestants (86%) in their choice for John Kerry. The election data for 2004 also showed that Muslims’ support for the Democratic candidate was even greater than the two heavily Democratic constituencies: Jews (74%) and secular voters (67%). In 2008 again, despite Senator Obama’s strong pro-Israel statements and commitments during his campaign, the overwhelming Muslim vote went to the Democratic candidate, having seen the worst under the Republican administration of George Bush during 2000-2008. What prompted the Muslim political organizations to endorse Obama’s candidacy was his opposition to the Iraq invasion, his promise to withdraw from Iraq, his commitment to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, and the likelihood of a better civil rights environment in the new political dispensation. No less important in this decision by the Muslim organization to support Senator Obama was his Muslim “background,” although he tried to distance himself from Muslims for fear of losing support of those who believed that being a Muslim was something like being anti-American.


Political Liberalism, Social Conservatism


The progressive/liberal political ideology of Muslim Americans is nowhere as evident as in their views on the proper size and scope of government. A substantial majority of Muslim Americans (70%) prefer a larger govern-ment that provides more social services rather than a smaller government providing fewer services a preference almost similar to that of black Protestants as well as white Catholics and white mainline Protestants. The support of Muslim Americans for a more assertive role of the government in social services sector is due primarily to the fact that (a) a majority of immigrant Muslims have migrated from countries with a tradition of heavy state subsidies for the social services; and (b) the relative poverty among the African-American Muslim community that the legacy of the supply-side economics of the Reagan era seems to have further aggravated.


Despite their relatively liberal political ideology on the role of the government, Muslims take a conservative position on social issues and in this regard they are more similar to white evangelicals[28]. About 60% of Muslim Americans say that homosexuality should be discouraged, a figure that corresponds to that reported for white evangelicals. Similarly, their views on abortion, pornography, same-sex marriage, and “family values” are as conservative as those of white Catholics and evangelical Protestants[29]. As Ali Mazrui has noted, “while American secularism is good news for Muslims (separating church from state), American libertarianism is bad news for Islam”[30].


The conservative politics among American Muslims has two aspects: while social conservatism cuts across all socioeconomic classes, fiscal conservatism is confined primarily among the professional and business elite among immigrant Muslims. Many Muslim organizations have sprung up in recent years to champion conservative (or neo-liberal) economic policies at home and abroad and have justified their advocacy of lower taxes, small government, deregulation of business, free market economy and importance of individual responsibility in terms of Islamic religious tea-chings and Islamic social norms. The Washington-based Islamic Free Market Institute and The Freedom Foundation are recent attempts to build relationships between American Muslims and the mainstream conservative political movement in the United States. The alliance between affluent Muslim constituency and the fiscal conservative movement is realized through teaching traditional conservative values to Muslims, and traditional Islamic beliefs to the public as well as political leaders and activists. With more than one million Muslims registered to vote, mainstream conservative organizations seem to have realized the importance of including in their ranks a politically active American Muslim community in the electoral process, both at the state and federal levels. Khaled Saffuri, a veteran political insider, who founded the Islamic Free Market Institute in 1998 and the American Task Force for Bosnia (ATFB) in 1992, has been a moving spirit behind promoting a conservative economic agenda among the American Muslims.


What also makes the largest number of Muslim Americans “mainstream Americans” is that they define their political ideology as “moderate,” as is the case with most other groups in the United States. A more recent Pew Research Center survey of a national sample of 1,050 Muslims living in the United States found that despite the fact that Muslim Americans are a highly diverse population, one largely composed of immigrants, they are, nonetheless, decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes. Overall, Muslim Americans have a generally positive view of the larger American society. Most say their communities are excellent or good places to live. Another “American trait” that they share with their fellow-citizens is their belief that hard work pays off in this society. Fully 71% agree that most people who want to get ahead in the United States can make it if they are willing to work hard. The most important finding of the survey was that although many Muslims are recent immigrants to the United States, they are, nevertheless, highly assimilated into American society. They are also of the view that Muslims coming to the U.S. should try and adopt American customs, rather than remain distinct from the larger society. And by nearly two-to-one (63%-32%) Muslim Americans do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society like the United States[31].


The only area where Muslims stand out from other groups is on the issue of immigration, obviously because two-thirds (65%) of Muslim Americans are first-generation immigrants themselves. When asked whether immigrants strengthen or burden the country, for instance, nearly three-in-four Muslims say immigrants strengthen the country. This pro-immigrant sentiment is much higher than that seen among other religious groups. The only exception is the Catholic Hispanic American community – another group that includes a high percentage of first-generation immigrants. Asked a slightly different question in an earlier Pew survey, two-thirds of Catholic Hispanic Americans said that growing numbers of immigrants strengthened American society.


“All Politics is Local.”


Another political stance that has become quite visible in recent years is the interest of American Muslims in local politics. This again is a development that has become especially noticeable after the events of 9/11. Both the negative and positive reactions to the events of 9/11 that the Muslim Americans experienced were at the local level in their work places, Islamic centers, shopping malls, convenience stores, gas stations, neighborhoods (Barrett, 2006). It was the local level political and law enforcement leadership mayors, councilors, county officials, sheriffs who were the first responders to their distress calls, not the Congressmen or Senators or federal officials. And it was at the local level that the Muslim communities around the United States received an outpouring of sympathy and support from churches and community organizations in the wake of 9/11 when the ascription of guilt by association became a fair game on the part of several right wing radio and TV talk show hosts and the rampant rumors of “sleeper cells” of terrorists among Muslims were being spread even from the Attorney General Ashcroft’s office[32]. No national level Muslim political organization was strong and effective enough to help thousands of small Muslim communities spread all over America who felt vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy.


It was in this context that for the first time Muslim communities in many parts of America started taking real interest in local politics and building bridges of understanding with local churches and community organizations. Both individually and through political organizations, Muslims are now actively participating in local election campaigns by launching voter registration campaigns, educating the Muslim community on local political issues and controversies, building coalitions with like-minded groups, and contributing time and money for candidates who are sensitive to the concerns of Muslims at the local level. In many cases, candidates for city halls, county offices, law enforcement positions and school districts are invited to the Islamic centers to address the local Muslim voters and present their platforms. In addition, Muslims in many localities are putting up their own candidates through the mainstream political parties (mainly Democratic Party) for municipal and county governments, judicial positions, school districts and state legislatures[33]. MPAC has collected data about hundreds of Muslims who have contested and won local level elections since 2002. Keith Allison’s election as the first Muslim American Congressman in 2006 is an important milestone in Muslims’ involvement in, and building coalitions with, local level politically relevant groups. Also, it is at the local level politics that the immigrant Muslim communities interact more intimately and strongly with the African-American Muslims, a phenomenon that still eludes the national Muslim organizations.


Muslims in Non-Electoral American Social Movements


At the present juncture in Muslim American political participation, there has been a dramatic shift among a significant section of Muslims particularly young Muslims from their teens to their thirties toward non-conventional forms of political activism. Still recovering from a drumbeat of criticism for earlier “bloc endorsements” of one party/candidate over another, the American Muslim leadership has now begun to endorse a more flexible approach to political engagement to promote “Muslim interests” in the American public sphere. Multifaceted strategies and methods for socio-political influence and community advancement are being readily adopted by various strata of Muslim Americans.


Such an approach to political engagement by Muslim Americans seems to derive from an understanding of the limitations of a sole focus on electoral politics, especially the presidential elections held every four years. The belief that there is a mechanical and fairly passive, almost spectator-like, quality which increasingly characterizes contemporary American electoral politics renders the search for alternative tactical political alignments all the more necessary. This rising consciousness among Muslims about the structural constraints of the two-party system in the US also corresponds to a heightened awareness among Americans in general about the relevance of past eras of intense socio-political activity outside of the realm of pure electoral politics in order to realize significant social change and enact a variety of reforms concerning both domestic and foreign policies. Terms such as “grassroots” and “movement” have now re-entered American political activist discourse and have become popular among intellectuals and cadres of a variety of political tendencies, especially in the context of anti-Iraq war rallies during the past five years.


Although such a political stance is often condescendingly described as “single issue politics,” its proponents prefer to see it as more “principled politics,” i.e. organization and mobilization with other like-minded groups around particular issues of common concern, avoiding the necessary compromises involved in endorsing “lesser evils” both candidates and political parties. For Muslims, there have emerged certain aspects of society, politics and, somewhat less so, the economy that evoke a sense of injustice, and that, in the eyes of many Muslims, merit concrete action. Some of the principal issues here include: civil liberties, immigration matters, the “war on terror” in general and the US policy on the Middle East in particular, universal health care and health insurance, minimum wage, and economic justice issues. Prominent Muslim groups and leaders have emerged who have demonstrated leadership on these issues, and the capacity to work with a cross-section from American society, from faith-based to more secular oriented groups, in advancing progressive change. Perhaps one of the most visible and influential examples of such new Muslim American political approaches is that of the Council of Islamic Organizations of the Greater Chicago Area (CIOGC), led by Imam and community leader Abdul Malik Mujahid. Mujahid has pioneered Muslim coalition building with a variety of progressive social forces in his area as well as nationally, on an array of issues ranging from immigration, health care, homelessness, workers’ rights and civil liberties to American militarism and imperial ambitions. Other imams and community leaders like Mujahid across the country, especially in urban areas such as Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles, have also taken similar initiatives. Muslim youth, particularly those of middle class professional families who were accustomed to relatively comfortable and harassment-free lifestyles before Sept. 11, 2001, began to experience discrimination first-hand, and, as a result, their cognizance of many of the significant political questions of the day increased dramatically. Young Muslims are now engaged in sober reflection on the deficiencies of their own communities, the failed strategies of the “old guard” for socio-economic advancement of their African-American co-religionists and the lower strata of the immigrant Muslims the cab drivers, the gas station attendants, the convenience stores’ clerks and how America was beginning to fail to live up its cherished ideals. This has led to a logical interaction with some of the more progressive social movements in the US, both on campuses and in communities, and has encouraged mutual dialogue and concerted action for justice and peace. This new approach of coalition building on issues of public concerns on the part of the young Muslim activists has also facilitated increasingly cordial interaction between Muslims and other faith communities in America.


Born, raised and educated in the United States, aware of their First Amendment rights as American citizens and willing to test the system to its limits, and familiar with the working of the American system, this second generation of young American Muslims enters the American political process with both anger and hope: anger at the ways in which the current administration has failed to live up to the American ideals of fair play and due process of law; and hope that their struggle in coalition with other concerned Americans can transform America into a vibrant and a just democratic society that is at peace with itself and with the rest of the world.




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[1] Curtis 1V, 2002; Dannin, 2005; Jackson, 2005; McCloud, 1994; Turner, 2003

[2] Jackson, 2005

[3] Ansari, 2004; McCloud, 1994; Turner, 2003

[4] Jackson, 2005

[5] Barrett, 2006

[6] Mazrui, 2004

[7] Lewis, 2003

[8] Ansari, 2004

[9] Turner, 2003

[10] Ahmad and Nyang, 1984

[11] Ahmad, 1984

[12] Jackson, 2005

[13] Barrett, 2006

[14] Husain, 1996

[15] Mamdani, 2005

[16] Ahmad, 2003

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mazrui, 2004

[20] Leckie, 1970

[21] Mearsheimer and Walt, 2007.

[22] MAS, 2004.

[23] Huntington, 1998.

[24] Lewis, 2004.

[25] Pew Research Center, 2007

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Hunter, 1983.

[30] Mazrui, 2004.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Yousef, 2004

[33] Nimer, 2004

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