US Elections: A seat at the American political table

Have a seat

The African American community did not end segregation – the racist practice of separating Whites and Blacks prevalent in the US South even until the 1960s – by sitting at home and complaining about it. They ended it by “taking a seat at the lunch counter” and sitting down at the front of the bus where they weren’t supposed to be.

But what does this have to do with the American Muslim community today?

I’ll tell you.

As a child growing up – be it in Northern Virginia or Eastern Saudi Arabia – the work of my parents in the fields of education and the environment inspired me to try to work to improve the state of society in which I lived.

Yet when I graduated from university in the late 1980s, and began my own effort to improve the state of my own society – America – I decided to get involved in electoral politics supporting campaigns and referendums. Many in my family were at best puzzled, and more frequently highly discouraging. With an undergraduate degree in economics from a top university, my parents pushed me to pursue a “respected career” in banking or finance.

It wasn’t until four years later when I went back to an Ivy League graduate school to get a masters degree in economics and public policy and then went to work at the World Bank, that my parents breathed a sigh of relief. But it was too soon.

Before too long, I was back on the campaign trail, working – at the age of 29 – as a full-time unpaid volunteer on Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, eating up my meager savings.

Should Muslim Americans vote conservative in 2008? – Republican candidate Ron Paul has called for a less-intrusive foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, and John McCain has taken on the wasteful government spending including earmarks (a friend once remarked, “earmarks are the entry ‘drug’ for harder spending addiction”), corruption, and has fought against those calling for the use of torture. (Read more…)

While some thought I had wasted my time, the result was, I was invited to join the Clinton Administration, and eventually joined as a presidential appointee at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the Department of Defense. I was also asked to serve as Al Gore’s National Director for Ethnic American Outreach for his 2000 Presidential campaign.

And my involvement in politics has never faltered since – it has also help grow a fun and successful career as policy analyst. Since then I’ve volunteered in policy and outreach positions part time for the successful campaigns of two of Virginia’s governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and two unsuccessful Presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and John Kerry.

But why have I – an American Muslim and a child of an Arab immigrant and an American mother – always felt so passionate about being involved in the political process? And why the Democratic Party?

Because as a child growing up, my role model was always Dr. Martin Luther King. As I grew older, I came to realize I felt a strong affinity for the strength Dr. King drew from his on faith in God to advocate for social justice, poverty reduction, and the equality of races – all virtues that to me are the core of what it means to be an American, and also what it means to be a Muslim.

For me, the Democratic Party was a natural fit. For me the core values of my faith are belief in God, and to treat others as I would want to be treated. For me, the Democratic Party most closely embraces those values: A desire to help the poor through social programs. A desire to work in a more multilateral manner in the international community. A desire to be more respectful workers and their families. A desire to provide more health care and protect the environment for future generations. Finally, I never thought that that there was a place for a “third party” in American politics. It just doesn’t work that way in the U.S., though it does in other countries which have different sets of rules.

But Dr. King, and the African American community did not end segregation – the racist practice of separating Whites and Blacks prevalent in the US South even in the 1960s – by sitting at home and complaining about it. They ended it by “taking a seat at the lunch counter”.

I have long felt that American Muslims have long suffered from political segregation – kept outside of the mainstream. Kept out, in my view, not primarily by others who did not know and like them, but instead keeping themselves out of the process, leaving the “dirty” business of politics “where there was no future for people like us.”

True, as a child growing up in suburban America, I never heard of any Arab or Muslim names in politics, inside government, or in the media. True, there were a few pioneers, but they were not visible.

Today the situation has changed. 9/11 has brought the American Muslim community into the spotlight. American Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison was right there for the cameras in early August when a Minneapolis bridge collapsed to reassure the citizens of his state.

But the political segregation of the American Muslim community can now come to an end – if this community is willing to struggle for political inclusion from inside America’s political house by taking a seat at the table.

Decisions about policy – be it poverty, Iraq, bridge construction, education, the environment – don’t get made by people who don’t participate. They get made by people who have a seat at the political table.

And you don’t just get to take that seat because you want one. You have to earn it. You have to work hard – for years. Voting is a nice start, but frankly, it’s only beginning. The key to success in influencing how America takes its decisions is volunteerism. Get involved in your local political party – either party, though as a life long Democrat, I hope you’ll support the Democratic Party. Volunteer every week. Before too long, the local party will grow to depend on your talent, your energy, and you’ll be at the center of things.

And anyone who tries to tell you that politics will hurt your professional career doesn’t know a thing about how America really works. First of all, there’s no better way to learn about America than to go door to door for candidates you believe in, be it in your neighborhood or in the battle ground states of a Presidential campaign. Second, the relationships you can build through your volunteer efforts in politics can last a lifetime. I never learned so much about American than through my work for Al Gore in Tennessee and Michigan or John Kerry in Florida. All along the way, I have met wonderful, wonderful people.

Today the American Muslim community has a choice. It can stay out of politics. Or it can take a seat at the most important lunch counter in the world – the American political table. And in doing so – over time, and through hard work – the American Muslim community can begin to have a dramatic impact on not only America’s future, but the future of the world. And earn tremendous respect and admiration in the process.

Hady Amr formerly served as Al Gore’s National Director for Ethnic American Outreach and is currently a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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