In 1930, the submissive image of the “Mammy” pervaded television. Today, a commanding Barack Obama replaces her. Catholics, once a minority group and heavily stigmatized, are now the largest religious denomination in the United States. Every era in American history sees minority groups rise in rank and gain acceptance, including the Irish, Jews, and Italians. American Muslims today are drawing many lessons from their marginalized predecessors; they too realize that becoming an integrated part of American society may require greater political participation. Significantly, though, the question is not only how taking part in the political process will aid American Muslims, but also, how American Muslims can help this country.
Rumors abound on the religious persuasions of Illinois Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama. Considering that one fifth of the American population would feel uneasy at even having a Muslim neighbor, the prospect of having a Muslim president is probably all the more terrifying. This is probably why pictures of a turban-wearing Obama left many feeling unsure and insecure in their support for this candidate, regardless of his qualities otherwise. Many American Muslims, perhaps surprisingly to some, also feel uneasy every time any association is made between Obama and Islam. This uneasiness stems from two reasons: a sense of alienation from the rest of American society and worry that highly-qualified individuals could get rejected based on association with Islam.
And yet, in spite of this fear and the alienation, Muslims are getting increasingly involved in the American political scene. The dedication of the American Muslim community to civic engagement is exemplified by their involvement in politics at a time when it is easy to feel powerless. America is home to millions of Muslims, and growing. With this increase in population, a new generation of Muslims is emerging – young, educated and energetic. Unlike most of their parents and grandparents, younger Muslims are willing to partake in the political process. It should come as no surprise, then, that leaders will emerge from the Muslim community. The election of Congressmen Keith Ellison and Andre Carson indicates the growing presence of politically engaged Muslims and marks a critical point in the growing trend of Muslim political consciousness. This trend is in accord with, and encouraged by, the ideals of American representative democracy.
Muslims have also been involved in the “Rock the Vote” campaign, encouraging community members to vote, and educating them about the candidates and the relevant issues for this campaign. And in spite of Obama’s increasing distance from the Muslim community, Muslims continue to sacrifice their time and energy to actively support him because Muslims, like the myriad of other Obama fans, believe that he is the best choice for the future of this country, and are willing to work for this belief.
That Muslim Americans are so involved in politics when many candidates treat them like pariahs indicates a dedication to civic engagement. With the increase in the Muslim American population, it is to be expected that there will also be a greater number of Muslim representatives in politics. Any other situation would be unfair and not in keeping with the nature of democracy that both American Muslims and other average Americans value. More importantly, American Muslims offer the crucial link between the United States and Muslim world. With the deeply flawed policies of the Bush administration and the decline of America’s image, especially in the Islamic world, Muslims are in a remarkable position to help restore America’s moral authority in the world. American Muslims, in their pursuit to restore civil liberties and revive the Constitution, are major contributors to restoring the damaged image of America. It is with this attitude that many join congressional and presidential campaigns, hoping to elevate the image of America by supporting the candidates they believe are best for the country.
Active engagement and involvement in politics reflects the fact that American Muslims are a part of the social fabric of America, and also reflects their patriotic concern for this country. They are operating under the assumption that Americans are united by their desire for a better future and that they are not bent on maintaining bitter partisanship. One would imagine that this assumption is not so far-fetched.
Nafees A. Syed is a student at Harvard University majoring in Government. She is an editorial editor at The Harvard Crimson, an editor of the Harvard-MIT journal Ascent, and a writer for Al-Jumuah magazine. She is also a Racial Profiling Policy Group Chair at the Harvard Insitute of Politics.