Like many Democratic-leaning Americans, my phone and email inbox was flooded with excited messages from across the country as Election 2008 came to a definitive end. But when I stopped a minute to reflect on just who was calling, and the circumstances that had brought us together, it finally dawned on me – Muslim-Americans had not only stood up to the myriad attempts to demonize our community (and, by extension, President-elect Obama) off the political stage altogether, but had entered a new era of Muslim-American civic engagement.
I heard from the Obama campaign’s director of outreach to the Muslim community, Minha Husaini, who was in tears at the end of a three-month journey that took her to a dozen swing states bringing Obama’s message to local Muslim communities, enduring right-wing smear attacks along the way. A text message came in from Abdul Malik Muhajid, a member of the DNC’s credentials committee who was standing in Grant Park awaiting Obama’s victory speech, and who helped put hundreds of Muslim volunteers on the streets of swing states to galvanize the Muslim vote. An email came in from Zeba Khan, the tireless co-founder of the Muslim-Americans for Obama website (whose site so impressed me that I abandoned my own muslimsforobama.com site and redirected to hers), who helped to organize hundreds of wired Muslims to get the vote out on Election Day.
There are probably another couple dozen stories like this that I’m aware of. Stories of ordinary Muslims who took it upon themselves to become community leaders, who networked with each other without ego or pride or desire for fame, who were tired of waiting for change to come to them. And more important than even the impact they had on the overall vote is the message they sent to others in the Muslim community: Be involved at every level of civic life, to the best of your abilities. And don’t wait for someone to come and tell you what to do.
The first time: dipping Muslim feet into the political pool
As you might guess, it wasn’t always like this. The history of Muslim involvement in American political life dates back to my teenage years in California, when the Muslim community was so far outside the political mainstream that any attention from a politician – no matter where on the political spectrum they lay – was immediately swallowed up. My community would hold a reception for one-time presidential hopeful Rev. Jesse Jackson, and then turn around and host a fundraiser for Pat Buchanan, either not knowing or caring that their politics stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. But for a community so tired of being invisible, any attention from a politician (even a fringe one) was cause for celebration. Issues of concern rarely strayed beyond the foreign policy Muslim hotspots, and tables at receptions were strewn not with policy papers, but with “Why Islam?” dawa pamphlets and free copies of the Qur’an. Little wonder that the scene repeated itself every few years with few gains in influence to show for it.
Much of the early efforts at engagement that I saw were punctuated by two forms of engaging the political process. One was holding Muslim hospitality suites at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. While they were well-intentioned efforts at exposing politicans to the Muslim community and issues of concern to them, they were (and to the extent that they continue to be held, are) utterly ineffectual without a commensurate commitment to party involvement. The other, more amusing one was the penchant for Muslims to run for political office without any prior civic experience – as if success in business or popularity in the Muslim community could somehow translate to political success without building trust among a population that was 99% non-Muslim and who had never heard your name before. An exercise in vanity more than anything else, this exercise repeated itself so often that it became a running joke.
The second time: the rise and fall of the block-vote strategy
Much of this aimless flirting with politics changed in 2000, when Muslim organizations took it upon themselves to organize Muslims into an effective body politic. Responding to overtures from then-candidate George W. Bush after having been rebuffed by the Gore campaign, Muslim leaders sought to reciprocate with the organization of a block vote of Muslims, hoping that an expression of loyalty would earn dividends in a Bush administration. Alas, as history has proven with the invasion of Iraq and curtailment of civil liberties after September 11, loyalty is not bought so easily.
The main problem with the block vote strategy is that because it is a late-term decision, it sends Muslim Americans a confusing message – do not get meaningfully involved in either side of a campaign, or else it may conflict with the eventual block vote decision. And when the decision finally comes down, it isn’t necessarily an easy one. Another attempt at wielding a block vote to advance Muslim concerns came in 2004, but despite Bush Administration errors of the previous four years, the block vote coalition did not feel sufficiently courted by the Kerry campaign to throw the endorsement to him. The result: a “qualified endorsement” that did not give the Democratic candidate much reason to take Muslim American concerns seriously.
The confusion surrounding the partial Kerry endorsement came at a time when the Muslim electorate was beginning to take their political destiny into their own hands. As ordinary Muslims got tired of waiting to be told whom to vote for, they started to organize themselves around the Obama campaign (and, to a lesser extent, the McCain campaign as well). Block vote proponents were faced with a Muslim community who had already chosen sides and was well on its way to embedding themselves inside each campaign and drumming up support among their peers. Despite a last-minute effort to co-opt the landslide organic Muslim support for Obama by claiming it as a “virtual endorsement”, the strategy of a last-minute block-vote had finally found itself at a dead end.
The third time: decentralized and interconnected grassroots activism
The genius of Obama’s campaign for president was to harness the power of grassroots activists, giving them ownership of the movement in order to facilitate creativity and harness energy at an individual level. It was an open-source, Web 2.0 way of thinking that ran circles around the more traditional top-down model of the McCain campaign. Muslim-Americans, being a somewhat Web-savvy group of people and having been kept on its toes by post-9/11 tensions, embraced this strategy as well. From the earliest days of this campaign cycle, grassroots efforts among Muslims in both parties began finding traction across the country, making meaningful connections with complimentary efforts and syncing with a growing sense of civic engagement among ordinary Muslims.
There are countless untold stories that have impressed me over the past year, made all the more impressive by the fact that their success is accompanied by a refreshing lack of ego. The efforts of AJ Durrani, a Houston businessman who has helped inspire scores of Muslim-Americans to run for – and win – local party elections, are a model to be replicated across the country. Likewise, the savvy organizing skills of Florida’s Center for Voter Advocacy – which compiles databases of Muslim voters, along with their voting patterns and strategies to get them to the polls, shows that Muslims can create a smart, cutting-edge response to well-funded efforts to marginalize us politically. While major Muslim organizations, such as MAS, CAIR, MPAC, and the AMT umbrella group performed valuable services such as voter registration drives and town hall meetings (direct advocacy for a candidate is forbidden under 501(c)3 laws), it was small groups of Muslims – some working in conjunction with organic local efforts, others working completely on their own – that made the difference. I have heard countless stories of Muslims – from housewives getting involved in a campaign for the first time to professionals taking months off their jobs without pay to get out the vote in swing states – taking the initiative without waiting to be asked. According to a MuslimVotersUSA.com survey of Muslim voters, over 40% contributed financially and nearly 30% volunteered their time to a campaign.
This year also found Muslims within the Democratic Party moving from several individuals working alone to a collective force recognized at the highest levels. The first American Muslim Democratic Caucus was held at this year’s DNC in Denver, with several dozen elected Muslim national delegates and politicians in attendance. Muslim Republicans, while not as numerous as their Democratic colleagues, nevertheless banded together and were able to make significant impacts of their own. This level of intra-party involvement has shown itself to be crucial in helping reinforce acceptance of Muslims at the party level and combat continuing efforts to refuse Muslims a seat at the political table.
So what lies ahead on the road to Muslim political empowerment? From my vantage point, the group of Muslim organizers that I have come to know over the past six months have no intention of waiting another four years to make a difference. Energized by their impact on the ground, empowered by connections with like-minded activists around the country, and inspired by successful Muslim politicians like Keith Ellison, Andre Carson, Saghir Tahir, and Saqib Ali (not to mention new elected officials like Rashida Tlaib), this collection of Muslim-American activists has committed themselves to an ongoing effort to cultivate civic awareness among Muslims and help them take ownership of their own political destiny.
(Photo courtesy of flynn23 via flickr).
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com