a Muslim American meets Paul Ryan

apple farm 10.7.12 high res-13Last week, I met Paul Ryan at an apple farm.

I was attending a kids’ birthday party with my family at the Apple Holler farm in Sturtevant WI when Representative Ryan stopped by with his entourage for a visit and photo-op. Though the majority of the folks didn’t really seem to take notice, there were plenty of people interested in seeing Ryan and shaking his hand, getting a photo, etc. So, I decided I’d do the same.

All of the folk at the birthday party were Muslim Americans like myself, and pretty much everyone had the same reaction: “Why do you want to meet him?” My philosophy though is that a politician who has a chance to shape policy is a politician who must be engaged with, regardless of my differences with his specific policies, and especially in spite of the vitriolic and racist stance of his party’s mainstream. After all, there is a very solid chance that Paul Ryan will be the next Vice-President of the United States. And if so, he might even be President someday. He needs to see and meet Muslim Americans, especially thoroughly ordinary ones like myself, so that as he traverses the corridors of power in Washington, he has something/someone real to compare against the cartoon that his fellow Republicans have constructed about our community.

So, I went up to him. I was wearing my traditional topi headcap and I have a fair amount of beard on me, so it was rather obvious that I was Muslim. Ryan was shaking hands and taking photos with people, and ahead of me were three college-age girls who chattered excitedly about him. When he saw me, he quickly forgot about the coeds and welcomed me with a smile and a handshake. I told him I was an American Muslim and he asked where my mosque was; I told him I was a member of the Dawoodi Bohra community and our closest masjid was in Willowbrook IL. He said he had heard of my community and asked where I lived, and I told him Madison – to his credit, his smile didn’t waver :) I told him I visit Chicago on weekends to visit my parents and then I invited him to visit our mosque, which he appreciated. After a few quick photos, I wished him the best of luck with his campaign.

And that was about it. It was a short and pleasant conversation, one in which I was very identifiably Muslim and also very polite, friendly, and approachable. That was my objective. Despite some of the urging of my friends, I had no interest in accusing him or critiquing him. The “angry muslim” is a stereotype analogous to the “angry black man” – it drains your credibility and reduces you to a caricature. I wanted Representative Ryan’s memory of our encounter to be positive, because like it or not, in that moment I didn’t just represent myself, but my Bohra community, the Muslim American community as a whole, and in fact probably Muslims and Islam in general. Of course I am not remotely qualified to be such a representative. It’s a heavy and completely overwhelming burden but it was also an opportunity that I had to take.

After the fact, I do regret not raising certain issues though. What I should have asked of Ryan was simply, “Congressman, I have a request. Given your record and advocacy of civil liberties and freedom, please do look into the NYPD spying against Muslim Americans.” I might also have said, “Please do use whatever authority you have as a Congressman to exert some oversight over the Administration’s drone policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Although I am a supporter of Barack Obama in this election, this is pressure that needs to be exerted.

These are issues that were conspicuously absent during the VP debate a few days later between Ryan and sitting-veep Joe Biden, and might have made an appearance (even in the form of an attack) had I managed to raise them in Ryan’s consciousness ahead of time. We are all the worse off for it. I have no excuse other than I was simply unprepared; but that is part of why I am writing this post.

apple farm 10.7.12 high res-15 I think it is critically important for all Muslim Americans to be engaged in the process and to exploit these opportunities to promote ourselves as we see ourselves, rather than as how those who hate us see us. I encourage every Muslim American to think of at least one thing you’d say (respectfully!) to Romney, Obama, Ryan, Biden, or any other politician who has any real prominence of any kind.

Admittedly, the vast majority of us will never meet a politician in this way. Barack Obama even visited Madison a couple weeks ago,but I couldn’t go see him due to family commitments and Real Life. However, you simply never know. Especially if you live in a swing state or the Upper Midwest.

Be. Prepared. Engage. This is how we make a difference. This is the obligation upon all of us.

Photos courtesy Zainab Zafar of Maha Designs

  • Ruth H

    Thanks for sharing this. Even though you didn’t ask the questions you believe you should have it was because you were not prepared to meet anyone even remotely like him. I do think he asked you the correct questions.

    I am an unregistered conservative, but I will be voting for the Republican team, I just can’t go with the Democrats on many levels although that is how I started out as a young adult. I am now 75 and see the error of my ways in not defecting sooner than I did as they became socialists. I cannot abide the killing of babies in the womb. I do not want our industries taken over. But you’ve probably seen that on my comments over at Dean’s.
    Thanks for sharing your adventures of meeting the candidate.
    Ruth H.

  • TJ

    Thank you Aziz for sharing this personal account of your meeting.

    As a Muslim American from NJ I don’t thin any national politician would visit such a blue state, but I’m glad you showed yourself positively and was surprised to see a warm smile on Ryan.

    I guess I’m dying to see Myth Rmoney or “stench” reaction in meeting you. Or even Obama since he’s so desperate not to appear Muslim or be seen with Muslims lest the con-bigoted blogosphere goes crazy including Gellar, Debbie Schussel, Hannity.

    Keep up your great work! May Allah give you strength and perseverance.

  • http://www.stopIslamaphobia.blogspot.com Justin Case

    On the contrary brother, you are qualified to properly represent Islam as we all are that properly represent the faith!! And, if things went as you described, you represented Islam quite well.

    It often bothers me when I attend interfaith meetings or meetings where Islam is part or the topic of discussion, I’m one of the few or only Muslim in the room. And of course, the advocacy meetings where a non-Muslim group is defending Islam and/or Muslims, I’m the only Muslim present.

    As you stated, we need to be far more engaged that what we are. We can’t allow that imaginary cartoon that they’ve created of us be “our mis-representative”.

  • adam samad

    Salam. Very well said and I appreicate the simple mindset and approach you took. I pray all muslims could think like this and not fall prey to the stereotype. Your intention was quite sincere and to the point. Hopefully the rest of the clan could learn a thing or two. Thanks for representing us.

  • debora

    Do not feel bad that you didn’t use your one moment to plant a seed. Sometimes the absence of a question is more persuasive than the question itself. However, i think your advice is brilliant, and not just Muslims but all Americans should have one question in mind in case they meet a politician, and not an accusatory one.

  • Dave Rogers

    Well done, sir. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://www.asifrehman.com Asif

    Well done – positive engagement is the way to go.


  • Mustaq Ali

    Good job, Aziz.
    We need more people like you in America. Young, energetic, well-educated and most importantly who know American pop culture even though you may not be in full agreement.

    Keep it up!

  • Jim Gillen

    Really good article. (This man needs to be a community leader.) I will post some of it on my Face book.

  • DCMom

    Thank you for this post, it shows how creating caricatures of those who believe differently than we do, or believing negative stereotypes, is harmful to community. I know very little about the details of Islam, but have met many kind Muslims. Could you clarify what Islamic values the Democratic party represents, and how those values take precedence over the values the Republican party represents. The DNC was a celebration of “abortion rights”, and the Democratic party is strongly pro-gay marriage. The Democratic party opposes school choice, and instead would like to limit parental involvement in the education of their children. The recent HHS mandate forces Catholic and other Christian churches to buy a product totally against their values of protection of life (abortifacients). It seems that religious liberty in the United States would be important to Muslims. I see tension internationally between Islamic nations and the United States, can you explain how the current Administration is different in this area than previous Republican Administrations? It seems that Republicans are more aligned with Islam on moral issues. Perhaps you have written on this previously. Thank you again for this article and your consideration!

  • Patricia White

    I very much want to engage “thoroughly ordinary Muslims” (your words) in discussions about Islam in the 21st Century. I am sure you realize that the fear that breeds hostility in Judeo-Christians such as myself stems partly from ignorance or partial knowledge of Islam, and partly from American experiences of the past two decades. I will be reading McLaren’s book for new insights, but wonder if you know of other, more pertinent books addressing the apparent bifurcation between the “peaceful” Islam claimed by most American Muslims today (welcoming “people of the Book”), and the historically violent and transformative Caliphate-Islam that threatens Jews and Westerners worldwide. All three major Abrahamic religions have had violent tendencies sometime during their histories, but I live in the present, and today it is Islam that threatens me and mine. I would like to understand why, and move toward appreciating (and “crossing the road” with) those who reject jihad and Caliphate. Thank you. Patricia White

  • kalim

    What is death?

    I want to share this sentence from a book: from Risalei-Nur Collection by Said Nursi

    Death is either eternal annihilation, a gallows on which will be hanged both man and all his friends and relations; or it comprises the release papers to depart for another, eternal, realm, and to enter, with the document of belief, the palace of bliss. The grave is either a bottomless pit and dark place of solitary confinement, or it is a door opening from the prison of this world onto an eternal, light-filled garden and place of feasting.

  • Rod Brown

    Thanks you Aziz. I believe you made the world a little safer.

  • RM

    This is an important reminder that Muslim Americans must engage with all.

    I would respectfully add that it’s also important Muslim Americans not simply focus on foreign policy issues but issues that face all Americans, including Muslims. Economic, social and local…

    …which brings me to the most important point. Muslims should NOT allow the 911/Bush years to assume that voting for Democrats is any more smarter than voting for Republicans. Instead, Muslims should evaluate each candidate in each race at the local, state and federal level and choose wisely based upon the best person, not party. Candidates and parties must earn your vote each and every time.

  • TJ

    I appreciated your wanting to make a difference, but that’s just the ole car-salesman acting there. Go into any dealership and they’ll do the same thing; both are trying to sell you something and they don’t really care about you. You’re just another face in the crowd.

  • qaizaar

    “Close encounters of the right kind”
    enjoyed,appreciated your positive thoughtful write up.
    slms and idmy