Muslims in politics: Shed the cynicism and get engaged

Muslims in politics: Shed the cynicism and get engaged September 3, 2008
Muslim American delegates at DNC 2008

I was there. One of the 84,000 at Invesco Field witnessing history. The day and the moment were as inspiring as it was profound. As the chants of “yes we can” reverberated through the stadium, they re-ignited feelings of optimism about America’s future, which in the last eight years had been jaded by the politics of fear and divisiveness. Perhaps no group has been more vilified and continues to bear the brunt of this politics of fear than Muslims and Arabs.

Seated next to me at Invesco was Mazen Asbahi, the Chicago attorney who was appointed as national coordinator for American Muslim and Arab outreach by the Obama campaign. Mazen lasted only a few weeks. His resignation came in the wake of discredited websites spuriously alleging his links to an imam (Muslim spiritual leader) and that imam’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood, a socio-political, albeit often controversial, movement that originated in Egypt.

Mazen resigned not because he did anything wrong but simply because he put his country first. He understood the importance of this election and did not want smears to distract the American public from failing to heed Obama’s message of change. He firmly believes that Obama will restore America’s respect abroad while addressing many of the pressing issues of our time from the economy to global warming.

In Mazen’s story is a lesson for all Americans. The first lesson is for those who fail to stand up to the merchants of fear. The American public and the mainstream media need to realize that there is a well coordinated effort to discredit promising American Muslims and thus marginalize the American Muslim community. These thugs of bigotry feed on ignorance and fear of the unknown. Not standing up to these bigots is not only un-American, but also leads to bad policy.

Although the Obama campaign never asked Mazen to resign, the perception remains that the campaign did not stand-up and challenge the underlying bigotry that led to his unfortunate departure. Obama was correct in denying that he was a Muslim, but in addition he should have added a Seinfeld moment by simply asserting, “Not that there’s anything wrong with it (being a Muslim).”

The second lesson is for American Muslims. Community organizers are reporting a lack of enthusiasm in the Muslim community’s support for Obama. Standing at the crossroads where history is being shaped, the American Muslim community must not backslide into the familiar comforts of cynicism. Despite the hurt that the Muslim community feels and the scorns they bear they need to look beyond their immediate discomfort to what serves America and the world best. Instead of the all too familiar horse-trading that special interest group’s engage-in, the American Muslim community needs to transcend their disappointments and look to the future and take into account the seriousness of the issues at stake in this election: the rule of law, war and peace, economic justice, education and health care. They must understand that an Obama presidency will not be perfect (no presidency ever is), but a John McCain presidency will only be worse. McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin reinforces the perception that McCain lacks both judgment and temperament. We had enough with one decider who makes decisions from the gut. We can ill-afford another.

Beyond the emotions, objectively is there any doubt that from economic policy to environmental stewardship, Obama offers superior solutions? Is it not plainly obvious that Obama prefers diplomacy over war? In Denver he clearly stated that the decision to commit our nation to war can only be made in the face of a clear and present danger and not in the pursuit of some ideological utopia. Is it not refreshing to hear Obama’s view that hearts and minds in the Muslim world can be won over by sustained American engagement in improving the lives of those affected by years of war and neglect? Yes not all is palatable in Obama’s position, especially his appeasement of the pro-Israeli lobby. But if Muslims define an Obama presidency by only one issue, then we will be as guilty of parochialism as AIPAC and ADL (major pro-Israeli organizations), which often ignore all other realities in their blind and obsessive defense of Israel.

Undoubtedly American Muslim participation this election cycle is at record highs. However, given the closeness of the race and the enormity of its consequences, the community will have to provide all hands on deck to make sure that the right candidate gets elected.

Muslims cannot repeat the mistakes of the past when major American Muslim organizations hastily endorsed George Bush over the objections of African American Muslims, the largest sub-group in the community. Nor can they tread the path of 2004 when they gave a “qualified endorsement” to John Kerry, which understandably dampened Muslim enthusiasm at the polls.

Back to Mazen. He has every reason to sulk because he was unfairly “swift-boated.” Yet he remains optimistic and enthusiastically chugs along (although not officially part of the campaign). Throughout the evening in Denver while remaining fully cognizant of the historicity of the moment, Mazen did not waste any time and kept furiously working his Blackberry making phone calls and texting friends urging them to support Obama and in the process hoping to contribute to the transformation of American politics. Just as Mazen looks beyond the dirty politics he fell victim to, so should American Muslims look beyond the flaws of the Obama campaign and take into consideration the bigger picture.

The time has come for American Muslims to demonstrably show that they can make the contributions necessary to return American politics to the universal values of peace, liberty and justice for all. It is time for the Muslim community to join the growing legions of fellow Americans who are inspired by hope and powered by a sense of optimism that things can and do change. Change does not come from just wishing for it. The way forward is clearly indicated in the Quran, “God does not change the condition of a people unless they change that which is within themselves.”

(Photo courtesy of

Parvez Ahmed is an Associate Professor at the University of North Florida.

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