Elected Muslims: Hard work and an easy smile

Elected Muslims: Hard work and an easy smile December 14, 2009
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Ever since the tragedy of the attacks of September 11, 2001, American Muslims have made a conscious – and long overdue – effort to engage their fellow citizens and neighbors, to get involved in the issues that affect everyone in the country, and to work even harder to positively contribute to the American landscape. American Muslims have joined Neighborhood Watch programs, local PTAs, and civic organizations. They have reached out to their neighbors and have gotten to know them better. Not only have they benefited, but so has the nation as a whole.

Muslims have also gotten into politics, on both the local and national level, and there have been successes there as well. Case in point: the election of Andre Carson in Indiana and Keith Ellison in Minnesota, the only two Muslim members of Congress. Muslims have also been elected on the local level across the country. This despite the overt bigotry against Muslims that has reared its ugly head all across the world, and in this country as well. Yet, one would think that Muslims in the West – having noted such instances of Islamophobia – would learn from such lessons and not resort to such tactics themselves.

Hence my surprise when I researched last month’s New York City council election between the Muslim Republican candidate, Mujib Rahman, and his openly gay Democratic challenger Daniel Dromm. Indeed, it was an uphill battle from the start: a conservative Republican running in a heavily Democratic district. Still, Rahman thought he had a chance, with one of the largest immigrant communities in the country residing in the district. And he had another tactic up his sleeve: to rouse the conservative base by highlighting his opponent’s sexuality.

“The guy against me, he is a gay,” Rahman tells someone on the phone. “That guy is a gay, people don’t know,” he repeats. Speaking to another voter, he says: “[Daniel Dromm], he don’t know what family means…I am a family man, I have children like you do.” Rahman also charged that Dromm has a “gay agenda,” and Dromm said in response, “Imagine if I said that Mujib was promoting a Muslim agenda? There is no Muslim agenda. Muslim people want the same thing as everybody else.” After all was said and done, the voters spoke loudly: Rahman was handily defeated by a vote of 75% to 25%.

Contrast this to the experience of Haroon Saleem, who was recently elected mayor of Granite Falls, a small mining town in Washington State. Residents of this town are suspicious of newcomers, and in the past, “it was very difficult to be accepted in this town,” according to Sharon Ashton, a close confidant of Saleem, speaking to the Associated Press. But, Saleem was elected by a landslide, capturing 61% of the vote.

“That tells you how good and great of a community Granite Falls is,” said Saleem. “They didn’t care…I am who I am, and people love me for that, and I just love people. People know that I am smart, I am a businessman. In the big scheme of things, all these qualities have made me, got me to where I am today.” And he won despite attacks on him regarding his name: a website named emphasized the fact that he listed his name as “Sheikh H. Saleem” on his business licences and court documents. “Why would you not use your real name?” the site asked. It also attacked his honesty and integrity.

In the end, however, Saleem won with “hard work and an easy smile.” Barbara Webster, who runs a hair salon near Saleem’s bar, said: “He’s always really been kind to me. I really didn’t think of him as being Muslim. Some of the people in town – some of the older people in town – probably do, but I think for the most part, he overcame that.”

These two election experiences illustrate a larger point: that, despite all the negativity associated with Islam and Muslims, people can and do accept Muslims into their fold. There is no need to resort to the tactics of Mujib Rahman in New York – highlighting the fact that his opponent “is a gay” – to gain acceptance or win elections. For the most part, “hard work and an easy smile” can do the trick.

Now, the case of Haroon Saleem does raise an important question: do Muslims have to compromise their principles and identity to fit in? After all, Saleem was the owner of a bar in Granite Falls, which few would call truly “Islamic.” The answer is no. Omar Ahmad, who was elected to the city council in San Carlos, CA in 2007, believes civic engagement in the key to becoming accepted in the community. He told the San Fransisco Chronicle in 2008: “We have not effectively integrated into community life in the towns we live in. We are going to enjoy a change when we work shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors on local issues and start to have a dialogue.” Such civic engagement, he said, is “a very Islamic thing to do.”

For many years, and especially after September 11, Muslims have taken the brunt of a sometimes brutal smear and misinformation campaign. Their faith, their Prophet, and their way of life is under constant attack. Now, in the minds of many, the association of violence with Islam and Muslims is permanent, and I am certain this association was in part responsible for the successful minaret ban in Switzerland. Given this experience, it is unbecoming of our community to then use the same tactics when expedient, politically or otherwise.

“Repel [evil] with what is better,” says the Qur’an. Then “he between whom and thyself was enmity [may then become] as though he had [always] been close [unto thee], a true friend!” 41:34. Haroon Saleem did so, and he won. And even though Daniel Dromm was not Muslim, he did the same thing and won as well. Would that Muslims pay heed to this lesson.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is called God, Faith, and a Pen.

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