Faith, civic engagement and the 2012 US elections
to watch in the presidential elections will be whether Muslim American
civic engagement will translate into votes in November 2012.
While there has been a strong Muslim American voting contingent among
African Americans, unresolved grievances rooted in race, rather than
religion, have tended to be motivating factors for civic engagement
among this group.
Muslims whose families have immigrated to the United States in recent
generations have been slower to get involved, due in part to a
prevailing opinion that political involvement is at least frowned upon,
if not forbidden, by Islamic teachings. Such indecision stemmed mostly
from a reliance on Muslim scholars overseas who promoted the idea that
voting conveyed allegiance to a secular power rather than to God.
In the United States, this has changed over time as American-born
scholars such as Dr Sherman Jackson, King Faisal Chair in Islamic
Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California, argued
that in Islamic teachings there is no contradiction between practicing
Islam and being civically engaged. Jackson emphasises the need to vote
to ensure that worldly needs such as employment, housing, healthcare and
education are met.
In 2000, Muslim immigrants became energised and helped George W. Bush
win in several swing states. It was the first time the Muslim vote had
aligned over common interests. The 11 September 2001 attacks, the
enactment of the PATRIOT Act and the subsequent wars against Afghanistan
and Iraq further consolidated voting patterns. Motivated by what many
perceived as a “war on Islam”, Muslim Americans became increasingly
civically engaged and politically sophisticated as a great deal of their
support shifted to the Democratic Party.
According to “Engaging American Muslims”, a 2012 report by the Institute
for Social Policy and Understanding, an independent, non-partisan think
tank and research organisation, voter registration and turnout has
increased over the past decade and today 1.2 million Muslims are
registered to vote. In addition, local Muslim leaders are promoting
voter registration drives and encouraging Muslim communities to become
more civically involved.
With a growing population, Muslim Americans present an opportunity for
presidential candidates particularly in battleground states where no one
candidate has overwhelming support – such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio
and, increasingly, Virginia.
Inspired to serve, uphold social justice and promote tight-knit families
and compassionate communities, Muslim Americans are engaged in
contemporary debates on healthcare reform, immigration, education, the
environment and the economic crisis.
For practicing Muslims, a fair and just resolution of these issues
comprises a faith-inspired mandate. Houses of worship and Muslim
non-profit organisations such as the Council on American-Islamic
Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council are increasingly joining
interfaith alliances and organising programmes to educate their
membership about civic engagement, political involvement and voter
registration. Muslim Americans who have lived in the country for
generations are in a position to make the presidential candidates work
hard to understand what is important to them and how to win their vote.
And they have already begun to do so.
The Michigan Muslim Community Council, which represents the diverse
Michigan Muslim community, promotes civic engagement, community service
and other forms of community empowerment, and is building relationships
with local and state government officials to talk about issues of
importance to the Muslim community.
The Islamic Center of Southern California’s voter registration drives
date back to the late 1980s and the centre has hosted presidential
candidates such as Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., a candidate for the
Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. While the centre
has faced criticism from within the community in the past, today it
builds on a strong tradition of interfaith relations, organises youth
leadership and empowerment initiatives, and maintains strong ties with
local and state government officials.
Muslimvotersusa.com, a site operated by the Chicago-based group American
Muslim Caucus is another example of Muslim American civic engagement.
The site’s sole purpose is to educate Muslims about the importance of
voting and to facilitate voter registration, offering electronic voter
registration kits, along with “do’s and don’ts” of political involvement
designed for Muslim groups.
Civic engagement and concern for the well-being of all Americans is a
cornerstone of Islamic teachings. As faith-inspired citizens, if Muslim
Americans can build upon their emerging civic engagement, they appear
poised to constitute a formidable voting block during the November 2012
Altaf Husain is an Assistant Professor at the Howard University School
of Social Work, a research fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and
Understanding and a member of the board of trustees of the Islamic
Society of North America. This article is part of a series on religion
and the US elections written for the Common Ground News Service
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 31 July 2012, www.commongroundnews.org
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