Why the Muslim Vote Didn’t Matter?
By Dr Nayyer Ali

I am part of an online forum for Pakistani-Americans in which the issue came up of how Muslims can effectively engage the American political process. There was a sense that Muslims are not succeeding, and puzzlement as to why. To my thinking though, it is not at all clear that there really are any significant number of Muslims willing and able to engage in policy discourse with their fellow Americans. The problems with American Muslim political involvement are deep-seated and profound, and mostly self-inflicted. Let me just list a few.

1. Are we Americans? The American political process is open to those who see themselves and present themselves as Americans. Most Muslims however see the choice as Muslims on one side and Americans on the other. I belong to an American Muslim policy organization which visibly stands for an American Muslim identity. We have been criticized in private by leaders of at least one of the most prominent American Islamic organizations for being “too American”.

2. Muslims find it very difficult to admit fault with themselves or their kin overseas, and are very unwilling to critically think about Muslim behavior that affects US interests. Note that there was very little criticism, if any, of suicide bombing before 9/11, and even after suicide bombers in Palestine/Israel are not condemned by American Muslims for the most part. And the Muslim critique of the Bush invasion of Iraq was, at the time, logically incoherent. Muslims were vehemently against both the war and the sanctions. The Muslim view seemed to be that Saddam should be allowed to do whatever he wants.

3. Our inability to deal with the Israeli/Palestinian issue in a way that an American can understand. Israel was built on the dispossession of the Palestinian natives, but frankly at this point, one cannot begin the discussion by denying Israel’s right to exist as a state. Most Muslims groups will not acknowledge that, even though the PLO has, so from an American perspective why should the US be exercised about Israel defending itself against a Muslim united front committed to destroying it? This is Sharon’s very argument for his wall building etc. Are American Muslims willing to change tack, acknowledge that a two state solution is the best possible outcome, and therefore endorse the right of both Israel and Palestine to exist? Implicit in a two state solution is that the refugees will have to build new lives in the Palestinian state, but will not be able to return into Israel in large numbers. If Muslims are willing to start with that, then we can go to Congress and Bush and argue against the wall, the need for a real Palestinian state etc. But until then, you can’t even get past the front door.

4. Our general lack of political sophistication. There is little understanding of how much work needs to be done to get political power in this country. We grossly exaggerate our numbers (there are nowhere near 7 million American Muslims, the real number is probably less than 3 million). We are very unwilling to spend on political campaigns. If the roughly 1 million adult Muslims of working age gave 100 dollars each to political campaigns we would have a huge impact. The total election spending for all candidates in 2004 was under 2 billion dollars. We refuse to get involved in our political organizations that have a little bit of traction in DC. My organization that I work with has a budget of under 1 million dollars, and only two full-time people working the political scene in DC. Compare that to the budget of AIPAC (the main pro-Israel lobby) which is about 50 million dollars.

5.A defeatist and conspiratorial mindset. We exaggerate our opponents’ strengths, and refuse to work on issues because we don’t think we can achieve anything. Grassroots work such as voter registration and getting people to call the White House or write Congress is difficult to achieve. We also explain far too much of the world through conspiracy theories that serve only to cloud our judgment and rob us of a true understanding of the world.

6. A lack of liberal thinking about our religion. The mullah mindset, often imported through foreign-trained imams with little knowledge of life in the US, saps our energy. In most other religious communities the clergy acts as leaders and forward thinkers. For us, too many of our imams are have failed to lead. How many khutbas about voter registration were delivered in the last three months across the country?

We have a lot of work still to do before the American Muslim community becomes relevant to American politics. Comments can reach the author at Nali@socal.rr.com.

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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