An Outline of AMT’s Strategy
By Tahir Ali*
Boston, Massachusetts

This is first of four essays in which I will analyze the overall development of the American Muslim Taskforce and the key elements of its strategy. To that end, I will analyze four aspects of AMT’s work: 1) its strategic vision, 2) political style, 3) its negotiation strategy, and 4) institutional formation and evolution. In this piece I will focus on AMT’s strategic vision.

AMT’s vision is primarily an activist vision. It is a vision of self-empowerment through political participation. While most other Muslim groups and their ethnic variants - Iranians, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Bosnians, etc. - spend most, if not all, of their energies in raising funds, the AMT believes and acts on a demographic strategy: seeking a place at the table on the basis on Muslim voting power. “Ours is a demographic approach”, says AMT Chair Dr. Agha Saeed. “Our work is based on a ‘people intensive’ and not a ‘money-intensive’ approach.” In other words, if every vote counts, then we must have the combined say and influence of four million voters. But first we must vote and have our vote counted.

There are six underlying differences between the activist and non-activist points of view. These differences relate to conception of 1) election, 2) role of the citizen, 3) role of institutions, 4) strategic uses of endorsement, 5) the difference between popular vote and bloc vote, and 6) single party versus multiparty strategy.

First of all, while some people view election only as an occasion to cast one’s vote, the AMT views elections as an opportunity for 1) electing representatives, 2) agenda-setting, 3) coalition-building, 4) capacity formation (learning new skills to influence the formation and working of the government), and 5) negotiations.

Secondly, the two perspectives are mutually differentiated by the difference in their respective conception of the role of the citizen. While those who see election only as an occasion to cast their vote, conceptualize the role of the citizen as fixed, passive and limited, the AMT, on the other hand, sees the role of citizen as fluid, active and creative.

The AMT leaders see politics as a flexible art. What is unattainable in one context, they argue, can be attained in another context. The role of the leadership is to help create new possibilities and competencies. Since politics always takes place in the context partial agreements, on the one hand, and on limited means and multiple ends, on the other, the enterprise of politics presupposes the art of concatenating partial agreements into a durable alliance.

Thirdly, some see a community only as random accumulation of individuals, unrelated to each other by any affinity or purpose, or as a mass (“the masses have spoken”) acting spontaneously or in response to popular appeals. They completely deny the role of institutions in creating internal consensus around goals and strategies. The AMT, on the other hand, sees an essential and organic link between the community and its representative institutions, with each nurturing the other.

While the community embodies the needs, wants and preferences, the institutions provide the means to fulfill those needs and actualize those preferences. One of the most important tasks of representative institutions is to conduct negotiations on behalf of the community. Usually, these negotiations deal with four types of issues: inclusion (including appointments), policymaking, resource allocation, and value generalization. Representative organi zations provide a workable formulation of issues to their members. An interesting example of agenda setting for negotiation is provided by the Catholic Church in its edict, “Ethical Values in Elections: The Big Five”, issued on Oct 28, 2004. As the largest congregation in the United States, it provides its 65 million members with a clear and concise agenda for performance evaluation, negotiation, coalition-building and political participation:

Since some matters are as serious as life and death, the Church has recently been reminding politicians and voters about five non-negotiable issues we must consider when choosing a candidate in the upcoming elections. We will examine these non-negotiable issues, which we can call the “Big Five”:
1. Abortion
2. Euthanasia
3. Embryonic stem cell research
4. Human cloning
5. Homosexual marriage

Fourthly, those who see a community only as random accumulation of individuals, unrelated to each other by any affinity or purpose, obviously, don’t see any reason for endorsement. Similarly, those who see a community as a mass of people, motivated by momentary impulses, see the mass action as an endorsement in itself.
The AMT, however, see the act of ‘endorsement’ as a cardinal step in the negotiation process. From AMT’s point of view, an endorsement encapsulates a given stage in negotiations, authenticates the level of agreement between the two sides, provides a sense of direction and purpose to the community, and documents community’s participation and multifarious contributions. It enables a community to express its collective will. This _expression of the collective will, the AMT leaders argue, must be calibrated precisely to match whatever has been offered by the other side.

Fifthly, unlike those for whom there is no difference between a popular vote and a bloc vote, the AMT contends that while a popular vote is characterized by the spontaneous action of a majority, a bloc vote is exercised only when the majority of a community votes together for a common purpose negotiated by its representative institutions. Contending that spontaneity is not strategy, the AMT calls for connecting popular vote with community’s political goals. AMT’s qualified endorsement of Sen. Kerry was designed to accomplish two goals: calibrate Muslim support in direct proportion to Sen. Kerry’s support for civil liberties and human rights, and turn the popular vote into a bloc vote. By all indications, the AMT has succeeded in both these endeavors.

Finally, the AMT is keenly interested in capacity formation: enabling the community to learn new skills to become more effective as citizens. This includes working in various campaigns not only as volunteers but also as professionals including engineers, computer experts, statisticians, demographers, pollsters, lawyers and accountants. The AMT has played a pivotal role in getting immigrant Muslims to volunteer their services in these professional capacities.

AMT multiparty strategy is fundamentally different from those who call for total uncritical fidelity to one party. The AMT believes that the American Muslim politics should be based on issues and principles and not on candidates or parties. Moreover, support for a candidate should be based on critical evaluation of his or her position and should not bar the community from supporting an equally good candidate from any other Party. Members of AMT such as the American Muslim Alliance (AMA) have endorsed a number of Green, Libertarian and Independent candidates for local and state offices.

I concur with AMT’s chair Dr. Agha Saeed when he says: “While we have given qualified endorsement to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kerry, we have retained our autonomy to endorse any candidate that fits the AMT endorsement criteria”.
(*Author of the book: The Muslim Vote: Counts and Recounts)

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.