Muslim Americans Initiate Policy Debate at Democratic Convention
By Hazem Kira
From left: AMT Chair Dr Agha Saeed with former Democratic Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich; John Conyers, Chair of Judiciary Committee; and Congressman Keith Ellison
Denver, Colorado: Making a notable mark at this year’s Democratic presidential convention was the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections by successfully organizing a substantive four-day program – receptions, strategy meetings, and lectures - co-extensive with the entire Democratic Convention from August 25 through August 28.
“It is very impressive the way the American Muslim Taskforce has empowered the American Muslim community by initiating discussion of issues of national significance and by leading the coalition building process,” Nativo Lopez, National President of Mexican American Political Association, said.
Substantive AMT programs became an instant attraction for delegates who were eager to listen to a star line-up of distinguished speakers.
Conceptualizing election as a six-part process - voting (registration, education, and mobilization), agenda setting, coalition building, working in campaigns, formation of incoming administrations, and mandate management - the AMT program enabled the American Muslims to be effective partners in both agenda setting and coalition building during the Democratic National Convention.
AMT chair Dr. Agha Saeed has organized Muslim Hospitality Suites at Democratic and Republican Party Conventions since 1992. This year, AMT has organized similar hospitality suites at Green and Libertarian Parties as well.
The AMT programs were covered, in part or whole, by several national and international media, including Voice of America, Democracy Now, Press TV, GTV, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and RAVI. Large segments of the AMT panel on Immigration were videotaped for inclusion in a forthcoming documentary about undocumented workers tilted “Papers” which is being produced by Graham Street Production.
GTV host Dr Saeed interviews Congressman Honda and Captain James Yee; Nativo Lopez with Congressman Andre Carson; and Radio host Amy Goodman
The AMT program started with a brainstorming session. With the theme of social responsibility amongst all citizens, Imam Yahya Hendi, Prof. Nazif Shahrani, Farooq Ansari, and Imam Ali led the brainstorming sessions to identify major issues around which multiethnic cooperation could be organized.
The major issues discussed were immigration including immigration and naturalization delays, religious and racial profiling, hate crimes, education, universal health care, and a peace-producing foreign policy.
Said Prof. Nazif Shahrani, “One area where I think we need to try and make an effort is how America’s foreign policy is made ... by asking for transparency in American foreign policy so we can lead the country into a peaceful and interdependent future.”
By organizing such brainstorming sessions, the American Muslim Taskforce is developing a strategic vision to inspire action that will help lead the future generations into a world of justice, peace, and security for all. Imam Yahya Hendi, said: “We need to have a vision for 10, 20, 30, 50 years from now... so that we can make a difference for the generations that will be here 25 or 50 years from now.”
Immigration and Ethnic Vote
Nativo Lopez, President, Mexican American Political Association, an activist with an encyclopedic understanding of the US immigration policy, gave a riveting presentation on the issues underlying the immigration debate. He pointed out that while 90,000 unaccompanied children have been deported back to Mexico this year, 9 million Latino-Americans had registered to vote in 2004, of which 7 million (78%) actually cast their vote. This year 12 million are registered to vote of which 10 million (83%) are expected to vote.
Moving up the primaries has galvanized Latino American voters to come out in higher numbers, made the whole nation realize the weight of the Latino electorate. This realization has been further reinforced by introduction of early voting in several states. Out of 2 million registered voters in Texas, 1.5 million voted early.
Now, that, for the first time money was spent on ethnic votes rather than just swing votes, as well as in states where it wasn’t as important in the past, it’s important that ethic groups should vote in high numbers because it results in progressive voting solutions. Due to all these developments, it is evident that the candidates will have to listen to minority groups who play an influential role in the process. This trend can be further strengthened by forming multiethnic coalitions.
It was also pointed out that historically there has been a close link between US civil rights policy and immigration policy. Whenever, there has been an attack on civil liberties, as, for example, embodied in the Internal Security Act of 1950, there has been a concomitant attack on equitable immigration policy, as evident from the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.
Democratic Strategies for Battleground States
Congressman Ellison began with a quote by Howard Dean saying, "We shall concede no state in this election, we shall try to cover all the bases.” As the first Muslim man elected to Congress, Congressman Ellison spoke passionately about the need for Muslims as well as other minority groups to “cover their bases” by engaging in the election and beyond. He said that the issue of battleground states did not end with the election, just as our role as American citizens does not end with this week, or with Election Day.
“Voting is critically important. It is the Kindergarten of politics,” Ellison said. “Without going to kindergarten you cannot move up, but you cannot finish kindergarten and say I’m done, I’m educated. We are just getting started when we vote.” The Congressman then pointed out some important factors to initiating, mobilizing, and continuously motivating the Muslim community, and other minority groups, towards political action. He spoke about the importance of local politics, defining all politics as beginning fundamentally at the grassroots level, beginning fundamentally with the American people making a difference.
When talking about civil liberties and justice for all, Congressman Ellison said, “When you are challenged, you can get bitter, or you can get better.” And by getting involved, minority groups challenge the government to make things better for all Americans. He ended by saying, “The Democratic Party or the Republican Party are not like birthday parties that you can be invited or uninvited to; It is your right to be here!” And it is our right to fulfill the responsibilities of being a citizen.
How the Corporate Media Has Failed the American People?
The highly acclaimed independent journalist Amy Goodman was introduced by Delinda Hanley, executive editor of an equally independent magazine, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, who underscored the importance of public discussion about the failures of media and what we can do to protect the rights promised by the first amendment.
Amy Goodman spoke about how corporate media, the making of a media business, has transformed the ethic of journalism into a money-making strategy. “There has got to be a media avenue that’s not brought by corporations who are making money off of this, corporations that have nothing to tell and everything to sell,” Goodman said. Instead, news, she added, has to be relayed by journalists, by independents, by artists. With this she challenged the AMT, young Americans, and all citizens to question existing forces of mainstream media. She challenged us to ask how much of what the media reports is unbiased and how much is slanted towards pre-set agendas.
She went on to question how sympathetic, compassionate American people can be hated and feared by other countries. This is the burden and honor of independent media to bring truth and perspective with honest, reliable journalism. With this motivating reality check, AMT concluded its first full day at the Democratic National Convention inspiring Muslim Americans to rise to the challenge of justice in democracy and the promise of free media.
Immediately after her speech, Amy Goodman was interviewed on GTV’s program Global Forum in the presence of delegates attending the AMT Hospitality Suite. When asked, “Is there issue pertaining to the Democratic Convention that has not been covered by the corporate media?” she said: “Yes, the role of money pored into this convention by big business needs to be closely examined.”
The New Immigration Policy
Starting with his personal story of his own career had evolved from a police officer to a city council member, and after the death of his grandmother, to a member of the House of Representatives, Congressman Andre Carson emphasized the need for a fair and equitable immigration policy free of fear, racism, discrimination, and stereotyping.
Noting major setbacks suffered during eight years of the Bush-Cheney regime, he advised Democratic Party activists to “keep trying, keep fighting”. Speaking of the Democratic Party’s present attitude toward Muslim Americans, Congressman Andre Carson said. “We must stay engaged but we must insist on inclusion.” He also emphasized, “I support Obama for President but I have not surrendered my right to disagree with him.”
Ending the War
Having heard his speech against the war on Iraq a day earlier on the Convention floor, an extraordinarily large number of delegates showed up at the AMT Hospitality Suite to hear Congressman Dennis Kucinich. They gave him a standing ovation even before he entered the room, and expressed deep desire for stronger opposition to war on Iraq.
Explaining why he has introduced a bill to indict President Bush and his top aides, Congressman Dennis Kucinich said the campaign by the Bush administration to deceive the American people has been completely exposed. “No weapons of mass destruction were found. But we have found weapons of mass deception used by the Bush administration”. Almost no one is talking of the long-term effects of war and the colossal suffering of the Iraqi people is completely ignored.
Reflecting on American history, he said: what was only a dream forty years ago has become a reality today with the Democratic nomination of Senator Obama for the Presidency of the United States. This historical fact gives all of us greater assurance and greater strength to continue pursuing principled politics in face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. .
Denouncing the exclusion and oppression of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians, he said, “We must stand with our Muslim brothers and sister and help them fight vilification of Islam and Muslims.” He also thanked AMT for organizing such an important event.
As the centerpiece of his speech, he detailed H.R. 808, a bill he has introduced in the Congress to establish a cabinet-level “Department of Peace and Nonviolence.” This bill seeks to set “forth the mission of the Department, including to: (1) hold peace as an organizing principle; (2) endeavor to promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights; and (3) develop policies that promote national and international conflict prevention, nonviolent intervention, mediation, peaceful resolution of conflict, and structured mediation of conflict.”
Defending US by Defending Its Freedoms
Recalling the forcible relocation and internment of approximately 110,000 individuals of Japanese origin, approximately 62 percent of whom were US citizens, Congressman Mike Honda expressed strong disapproval of the present vilification and harassment of the Muslim Americans. “This is a disturbing pattern characterized by internment of Japanese Americans to legal abuse of Muslim Americans.”
He advised that the civil libertarian forces should work with the tri-caucus, a coalition of Black, Latino, and Asian caucuses. The tri-caucus, he said, is disappointingly underutilized resource.
Congressman Honda urged the audience to support Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s bill of “Department of Peace and Nonviolence”.
Captain James (Yusuf) Yee told the audience how he was victimized for calling attention to torture of prisoner at Guantanamo. Prior to being arrested on false charges, Yee was awarded two distinguished-service medals for his outstanding work. Later, after being acquitted by the court, Captain Yee received an honorable discharge from the Army. Congressman Honda denounced the unjustified internment of Captain James Yee.
Undoing the Damage Done by the Bush Administration
“The first step in undoing the damage done by the Bush administration is to take America back from the Republican Party, Senator Art Torres, President, Democratic Party of California said.
“There are two tables in the Congress,” Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Congressman John Conyers said. “One belongs to Nancy Pelosi and the other belongs to me.” Then alluding to the possibility of indicting senior Bush administration officials, he said. “Don’t ever think that just because something has been removed from Nancy’s table, it has also been removed from table also.”
Contemplating ongoing successes of the civil rights movement, he noted the way in which this movement has fruition through Senator Obama’s ability to inspire the youth. This, he said, has caused a palpable anxiety in the mainstream media who are always trying to maintain parity and balance between the two candidates.
When asked about the ongoing COINTELPRO against Muslim Americans, abuse and misuse of the “legal” maneuver of classifying individuals and organizations as “unindicted co-conspirators” and the relentless legal harassment of Dr. Sami Al-Arian, Congressman Conyers promised to hold hearing about the unfair treatment.
“Show up in my office with your lawyer and I will see what could be done to hold a hearing about these issues,” he assured Salim Akhtar, who had raised this issue during the Q/A session.