US Politics: Muslims Gain Seats at Dems 'Big Tent' Convention
By Nadia Hussain
The Democratic National Convention will take place September 3-6 as the country gets ready to elect its next president. Held every four years since 1832, the convention's primary goal is to nominate a candidate for president and vice president, adopt a party platform, and unify the party.
Among the 4000 delegates expected to go to the convention in Charlotte, NC, Muslim Americans overcame significant barriers to earn their seats at the table.
Muslims make up one of the most complex and diverse groups in the United States. According to the State Department, 34 percent of Muslim Americans are South Asians, 26 percent are Arabs, 25 percent are Africans, and 15 percent are from other backgrounds.
Due to these diverse identities, it has been difficult to gauge the number of Muslim Americans currently living in the US. The Council on Foreign Relations estimated that Muslims make up approximately 2 percent of the population, or 7 million people. The Pew Research Center reported that 81 percent of Muslims in the US are citizens.
Despite these numbers, historically, Muslim Americans have not been very active in getting elected to office. The first Muslim member of Congress, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, was elected only 6 years ago. Yet, national efforts, led by organizers such as Dr. Agha Saeed, have pushed Muslims to be more politically and civically engaged.
Almost 20 years ago, Saeed began a movement called the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights & Elections (AMT) . AMT is now the largest coalition of Muslim organizations in the country.
Since AMT's founding, Saeed has focused his efforts on expanding Muslim civic education and building consensus on civil rights issues. By 2000, AMT had spearheaded efforts to get over 700 Muslim Americans into elected positions around the country. The group's efforts also included voter registration efforts and meeting with elected officials and national media.
However, these political inroads suffered a devastating blow on September 11, 2001.
"We had more political clout before 9/11," said Hazem Kira, a spokesperson for the California Civil Rights Alliance and a colleague of Saeed's. "We had a large delegation in the White House and much stronger relationship with policy makers before. It has wavered, but it's coming back. What has come up since September 11 is unification of communities around civil liberty issues. The primary issue of focus has been to rebuild since 9/11."
The passing of the Patriot Act in 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and years of negative news coverage have dealt serious blows to the civil rights and perception of Muslims throughout the country.
"Right now, we are living in an environment of Islamaphobia that demonizes and marginalizes Muslims," said Hussam Ayloush, a convention delegate and Executive Director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR). "And this isn't just happening on the Republican side, these views can sometimes be seen on the Democratic side as well."
One such incident in 2010 involved congressional candidate Ami Bera, who returned a $250 personal check from the executive director of CAIR due to pressure from his Republican opponent.
Despite these challenges, AMT's electoral arm, the American Muslim Alliance (AMA) , organized Muslim Americans around the country to run as delegates for the 2012 convention as a step to increasing the visibility and involvement of Muslims citizens in the political process. This was accomplished through conference calls and emails, where potential delegates were given trainings on the candidacy process, including how to give speeches, canvass for votes, compile election materials and organize supporters. The conference calls also provided a networking opportunity for Muslims running to become delegates, and pushed them to encourage Muslims in other states to run.
AMA's goal was to have 100 delegates nationwide, which would match the proportion of the US population that is Muslim, according to Saeed. In the end, 35-41 confirmed Muslim delegates were elected. However, Saeed's office believes there may be another 50 Muslim delegates based on their listed first and last names on the convention roster.
By sending a Muslim delegation, AMA hopes to organize a civil rights agenda to put forth to the national Democratic platform.
One such initiative addresses the controversial National Defense and Authorization Act, a law that many allege could allow indefinite military detentions and infringe upon civil liberties. Both are issues that have affected the Muslim community specifically since 9/11.
The delegates themselves understand how momentous their trip to Charlotte will be.
"As a Muslim, our faith tells us to stand for justice for others and those without a voice," said Basim Elkarra, a delegate and California Democratic Party executive board member. "Becoming more politically involved would hopefully shift the negative views of Muslims as marginalized outsiders."
For Talat Khan, a US Navy veteran and family physician, becoming a delegate carries a personal responsibility.
"I work to be a role model for children and young people," Khan said. "Muslim children, my children, all children need to be part of the system. We live in this country. We need to have our influence in there. This is our movement, not only to inspire others, but to teach people how to make change happen."