Congressman Carson Exhorts Community to Get Involved in the Political Process
By Saman Mahmood
Los Angeles, CA: Congressman Andre Carson is an all encompassing, rising political leader. He is conscious of the issues faced by millions of Americans and fights for them. And while his status of being a Muslim has exposed him to constant media scrutiny, he steadfastly remains forthright and unapologetic. In this exclusive interview with Pakistan Link at a private event in Los Angeles recently, Carson speaks passionately and eloquently - on politics, a partisan Congress, education, gun control, his journey as a Black Muslim leader and the Muslim identity.
Congressman Andre Carson was first elected as part of a special election in early 2008. He is now serving in his third full term in the US House of Representatives, representing Indiana’s 7 th District. He is also the second Muslim Congressman to be elected to the House of Representatives. Through his time in Office, Carson has been recognized as a prominent leader and esteemed public figure.
His official website lists some of his achievements: “During the 113 th Congress, Carson will serve as a Senior Whip for the House Democratic Caucus and as a member of the Congressional Black Caucus’s Executive Leadership Team, enabling him to fight for Indiana’s 7 th Congressional District at the highest levels of political leadership.
“Congressman Carson has consistently fought for the middle class, securing more than $500 million for investments in public safety, education, infrastructure, and the creation and protection of thousands of good paying jobs. Additionally, the Congressman has made accessibility a priority for his office, holding regular meetings around the district and hosting Congress on Your Corner events to ensure constituents have easy access to the resources and information they need.
“In Washington, Carson fought to pass the historic health care reform law, which provides families and business with better health insurance options and makes health care more affordable and accessible for tens of millions of Americans. As a former member of the House Financial Services Committee, he also helped pass Wall Street Reform, which protects consumers by ending government bailouts and the risky lending practices that almost destroyed our economy.
In the 113 th Congress, Rep. Carson will serve on the House “Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as well as on the powerful House Armed Services Committee – a fitting appointment as Congressman Carson has already experienced notable legislative success in the issues surrounding our armed forces. In 2011, President Obama signed two pieces of Carson legislation into law: The Service Members Mental Health Screening Act, which ensures comprehensive evaluation of mental health assessments before and after deployment, and the Military Families Financial Preparedness Act, which provides service members and their spouses with financial counseling before leaving the military.”
Carson is a graduate of Arsenal Tech High School, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Management from Concordia University Wisconsin and a Master’s in Business Management from Indiana Wesleyan University. Prior to being in Office, Congressman Carson served on the Indianapolis City-County Council and worked full-time in law enforcement. He worked for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security in the anti-terrorism unit. Congressman Carson is married to local educator Mariama Shaheed Carson. They are the proud parents of a six-year old daughter, Salimah.
PL: I would begin by asking you about your personal journey into politics. What inspired you to pursue public service?
AC: In 1984, my grandmother Julia Carson, was a State Senator in the Indiana General Assembly, and she was a delegate to the Democratic Convention in San Francisco. I had the honor of taking that trip with her to San Francisco and show our support for Jesse Jackson. Even though Jesse Jackson did not win, I was able to help register voters in my community - I was 9 or 10 years old and not old enough to vote myself. That put a seed in me. My grandmother was my biggest inspiration. As a teenager, I was a youth activist. I was always concerned about injustice, and aware of groups that are misrepresented. I am in Congress now, and what I am seeing now is not very different from what we have seen 20 years ago. We still have a broken education system, we need investment in infrastructure, we need more jobs, we must invest in our education system, and we have to move our country forward.
PL: During the past four years, the American people have witnessed a very polarized and partisan Congress - so much so that it is an uphill task to achieve any common goals. Is there a conscious and concerted effort now to bridge the differences?
AC: There is. Now more than ever, we are at a time where the Democrats and Republicans must come together for the well being of our Nation. If we fail to do so, the scholars and political pundits would have said that this Congress is the worst Congress in America’s history. The problems are too stark, they are too grave. And the issues that impact us – poverty, child nutrition, illiteracy, joblessness – go beyond race, culture, religion or creed. These are universal issues that affect all Americans, Democrats and Republicans. We cannot allow our differences to affect our destiny. We must realize that regardless of our political and philosophical differences, we owe it to the American people to come together, face the challenges, and solve the problems.
PL: Your statement of using the model of the Madrassah to shape public schools in the US drew a lot of controversy and criticism. What was the reference about?
AC: In our country, schools are graduating students that are functionally illiterate. It is embarrassing, unacceptable and deplorable. Part of that component deals with the family aspect, or the lack of a structured family system. Some of it has to do with teachers who are stretched too thinly because of testing requirements. As a result, our children cannot get the necessary and individual attention that they need. On a larger level, there are institutional and structural issues that are impacting growth and learning activities. Our current model of education for kids is antiquated and outdated. Most of us are visual learners, some of us are auditory learners; and some of us learn by building and touching things.
The comment made in referring to the model of the Madressah was not an argument that supports adding religious schools nationwide. I strongly believe in the separation of State and Church. Having said that, I have seen huge successes in different religious schools in this country – including Jewish, Christian and Muslim schools. Specifically, in Muslim schools across America there are students who are graduating and going to Ivy League institutions. There are kids coming out of these schools who are not only bilingual but trilingual. This is the same Muslim community who has been demonized by our media. I was simply saying that we need to look at some of their outputs, and identify the educational tools they are actually using: how can we learn from them, and replicate that kind of innovation and critical thinking in our own public schools.
PL: Elaborating on the subject of education, what is your take on the issue of student loans? One sees that even after receiving college education, the upward mobility of a poor kid is hindered because he/she is paying back, with current interest rates, for many years. Compare that to many developing countries, where State-supported college education is very affordable. What are your views on this subject, and is there a possibility in the future of providing education for all at college level?
AC: There are many people who believe that as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the US should provide free education and health care to all its people. We are long way away from that kind of activity. But in doing so, I think we need to make college more affordable and access to education should be easier. We need to take advantage of alternative platforms; virtual platforms, Internet platforms and non- traditional college settings where true adult learning can take place.
College has become a business. And in becoming a business, I think schools and institutions have lost touch - they have lost the meaning of what it really means to educate and develop the human mind. And if we get away from the aspect of really nurturing and cultivating people, we will never have a successful next generation to move us into the future. The next Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates or Barack Obama cannot be produced. If we move away from investing in our schools and making college more affordable, we will never be great as a society.
PL: What is your position on the current debate on gun control?
AC: As a former law enforcement officer, I am deeply concerned about the accessibility of assault weapons in our communities – their iniquitous usage and the recent incidences of carnage. What we need is a true assault weapon ban in our country that only allows military personnel and police departments to have access to these kinds of weapons. And those who want to have access to traditional firearms – must go through necessary screenings and background checks. I think at some point we need to seriously look at conducting training courses that educates people of proper usage, handling, maintenance and cleaning of firearms.
PL: We know that you have spoken of Muslims as not being a monolithic entity. Part of the problem is that the Muslim community stays away from Washington, and therefore is not very well represented and understood. What is your message to the community in this regard?
AC: My message to the community is that we represent 8 million Muslims in this country. If just 1 million Muslims collectively invest 20 million dollars in a political campaign, that is enough to impact congressional races, a city council race, and even a presidential race. Our lack of unity and our failure to get beyond our idiosyncrasies has held us back for generations. As tragic and appalling as 9/11 was, it called Muslims to come together and ask the very important questions: Where do we stand as Americans? Where do we go in our political space? How can we attain leverage and influence? We should still constantly address these questions.
As a Muslim Congressman, I have the greatest opportunity to serve my country. However, there is also a persistent suspicion, assumptions and loyalty to US under question. It is amazing to me that two billion Muslims around the world have been stereotyped into one identity by popular media engine in this country. Muslims in the US itself are immensely diverse in their cultural and religious orientations. A common aspect among them may be that they are all contributing to the growth and welfare of this country in so many different ways. However, due to their lack of participation in the political arena, they are not amply represented, and therefore not expressed in top ranks of the political discourse. As a community, we have to get involved in the political process – at a city, state and national levels. We must let our voices be heard.
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