From the Editor: Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui

Whither Muslim Americans?

Election 2004, a nail-bitingly close contest, is over. Never before have the rural red – the Republican supporters – and the urban blue – the Democratic voters – in the US were seen in such combative mood - locked in a fierce battle for the White House.

The outcome was difficult to predict to the last. Yet, in the wee hours of November 3 President Bush triumphantly emerged as the winner. Fifty-one percent of the rural red had voiced unequivocal support for President Bush.
Conceding defeat, a teary-eyed Senator John Kerry “talked about the danger of division in our country and the need – desperate need - for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together” in his congratulatory call to President Bush. “Today, I hope we can begin the healing…”

Healing indeed was a pressing need. Election 2004 created an unprecedented stir in the US and beyond - across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Understandably so. The election’s outcome was to impact Americans and non-Americans, though in varying degrees and different ways. Not surprisingly, both the Americans and the non-Americans aired their views. A small BBC sampling:

“Never before have I, or anyone else I know, seen such passion for politics. I heard my 11-year old sister talking about foreign policy. At college, class was disrupted as heated political debates broke out. At the polls, I saw people, obviously only 18, smiling at their chance to have a say in the election. Although neither candidate is what I would call ideal, it makes me happy to see so many people staying informed and getting involved in politics. (Ryan McNamara, West Mitford, NJ, USA) “One of the most depressing aspects of the election has been the realization that Europeans and Americans don’t seem to like each other anymore. Another victory for Bin Laden (John, London) “To all Americans – we are not against you if we all are pro-Kerry. We owe you too much for playing the key role in freeing us in 1945… (Axel, Mainz, Germany) “Shouldn’t the Iraqis vote in this election since they will be affected the most by the election? And they are pretty much under an American rule.” (Faisal Al-Umari, Baghdad, Iraq) The Iraqis did not cast their vote but Muslim Americans did - en bloc – extending ‘qualified’ support to Senator Kerry.

Demonstrating their collective strength, thanks to the sustained strivings of the American Muslim Taskforce (AMT) headed by Dr Agha Saeed, a Pakistani, they furnished fresh proof of growing maturity. According to Dr Lisette Poole of California State University Howard, Muslim Americans and Arab Muslims “are firmly embarked on the road of political involvement, visibility, and contribution to the national debate, even as they contribute their struggle against the erosion of their civil liberties.”

The AMT gave a voice, a face, and a presence to the community on the national level. “In 2000 we had placed the Muslim vote on the political map. Now we are reaffirming the same electoral prowess so that every one could recognize that our voice has legitimacy,” said Dr Shabbir Safdar, AMT Board Member. His claim was well founded: an editorial comment in the prestigious Observer-Dispatch, which garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1959 testified: “No-shows at the ballot box might take a lesson from Muslim-Americans, who are stepping up efforts to assume an active role in the nation's political process… The American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections believes that this year's presidential race will be close, and even though its numbers are small, activists say voters could have an impact in November. To that end, the Associated Press reported Monday that the group aims to register one million Muslims to vote and will educate them about the presidential candidates' positions…”

The overwhelming Muslim support for Senator Kerry brings us to the crucial question: Will the defeat of the Senator adversely affect Muslim Americans? Would the anticipated introduction of Patriot Act II by the triumphant Bush administration compound their problems? Would the President, who visited a mosque in the immediate post – Sept 11 period and described Islam as a religion of peace, ungrudgingly own Muslims again as equal citizens of the United States of America? In his victory speech, the President appeared to drop a clue of his intentions as he outlined his priorities: “Reaching these goals will require the broad support of Americans. So today I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent. To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust.” A noble commitment.

Later, at his first press conference after reelection, the President remarked: “I will be your President regardless of your faith, and I don’t expect you to agree with me necessarily on religion. As a matter of fact, no President should ever try to impose religion on our society…The great thing that unites is the fact you can worship freely if you choose…”

Scrapping Patriot Act could lend meaning to this resolve. ‘Healing wounds’ would, inter alia, require rapid restoration of civil rights of all American citizens and treating them at par with others. An equally paramount need of the time is to deal with terrorists with an iron hand without blurring the distinction between genuine freedom fighters and adventurous, hardcore hoodlums.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was largely held responsible for human rights violations in the US, has already exited from the scene. According to Dr Agha Saeed, AMT Chairman, “Mr Ashcroft’s resignation and the subsequent nomination of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales has created a huge opportunity for an expanded and revived civil libertarian coalition to have a potentially policy altering debate during the confirmation hearings.” The AMT claims that Muslims may garner the first benefit of supporting John Kerry.

Yet, not all sections of the Muslim American community support the AMT’s qualified bloc endorsement. While some like the Seeme Hasan family of Colorado supported Bush and described a vote for Kerry as sheer ‘waste’, others denounced the AMT endorsement in no mild terms.

Says Dr M. A. Muqtedar Khan, Chair of the Political Science Department at Adrian College and a Nonresident Fellow of the Brookings Institution: “Unlike Europe, America has always been a religious nation. Alexis Tocqueville in 1831 claimed that religion was the first political institution of American democracy. November 2 saw this first political institution unleash a backlash against the assault on Christianity… The American identity is gradually changing. What we saw on 11/2 (November 2) was just the tip of the iceberg. American Muslims have to think hard abo ut what position they wish to occupy in the New Republic and fight even harder to get it. American Muslims must respect the diversity within the community and use it as a strategic asset rather than trying to impose a false unity that will crack under pressure. American Muslims will likely face a tough future…”

Dr Nayyer Ali of the Muslim Public Affairs Council too advances several reasons to explain why the Muslim vote didn’t matter in Election 2004, the principal one being: “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.”
While such observations carry considerable weight, the fact remains that the bloc vote has done Muslims more good than harm. It also holds the promise of precipitating a wholesome change. Its immediate benefits enunciated by an AMT supporter, can be summed up as follows:

1) Self correction - The errors and omissions of 2000 were corrected in 2004 and broader consultation has resulted in better results, 2) Environment –We are beginning to understand America and America is beginning to understand Islam and Muslims, 3) Contextualization - Even though Bush won the election, about half the country voted against him. The Muslims were not alone and isolated as they would have been had they voted for a third party, 4) Maturity - We hav e learnt to agree and disagree without a split, respect diversity of opinion and work with other organizations, 5) Multi-Party Strategy - While we have decided to remain in the mainstream, we have also discovered the significant and creative role of America’s third parties; and 6) Intergenerational Learning - Political savvy is hereditary, immigrant parents are getting it from their American-born children.

Circumstanced as they are today, it is for American Muslims to transform the ‘worst of times’ into the ‘best of times’ by reaching out to fellow Americans and presenting the peaceful face of Islam. Muslim Americans who have read Dicken’s classic ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ know that the English novelist not only talks of the worst and the best of times but also of a ‘winter of despair’ and ‘a spring of hope.’ The AMT has to be an all-time undertaking for a wholesome change, fo r a speedy transition to ‘a spring of hope.’

As for Pakistani Americans, President Bush’s victory should signify the end of the roller-coast equation that has characterized ties between Washington and Islamabad in the past. The US should act with promptitude to respond to Pakistan’s long-standing request for the supply of the F-16s to furnish proof of the closer ties binding the two countries together today. IT is one field that could reward both countries if they enter into well-meaning collaborative arrangements. - afaruqui@pakistanlink.com)


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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