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Muslim Participation in American Politics and Civic Life

By Janine Kahn

The Muslim community’s participation in American politics depends on the younger generation’s involvement, and according to Ahmed Younis, the national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, it all comes down to an issue of identity: the ability of Muslim Americans to reconcile the plurality of their societal role and be equally Muslim and American.

The ideal, he said, is for there to be “neither dissonance nor friction between the founding principles of Islam and the founding principles of this country.”

“It is a belief that one can be one hundred percent engaged in a democratic United States and one hundred percent engaged in a relationship with God,” said Younis, who added that Muslims need to feel that they have an investment in American society.

“You don’t commit acts of terrorism against institutions or nations, or communities or people that you perceive in some way have a relationship to you, let alone have a direct relationship to your identifier,” he said.

Muslims in America are socially included but politically excluded, said Younis, who cited his experiences growing up in Long Beach, CA, asking himself why there were no Muslim political figures in Washington.

There is a “lack of being at the places where politics is made,” he said, and lack of ability “to have an equal stake at the table where policy is made.”

Zain Shauk, a senior studying print journalism at USC, said he had also asked himself questions about the lack of Muslim voices in politics, and noted that this could perhaps be attributed to the career choices the generation ahead of him made when they first settled into America.

“A lot of us grew up with parents that aren’t from here and didn’t really have so much of an (inclination towards) getting involved politically,” said Shauk, who added that most Muslim parents tell their children to “do something solid” by going into the fields of engineering, computer science and perhaps business.

“You want to be an engineer, you want to make money, you want to be able to succeed in this tough country. That had a lot to do with none of us being involved in politics,” said Shauk.

Organizations like the Muslim Students Association at UCLA, which started out as a safe haven for Muslims to come together and pray, has turned to grassroots activism and is more politically inclined than when it was first founded, according to Kadisha Adulla, a UCLA student and member of the MSA.

Adulla said that there has been change in dynamics and in the responsibility young Muslims feel they have towards society. While older generations banded together on campus for social and religious purposes, the generation today feels the need to give something back. 

The change was a realization that “hey, we’re living in this community, we’re part of this, we’re distant from all these countries that are abroad and we still feel that responsibility to help these countries out, but we’re a part of this society. We’re born here and we have responsibility here,” said Adulla.

While the panelists agreed that it is key for Muslim youths in America to get directly involved in politics and activism, Ahmed Darwish, a senior at USC studying industrial systems and engineering, said that doing so isn’t always so simple. In high school, he made plans to attend an anti-war rally, but opted out when his parents “went ballistic” at the idea, fearful for his arrest. 

The fellows in the audience were very concerned about corresponding with Muslim youth for journalistic purposes, and several stated that it was difficult to get Muslim American sources to go on the record.

“(Muslim individuals) are afraid to talk to the media because they’ll take it out of context and set it against the Muslims,” said Darwish. “Once something like that happens, the parents say ‘don’t get involved, it’ll be worse for you in the long run.’ “

Other questions from the audience involved the American dating scene, the desire to learn Arabic in order to work for a government agency like the FBI, and if American Muslims have an alignment with a particular political party.

The three college students noted that the concept of dating, as most Americans know it, is not exactly applicable to Islam.

“It’s not really dating. If you want to get to know someone that you’re going to marry, it’s in a friendship sort of setting,” said Shauk, who added that he didn’t think he’d be able to relate with someone that wasn’t Muslim in a marriage scenario.

“Having common roots solves so many problems that could arise (in a marriage),” said Darwish.

As for learning Arabic, Adulla said she noticed a big surge on campus, with many Muslim students coming back to their roots and overbooking language classes at UCLA.
“Language is a big part of identity and culture,” she said, adding that while Muslims in America are just as much against terrorism as everybody else, it isn’t likely that many would learn Arabic to join the FBI or the army.

“Why would we want to be a part of this army when we really don’t support this war?” she said.

Muslims, the panel agreed, are neither decidedly Republican nor Democratic.

“I grew up feeling marginalized by both Democratic and Republican parties. I feel like I wouldn’t fit in either of them. I think that’s representative of the youth as a whole – neither party really represents them,” said Darwish, who noted that while the majority of Muslims aligned themselves with the Republican party for George W. Bush’s first election, the tide has turned and now, the community seems to be more Democratic.

“For the most part, Muslims in America are religiously conservative, politically liberal, so that usually places them, because the social justice issues override the ‘we can’t be aligned with these people that have abortions (notion),’ “ said Younis. “This, for the most part, leads to voting [Democratic].”

“The average Muslim is a Democrat, but the average Muslim is willing to vote otherwise if they see a significant amount of relationships (with the opposite party),” said Younis. 

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