Not commitment phobic: I got engaged

It's not easy being an American Muslim in search of effective political engagement, finds Mehrunisa Qayyum.
Mehrunisa Qayyum
22 November 2011

It's the eternal triangle. A long-term cause, a medium-term strategy, a short-term campaign. How do you align them, while keeping each one in sight at the same time?

A campaigner told me at a fundraiser for his candidate: "If American Muslims like you participated in campaigns or voted, then Islamophobic candidates would not make so much headway." This is surely right in an idealistic and inclusive sort of way. But it carries a problem: it's the long-term strategy. I want a short to mid-term strategy to engage politically - just like any business must have.

I am not commitment phobic. I got engaged. I served as the interim-director of a political action committee called Muslim Democrats. Its had been founded by Abdul Malik Mujahid, following the lesson learned from other minority groups that establishing a PAC was important. Many other American Muslim organisations, meanwhile, continue to "educate" rather than lobby. No single approach has all the answers: advocacy, for example, is not enough when concerted, targeted efforts need to go beyond snazzy press releases and social-media campaigns. Variety in organiational strategy - and particularly in types of organisations - is key to being effective.

In 2009, Rahm Emanuel vacated his seat in Chicago to join the new administration in Washington. I rallied as a "minority liaison" to encourage retirees and working people to participate in the ensuing 5th District Democratic primary. I remember changing my name from Mehrunisa to "Mary" on the phone just so that potential voters would not hang up on me before I read my call script.

I do not want to settle for "patience" and "perseverance". I say this because I didn’t like the look I got from congressman Peter King as I entered my friend’s apartment building.

As an American looking towards the primaries, I realise that I need to commit to a party. Voting in the 2012 election is too little too late because acting as a minority voice is all about the primaries.

But there are obstacles in the way. I am less likely to be committed to a political party because every four years the parties tend to veer more towards centrist politics, a trend that disfavours commitment. A recent Gallup study shows that American Muslims are the least "politically engaged" of all religious communities, in part because they are the youngest such group. As an American Muslim under 35, my chances of taking time off to vote grow even smaller.

Moreover, even if I do make it to the primary polls, I am supposed to be unlikely to participate in the Republican vote: not just because of my age, but because my minority background tends not to register as Republican.

Two observations challenge this prediction. First, as an observant American Muslim, I participate politically more than my fellows who attest that they are not as observant. And my strong affiliation with faith and other "conservative" tendencies (as reported by Gallup’s 2011 survey) suggests I should be more likely to vote Republican.

Second, election junkies would offer a fair counterpoint: that successful, assimilated communities (such as Latin Americans and Jewish Americans) donate to both campaigns so that their interests are always aligned with a winner.

But those objections just make me confused: then why isn’t the Republican party trying to appeal to American Muslim voters - especially since we tend to be younger, the very age range the GOP is disconnected from, as the 2008 election showed?

I can turn off the electronic soundbites without offending anyone as politicians continue their one-way communication. I can switch off my television when Republican candidate Herman Cain talks about the reason for not appointing a Muslim to his cabinet; when the same candidate says that towns should be able to vote against building new mosques; or when Rick Perry tries to explain why racist language is displayed on his family’s property.

Cain and Perry, and any others, may apologise for their comments within a week. But I cannot turn off their words in my head as I try to reason why I should align with one political party or another. Their apologies are public, but their utterances were made and reveal something of their true thoughts.

I realise that some strategists believe that neither Cain nor Perry has a good chance of representing the GOP in the election. That matters less to me than the fact that with all their education, opportunities, and wealth, these gentlemen feel confident enough to run for office - regardless of their alienating statements. But what saddens me more is that I have yet to see a short-to-medium-term strategy for American Muslims to politically engage and not just advocate against Islamophobia as the "other".

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