Islam Encourages Participation in American Civic Life

The relationship between American Muslims’ religious and civic duties reached a remarkable level of understanding at the beginning of this month, when Muslims nationwide celebrated Eid-Ul-Adha, one of Islam’s holiest days, with a national campaign for voter registration.

The Muslim American stride for civic participation rises from several factors; some of which are internal to the Muslim community, such as its members’ level of education and income; while others are external, such as the fact that this is an election year and every community is trying to display its best political standing. What is unique about the Muslim community is that underneath its political movement spreads a rising religious ideology that defines Muslim civic duties and obligations as integral parts of their Islamic faith.

According to media reports, thousands of Muslims filled out voter registration forms on Eid-Ul-Udha, including 1,000 new voters in Los Angeles and 900 in a Miami mosque, in response to a national appeal by American Muslim grassroots organizations working with dozens of Islamic congregations all over the country.

Muslim concern about the erosion of their civil rights since 9/11 is the most important issue motivating new voter registrations. A report published by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that 738 Muslim and Arab residents of the United States were unfairly detained in the year following the attacks. Tens of thousands of Muslims and Arabs were required to participate in interviews with the Department of Justice and to register with immigration authorities. Muslims also complain that they are being unjustly profiled by law enforcement authorities on a regular basis.

Adding insult to injury, the anti-Muslim backlash has targeted the Islamic religion as well. This was evidenced when several right wing leaders, such as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Jerry Vines, called Islam an ‘evil’ religion and named the Prophet Mohamed a ‘terrorist’ and a ‘demon-possessed pedophile.’

When it comes to foreign policy, the majority of American Muslims opposed the war in Iraq and frequently showed disappointment with the Bush administration’s lack of interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its disdain for pressuring Israel to end its daily humiliation of the Palestinian people.

Internally, Muslims tend to have a high level of education and income, which are important factors for political awareness and participation. A 2001 survey conducted by Muslims in American Public Square (MAPS) found that 58 % of American Muslims are college graduates and 50% of them earn more than $ 50,000 per year.

The significant Muslim presence in some states and cities strengthens their role as swing votes in close elections, such as the 2000 presidential election and the current Democratic primaries. In Washington, D.C., a Washington Post reporter noted that representatives of several Democratic presidential candidates addressed an Eid gathering of 12,000 to 20,000 Muslims. Politicians and candidates were also part of Muslim festivities in Chicago and Los Angeles.

More importantly, the American Muslim quest for political participation, led by their religious leaders and institutions, is a manifestation of a large and vital paradigm shift within the community. A new ideology is spreading among Muslims and reshaping their understanding of their relationship with the rest of society.

The new ideology sees civic participation as an obligation prescribed to Muslims by their Islamic faith so they can enjoin goodness and deter evil. It rejects isolation and calls on Muslims to care for their society and serve their neighbors regardless of their religion, race, or ethnicity. It regards America as a home for the current Muslim generation and for many generations to come. It urges Muslims to take more pro-active initiatives to clarify their image in the eyes of their fellow citizens, to defend their civil rights and liberties, and to help defend America’s image and values internally and aboard.

It took Muslim several decades in America to develop such ideas. Today, they exist and prevail. They shape American Muslim thinking and action at the majority of their institutions. A 2001 opinion survey of the leaders of America’s mosques, conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), found that 89 percent of Muslim leaders believe that Muslims should participate in the political process and 77 percent see America as an example of freedom and democracy that Muslim can learn from.

The new ideology is fostered and spread relentlessly every time new Muslim family settles in America and consider America its home and the home of its children; every time new Muslim students graduate from U.S. colleges and schools and go back to their small communities to help facilitate their participation in society; and every time a Muslim leader reminds his followers that ‘O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other,’ (Quran, 49:13).

For every American, voting and other forms of political participation are a civic duty and an obligation to serve the country and the people of the United States. For American Muslims, to participate in civic and political life is both a religious and civic commitment to serve Islam and America.