Sunday, November 9, 2008

American Muslims and the political process - A follow up to 'Is voting a religious duty?'

A commenter on a previous post about the importance of voting took exception with my feeling that voting is a religious duty. I may frequently assume that what is obvious to me must be obvious to others, but this is not always the case. So, I took the opportunity to express in some detail my sense of the necessity of participate in the American political process and the obstacles American Muslims face trying to be part of the political scene (not all issues will be raised in this posting).

A large number of American Muslims are transplanted from other societies. Early generations of immigrants tend to avoid political involvement in their adopted communities for many reasons, and under many pretenses. Their focus is usually on establishing sound economic foundations for their offspring.

Many also tend to be 'non-engaging' with their new communities for fear of losing their culture. Such desire for non-engagement plagues even some Muslims who are no longer immigrants or first generation American Muslims.

Other Muslims also like to cite their reason for non-participation in politics to be that it is important to hear explicit approval from the different Sheiks, Imams, etc, before getting involved. They also take the lack of repeated and explicit opinions on political American issues by most Muslim clergy to reflect that something is wrong with being part of the American political system.
I do not agree with these assumptions and reasoning, so I will state my case.

I doubt anyone would disagree with the fact that it is my religious duty as a Muslim to do what I believe to be beneficial to my community, Muslims and non-Muslims.

I doubt many would disagree that being part of a society is a choice that comes with some obligations. Citizenship entitles you to some benefits that you should take advantage of only if you agree - implicitly at least - to be in a social contract with the society. You are obliged to pay taxes, and defend the society if it is endangered. You are also in a contract to change the society only in the manners accepted by that society, and out of desire to benefit the society - your society - and not out of hatred for it. If someone does not feel such obligation to their society of citizenship, then they are not good citizens. And for them to be honest, they should strive to find another society to be belong to. And for the immigrants amongst you, do you remember the citizenship ceremony and the citizenship oath you took?

The American society agreed to govern itself in a public and participatory manner.
  • Those who have ideas to change and improve the society, i.e. candidates, put their thoughts forward.
  • The others , i.e., voters, make a 'judgment call' or better yet 'an educated guess' as to whether the plans are possible to implement, will indeed be useful, and whether the candidates seem honest enough to be trusted implementing their proposed plans.
  • The America society then asks its members to 'give a testimony' as to which candidate they believe is better for our society.
This 'testimony' is represented in your vote.
If I think of myself as a citizen of this country, and as a responsible Muslim; if I have thoughts and feelings about the proposed changes put forward by different political candidates; and if I know in my heart that the proposals will have an impact - positive or negative - on American Muslims, American non-Muslims, non American Muslims and the rest of the world, THEN it is my religious duty to testify. It is my religious duty to vote.

As for religious opinion by Muslim scholars: there are many who have absolutely no problems with voting and political participation. Still, I do not need their approval to feel the way I feel about my civic duties, and my religious duty to my community. Islam is not Catholicism.

Of course, it will be great if our clergy -- and I am using the term loosely, as there is no clergy in the literal sense of the word in Islam -- put their minds together in public forums and engage in lively and free discussion with their communities and outside their communities but that, unfortunately, is just not part of 'our culture'.

We need them to go outside their immediate mosque communities, reach out to Muslims and non-Muslims outside the close circle of their followers, write Op-Eds and publish it on local and national media with what they feel is an Islamic religious opinion that relates to our Muslim community and American society issues.

By doing these things, their knowledge will have the impact that they hope for on all of us; Muslims and non-Muslims. An they would be fulfilling their roles as thought leaders in their communities.

But even then, if we were to wait for a consensus amongst them, we will have to wait forever. So far, we cannot even agree on starting Ramadan, the month of fasting, together or to cerebrate 2 days a year of Islamic feasts together.



  1. Khaled, I think your points are well taken. Insha Allah, we will have imams and scholars involved in the public discourse in a positive way soon. Until then, I guess its up to interested Muslims to be the voice.

    On your reference to Muslims not being like Catholics, I saw an interesting article shortly before the election about how many Catholics were planning to vote for Obama, almost along the lines of the general elecgorate. I know this to be true anectdotally as well.

    Glad you are writing again.

  2. I agree that I agree with the general premise of your writing, i.e., it is a Muslim’s duty to vote. I’d go a little further to say that it is the duty of anyone to vote or shut up, let me explain: whenever someone complains about government I ask them did you vote? If the answer is yes then we can have discussion on the issues…However, if someone did not vote, they need to shut up because they had their chance to make a difference and chose not to let their voice be heard where it counts, and they are just griping or creating white noise…They have chosen to shut themselves up so I don’t really listen to what they say!
    I do have a slight disagreement with your characterization that Islam is not Catholicism, I think in principle that is correct but the current trend towards having “professional” religious scholars is moving us towards a sort of clergy system, however that is a topic for another blog.

    So let us start from the top: Did you vote?


  3. Khaled,
    I'm happy to see that there are Muslims who value political participation. I share your view and feeling that we don't need "approval", or any sign or okay from any authority (religious or otherwise) to participate (or vote).
    I have one difference with you. I still adhere to the Malcom X recommendation: Be registered to vote--but use it wisely. Not every election deserves the participation of the people. At times, people need to "vote with their feet", by staying home. There is a misunderstanding about democracy=voting-period. No one is emphasizing that voting is just a SMALL part of the political process.
    Let us respect those who take non-voting positions. This too, is a part of "freedom". Many people (whether right or wrong), refuse to participate in a system that monopolizes the political process with 2 parties that have only 1 foreign policy: imperialism; and 1 domestic policy: capitalist dictatorship. We need to respect people attempting to build independent political parties which are free from the Washington-Wall Street axis of evil. We have such a tradition here in the u.s.a.:the republican party emerged from the abolitionist movement and the rising industrial-capitalist class of the time. During the 1850's they were nothing. In 1860-they won the White House.
    Politics involves much more than "voting".
    Assalamu Alaikum,
    Timothy Kaminski

  4. Salaam Tim:
    I am not sure why you think you differ with me on the point you raised. I am totally in agreement that voting is an essential yet a very small part of what is needed. I an actually working on my next post about participation on an on-going basis, building coalitions and establishing an infrastructure of political activism in the Muslim community. The comment left by 'brother' following my earlier post touched on at least 2 important issue used, and frequently abused, by all those who advocate isolationism for our community: hero worship and how dirty politics is. Neither is a valid reason to avoid participation. so, keep tuned. Or better yet, if you have something to post email it to me. and I will post it on the blog.

  5. Assalaamu Alaykum Khaled. I agree with you that we do not need the approval of any cleric to vote. The principles of Islam are totally congruent if not in direct support of our responsibilities as citizens to decide who our leaders are. I can stomach many reasons as to why people say they do not vote such as disliking all the candidates, plain apathy or as a protest. But I cannot accept arguments from Muslims that attempt to link their lack political participation or refusal to vote with Islam. In my view one of the problems (as I think you alluded to in your article) is that for some there is a lack of a critical understanding of Islam which results in an exclusionary Islam, rather than a generally inclusive Islam as I see it to be. Although, I this is a small minority, it is usually these people who start the high-school-gossip -like rumor “hey did you hear voting is haram!?”

    Great article, Thanks Khaled.