An Obama administration must engage Muslims better than the campaign did

"Barack Obama and supporters, February 4, 2008" by Sage Ross

Electrifying. Eclectic. Ecstatic.

That is what the crowd was like at Chicago's Grant Park on November 4, when our nation elected its first African-American president.

Electrifying: The air at this gathering was charged with emotion. Many in the crowd had prayed, voted and campaigned for Barack Obama with telephone calls and door-to-door canvassing.

Eclectic: Almost every shade of humanity was there ? every religious group, every cultural group, all races and colors. The crowd represented the globe and the diversity of America today a country that includes Muslims, whose presence at the rally was made visible by sisters wearing hijab.

Ecstatic: Whether it was tears of joy, fist-waving chants or cheers, there was no mistaking the euphoria and sheer elation of every single person at that rally.

Obama's victory was truly one that brought joy. He drew 94 percent of the American Muslim vote, the largest percentage of any religious group.

But for Muslim Americans, the victory was also bittersweet. Our community was politically marginalized in this year's presidential election, more so than in any other year.

During the campaign, Obama's opponents attempted to slur him by calling him a Muslim. They exploited his biracial family history and middle name Hussein as a way to scare off potential voters. E-mail campaigns portrayed him as a Muslim terrorist.

Obama could have also used these opportunities to say that being called a Muslim is not an insult. But he never challenged the obvious bigotry in these attacks or the assertions that he was secretly a Muslim, the way he disarmed bigots on the race issue in a Philadelphia speech.

Instead, the Obama campaign distanced itself from the nation's six million American Muslims. He visited churches and synagogues, but never a masjid. He invited Jewish and Christian clergy to lead prayers from the Democratic Convention?s main stage, but not an imam.

Obama's campaign also appointed outreach coordinators for evangelical Christians, Jews and Catholics. When a Muslim was finally selected, he was quickly dismissed after unfounded associations were published about him.

Our nation?s first Muslim Congressman, Keith Ellison, even complained to the New York Times that the Obama campaign had rudely shunned him.

But Obama was not the only candidate giving American Muslims the cold shoulder. John McCain never denounced the extensive Muslim fear-and-hate mongering fueled by his supporters.

A pro-McCain nonprofit group, the Clarion Fund, circulated 28 million DVDs of a virulently anti-Muslim film entitled Obsession. More than 70 newspapers, including the New York Times, distributed the anti-Muslim DVD on the pretext that it was a paid advertisement.

The inflammatory propaganda arrived in swing states just weeks before the elections to discourage voters from electing Obama. McCain did not denounce the DVD. The Obama campaign also remained silent. And the media asked no questions.

More troubling, there was no public outrage. Why? The answer is simple: Islamophobia remains the only acceptable racism in America.

The interfaith community's condemnation of the anti-Muslim bigotry did not translate into substantial news coverage. During an interview on Meet The Press, Colin Powell became the country?s only statesman to speak out against this Islamophobia.

Still, Obama's victory demonstrates a thinking citizenry where bigots are a minority. Now that the election is over, it is critical that our new president engage Muslims. I am not talking about a few photo opportunities and a once-a-year Iftar at the White House. I mean inviting Muslims to the table when our domestic and international policies are discussed

Will American Muslims have a place in the Obama administration? We are sorely needed. Presently, Zalmay Khalilzad is the only Muslim ambassador serving the United States. He has been crisis-hopping for years.

First, he moved from the U.S. State Department to Afghanistan, then to Iraq and now, he is our representative at the United Nations. Why not give him a break and select a few more ambassadors from a pool of hundreds and thousands of American Muslim professionals and businessmen and women?

Muslims serve the United States with a sense of duty, commitment and honor every day in countless fields. Tens of thousands of them save lives on a daily basis as leading physicians and surgeons. Thousands of us serve in the field of higher education and in the U.S. armed forces.

American Muslims can help our country rebuild its tattered image around the world. We come from more than 80 countries. We make up one of the largest groups of highly educated, professional Muslims anywhere in the world. We are leaders and achievers who are well-traveled and communicate in several languages.

In the last eight years, America has suffered tremendously in the areas of trade and diplomacy. That decline is directly tied to our diminished status on the global stage. Our nation is uniquely suited to take advantage of globalization because of our diversity.

American Muslims must be better engaged. This is the key finding of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs report entitled Strengthening America: The Civic and Political Integration of Muslim Americans. The document calls for creating full and equal opportunities for Muslim Americans to participate in our nation?s civic and political life.

But American Muslims must not sit and wait to be handed an assignment. It is not enough to vote. We are happy that a large number of Muslims have volunteered and donated to political campaigns. But it is time that we take our civic engagement far more seriously. It is critical to engage in public service, whether in appointed roles in the federal or state government or through another process.

Now is the time to serve. America is facing great difficulties. Citizens need to offer their talents and skills to develop effective and creative solutions to our struggles. It is time for us to give back to our country. I know that the government does not pay as much as you might be earning right now. But that is the reason it is called public service. It is the sacrifice we must make.

We must also mobilize our neighbors to express outrage at the frequent and consistent hate campaigns directed against the Muslim community. We live in a time when Muslims are the last to be hired and the first to be fired. According to one study, the wages of Muslims were down by 10 percent far before the economy hit a crisis stage this year.

It is understandable why Muslim Americans might lie low, out of fear. But that will only make our situation worse. It is fear that systematically marginalizes Muslims in politics and public life. We must battle against this. Now is the time for courage and civic engagement.

Let us pray that the Obama administration will reflect America's diversity. That means welcoming Muslims, as well.

After all, we are not white America, or black America, but the United States of America.

 

"Barack Obama and supporters, February 4, 2008" by Sage Ross - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barack_Obama_and_supporters,_February_4,_2008.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Barack_Obama_and_supporters,_February_4,_2008.jpg

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