In a 2009 report by Gallup entitled “Muslim Americans: A National Portrait,” opinion surveyors found that only 51 percent of Muslim American youth (aged 18 to 29) were registered to vote. This represented the lowest percentage recorded among young Americans. With the 2012 elections approaching next November, Muslim Americans are aiming for a higher percentage of registered voters and accordingly a higher turnout at the polls.
Imams and Muslim community activists across the United States are encouraging young Muslims to play their part in addressing and remedying the ills that they see in their communities. Their calls are rooted in a verse from the Quran which states, “Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” Understanding this call to action through their faith, Muslim Americans can work toward becoming agents of change as well as a voting bloc for this defining year.
Muslim institutions, including mosques and civic groups, have kick-started the drive to mobilize the Muslim community. This they have done by producing informational material on candidates and planning election forums where voters can meet with each other to ask questions about candidates and learn about their respective platforms on a variety of issues, among them foreign policy.
For instance, the Council on American Islamic Relations, a national civil rights group, has produced a document called the “2012 Presidential Voter Guide” as part of its “Muslims Vote” campaign. This guide lists biographical information pertaining to the candidates as well outlining as their positions on issues like the economy, health care, national security, foreign policy and civil rights.
While Muslim civic engagement has always been encouraged, this election year proves to be significant in the struggle for the civil rights and liberties of Muslim Americans. Specifically, a pressing struggle has been addressing the rise of Islamophobia this year. This fear has manifested itself in anti-Muslim statements from candidates, which has displayed a prejudice and lack of concern for hard-working Muslim American citizens and their well-being. Muslim Americans believe that they have to continue educating elected officials and decision makers in order to challenge prejudices and replace false ideas of Islam and Muslims with accurate ones.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national public policy organization established in 1988, is currently running the “I Am Change” civic leadership program. This is a three-hour workshop that promotes civic engagement by teaching people how to talk effectively to public officials about domestic and foreign policy issues.
This program is part of a critical strategy to counter the idea of Muslims as representing a source of fear. Rather, it shows a commitment to the civic process and the nation. Youth groups, including different chapters of the nationwide Muslim Students Association, are scheduling these workshops on their campuses throughout the U.S. Similarly, organizations like the Arab American Association of New York are encouraging civic engagement by conducting civic activism workshops for teen girls and classes to prepare for gaining American citizenship.
Muslim Americans are not focused solely on increasing voting in the community. They are also working on modeling citizenship in other ways, including through volunteer action. At Georgetown University in Washington, DC, for example, the Students Association is encouraging civic engagement by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization, to build a house for a family in West Virginia. In answering the call to service, these Muslim students of Georgetown hope to set an example of model Muslim citizenship and build relationships with other volunteers as they build a home together for a family in need. This project will also have an interfaith aspect to it; each day will begin with an interfaith prayer.
With all these preparations under way, the example of young people leading the way in Muslim American civic engagement – from voter drives to volunteer activities – will hopefully continue to increase and will make a strong impact in all aspects of civic society. In this way, America political leaders can better come to represent the interests of a truly diverse United States of America.
Shazia Kamal is an associate editor at AltMuslimah.com, a platform for commentary on the intersections of faith and gender in Islam and beyond. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).