More US Muslims run for office

The number of Muslim American political candidates dropped considerably after 9/11, but is now beginning to grow again

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They have precious little IN common, if truth be told.

She: a petite private-school principal and mother of three. He: a suave immigration lawyer with a faint streak of peroxide in his hair. She's a Democrat; he's a Republican. She was born in the US, the daughter of an educated immigrant from Kashmir. He, a Palestinian, was born in Bethlehem and came to the United States as a refugee, without knowing a word of English.

And yet, Afeefa Syeed and Kamal Nawash, who each ran in local elections in Virginia Tuesday (she was running for the Potomac seat on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors; he wanted to be a state senator from the 31st District) have more in common than both having lost their races.

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As two of only a handful of Muslims running for elected office in the US this year, Ms. Syeed and Mr. Nawash's singular bids underscore the general lack of Muslim participation in political life in America.

But because there were two more Muslim candidates running for office in Virginia this year than five years before - and two more than 10 years ago - Syeed's and Nawash's bids also point to a new trend.

"More and more of us are realizing that it is time for Muslims to stop shying away from the political process," says Mukit Hossain, a Bangladeshi-American businessman and director of the Platform for Active Civil Empowerment (PACE), a new Muslim political action committee. "The way to advance our agenda is in the traditional American way: by gaining more political power."

Muslim Americans first began running for office in sizable numbers only in the 1990s, says Agha Saeed, national chairman of the American-Muslim Alliance, a civic education organization. But by the time elections rolled around in 2000, close to 700 Muslim Americans were candidates for a variety of offices.

That year, 153 Muslims - split almost equally between African-Americans and immigrants - were elected, including four to state senates and assemblies. And Muslims were coming out in increasingly large numbers to vote and support "their" candidates.

It seemed there was no looking back. But, as it happened, the numbers of candidates plummeted in the wake of 9/11 - with only a handful of Muslims running for election in 2001 and 2002.

The decision to start PACE came in the wake of raids by federal officials on Muslim organizations and families in Virginia last year - raids that were meant to uncover people with ties to terrorist organizations, but which led to no charges. "That was when I realized if we want to have a voice in government, we have to speak up early on. We can't wait until someone comes knocking on the door, to look for a voice," Mr. Hossain explains.

"The question is, what are Muslim issues?" asks Syeed, a religious woman who wears a traditional head covering and who helped found one of the only Muslim elementary schools in the state, Al Fatih Academy.

She ran on a purely local platform, rarely making reference to her religion. "I don't need to," she says. "I am clearly a Muslim and that speaks for itself. I need to explain what I want to do for the community."

"Muslim issues" can certainly include hate crimes and racial profiling, but they go much beyond that, she argues.

"Muslims are mainly coming to a crossroads where we realize that community issues are our issues. The Middle East is important, but not as important to us here as urban sprawl. This is my home. The place where I am raising my children," she says. "I want to make that clear, and I think it's important for non-Muslims to see me making that clear."

Nawash, a former legal director of the Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee took a different approach to his candidacy. Sure, he has a local platform and ideas about how to expand the Metrorail to his district, he says, but he also is keen to talk global and national politics.

"I wanted to focus on local issues alone, but my campaign attracted a lot of other attention," says Nawash, describing how the State Department's Voice of America radio station interviewed him three times and translated the interviews into Arabic.

"I was their propaganda piece - a Palestinian running for state senate in the US. It looks good when you are trying to reach out to the Muslim world," he says with a smile. He doesn't seem to have minded the attention.

"I am one of the few people who understand well the Arab Muslim world and the American one," Nawash says. "I think I can be a bridge between them, and I am willing to take this responsibility head on."

While the idea of Muslims getting organized to support another Muslim in a US election may be relatively new, he thinks that average Muslims will be happy to offer such support.

Not completely so, it turns out. In some ways it seems that by expanding his message, Nawash invited controversy - both from other Muslims and from the larger community. In the weeks leading up to the elections, several non-Muslim groups and individuals claimed that he supported and was supported by terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, PACE endorsed Syeed, but decided not to endorse Nawash, preferring his opponent, a non-Muslim. Nawash says this was because he was not religious enough for the organization. The group explains it otherwise.

"We want to promote our interests, but we gain credibility by endorsing those best qualified to represent us - whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims," explains Hossain. All of the attention to Nawash, he adds, was counterproductive. "Our issues are local first and foremost."

The results of the elections were disappointing to the candidates, but both say they might try again.

Meanwhile, supporters tried to put a positive spin on the outcome, arguing that the mere fact that the two participated in the race outweighs the disappointing results.

"We are all foreigners here," says Santo Mirabile, an Italian-American who has been living in Virginia for more than 30 years, "I'm glad to see Muslims participating. That's what is good about America."

Hossain suspects that the number of Muslims entering the political fray will only increase in years to come. "Maybe three. Maybe four. This is the beginning of better things."

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