The duty of American Muslims this election

Forget self-pity. Make your voice a constructive one.

I am American. I am Muslim. I am not a registered Republican or Democrat. But I do believe my vote matters. And I'm proud to be a citizen of the United States, where I can exercise my birthright to help choose my country's political leadership.

In previous elections, I advocated a choice of candidate. This year, I simply encourage every registered American Muslim and Arab-American to vote – your vote and your voice matter. You can be an agent for change, if you choose to be. You have no right to complain about what is wrong with our country if you don't vote.

Recast your feelings of outrage and exclusion at the bipartisan Islamophobia that has engulfed the 2008 presidential race. Make it a constructive voice – enough of the "woe is me" victimization that has plagued our communities since 9/11. Whatever abuses we suffered, whether from the US Patriot Act or from violations of our civil liberties born of anger and frustration at attacks carried out by those who defaced our faith, we have more freedom, more opportunity, and more say in how our country is run than we would in any other country.

We are citizens who work hard, pay taxes, send kids to school, and participate in community activities – in short, we are as much America as "Joe the Plumber." Unfortunately, we often don't act it.

If we want our place in American political life, we have to earn it. If we want our voices heard, we should not need prominent citizens such as Colin Powell to defend the American Muslim identity as part of our nation's political fabric and denounce Islamophobia in American politics. We should raise up leaders from among ourselves who by virtue of their public or military service to our country – as Americans first, not Muslims who happen to live here – can make a valid case for the issues that uniquely affect us.

As my fellow American Muslims ponder their choices this election, I urge them to think about the larger problems our world faces and how we, living in its freest country, can be catalysts for change.

On America and Islam. We are engaged in a generational struggle against extremism, particularly the Islamist variety. Yet as a society, we have so far refused to give a platform to rational Muslim voices for fear they may be wolves hiding in sheep's clothing. We should vote for the candidate whose administration will open doors to qualified American Muslims to serve as beacons of democracy's promise. Muslims at home and abroad must have better examples to follow than Osama bin Laden's manipulative exhortations as the defender of Islam's poor and disaffected.

On America's foreign policy challenges. Preventing the complete collapse of Pakistan, which is already in a dysfunctional state, should be one of the top priorities for the next administration. If Pakistan failed, it would pose two critical risks – becoming a strategic haven for the world's Islamist extremists and allowing unregulated fissile materials to find the wrong hands.

The next administration cannot rely on military force to fix Pakistan. America needs to lead an international effort aimed at creating a New Deal type Works Progress Administration to put Pakistanis to work. People who work and trade don't bomb and kill. Candidates who believe in a multifaceted and nuanced approach – instead of blunt-instrument policies – to such vexing problems are better equipped to represent our future.

On America's failing intelligence system. The next administration will have to fix a bloated and inappropriately staffed intelligence apparatus. If we are to combat the asymmetric threats we face effectively, America needs a new genre of human intelligence gatherers whose language skills and cultural identities enable us to know what signals intelligence can never tell us. We spend billions on satellites that cannot find one man. If we spent just millions on training our own citizens Urdu, Farsi, Hindi, and Arabic so we could gather good intelligence for the sake of making better policy, perhaps we could avert the next attack.

On the future of Muslims in America. America is a race- and religion-blind meritocracy. No door has ever been closed to me. I intend one day to hold high public office and I believe my fellow citizens will give me that chance irrespective of my religious beliefs because they know I love my country and have defended it against those who have torn my religion apart.

I want my government to ensure no door is ever closed to my children. I teach my children the principles espoused by Jefferson and Washington as much as I care that they learn the sayings of prophet Muhammad. Leadership is about constructing frameworks that gird a society's architecture. American Muslims need to help construct these frameworks, or our generations will be lost.

The practice of democracy is really about average citizens – no matter our race, religion, or gender – wisely choosing the best and brightest to lead us.

I don't care whether John McCain and Barack Obama visited a mosque or failed to address our communities during the presidential contest. I do care that they understand that my vote, and those of my fellow American Muslims, matters. And that they will take seriously how important a part of American life we really are.

Mansoor Ijaz is a New York financier.

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