A leading Islamic lobby group is on a nationwide tour to introduce Muslims to American politics.
Building an influential voting bloc for the 2004 elections and eventually seeing Muslim candidates on ballots for everything from city council to congressional seats are two aims of the Virginia-based Muslim American Society, the St. Paul Pioneer press reported.
The MAS also wants to increase campaign donations for politicians who have represented Muslim interests, including civil-rights protections and immigrant issues.
On Saturday, MAS will lead a civil rights march and rally in Washington, D.C., it touts as the largest gathering of Muslims ever in the nation’s capital.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, American Muslims, who traditionally focused on foreign policy, increasingly have made domestic policy their biggest concern, the St. Paul paper said. At a day-long workshop last Saturday in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., participants discussed issues such as mosque expansions, Islamic slaughterhouses and racial profiling.
The workshop turned 60 eager participants into lobbyists and, possibly, potential candidates, the Pioneer Press said.
“It’s not just talking about issues that affect Muslims,” workshop organizer Jessi Frenzel told the paper. “It’s our duty as American residents to speak up on a lot of issues. To be a good citizen is to be a good Muslim.”
Frenzel said he is considering a future in politics.
Another Muslim group held a political awareness seminar Sunday at the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley in which participants learned how to approach the mayor, handle media interviews and build interfaith support.
About 700 Muslims ran for public office in 2000, and 153 were elected, the St. Paul paper reported. In 2002, however, the number of Muslim candidates dropped to fewer than 70, with about 15 elected, said Agha Saeed, a professor who has compiled the figures for the American Muslim Alliance.
One of a handful of Muslim candidates elected in the country last year was Keith Ellison, the first Muslim chosen for state office in Minnesota. Ellison, a member of the state House, said he was hit with a campaign “smear tactic” but now laughs about it. Fliers post in Minneapolis neighborhoods showed him in a bow tie with “Muhammad,” his Muslim name, displayed prominently, the St. Paul paper reported. The message essentially said: Can this person really represent you?
Ellison said he wants to see Muslims add their voices to issues such as homeland security and the economy.
“I’m down here [at the Capitol] every day, and there’s no Muslim presence at all,” he told the Pioneer Press. “Without speaking up, people will pass repressive legislation on you. It’s essential to raise your profile and find your political voice.”
Muslim groups claimed their support of President Bush put him in office, but an exit poll by the Detroit News showed 66 percent of Muslims in Michigan voted for Al Gore. Muslims are heavily concentrated in Detroit and other major metropolitan areas including New York, Chicago and Southern California.
Rahma Farah, 18, who participated in the Saturday workshop, said the experience made her optimistic about the future of Islam and U.S. politics.
One day, she told the St. Paul daily, there may even be a Muslim president of the United States.
“Who knows?” Farah said. “Maybe in 2020.”
MAS said, according to a news release, it is planning a June 9 workshop on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to train imams and other Islamic leaders in the “community-building skills of political participation and media relations.”
The session will be part of the American Muslim Council’s annual imam conference, from June 5th to June 9th.
“No leader in our community should miss this opportunity to build crucial outreach skills,” said Dr. Souheil Ghannouchi, president of the Muslim American Society. “In order to be effective leaders, our imams must be able to engage government officials on issues of concern to the community and properly represent their faith to the media.”
After the training seminar, imams will have lunch with Muslim congressional staffers, MAS said, providing “an ideal opportunity for networking and building practical knowledge of the role of Muslims in politics.”