The Democratic National Convention will take place September 3-6 as the country gets ready to elect its next president. Held every four years
since 1832, the convention’s primary goal is to nominate a candidate for president
and vice president, adopt a party platform, and unify the party.
Among the 4000 delegates expected to go to the convention in Charlotte, NC, Muslim Americans overcame significant barriers to earn their seats at the table.
Muslims make up one of the most complex and diverse
groups in the United States. According
to the State Department, 34 percent of Muslim Americans are South Asians, 26
percent are Arabs, 25 percent are Africans, and 15 percent are from other
Due to these diverse identities, it has been difficult to gauge
the number of Muslim Americans currently living in the US. The Council on
Foreign Relations estimated that Muslims make up approximately 2 percent of the
population, or 7 million people. The Pew Research Center reported that 81 percent of Muslims in the US are citizens.
Despite these numbers, historically, Muslim Americans have
not been very active in getting elected to office. The first Muslim
member of Congress, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, was elected only 6
years ago. Yet, national efforts, led by organizers such as Dr. Agha Saeed,
have pushed Muslims to be more politically and civically engaged.
Almost 20 years ago, Saeed began a movement called the American
Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights & Elections (AMT). AMT is now the
largest coalition of Muslim organizations in the country.
Since AMT’s founding, Saeed
has focused his efforts on expanding Muslim civic education and building
consensus on civil rights issues. By 2000, AMT had
spearheaded efforts to get over 700 Muslim Americans into elected positions around
the country. The group’s efforts also included voter
registration efforts and meeting with elected officials and national media.
However, these political inroads suffered a devastating blow
on September 11, 2001.
“We had more political clout before
Hazem Kira, a spokesperson for the California Civil Rights Alliance and a colleague
of Saeed’s. “We had a large delegation in the White House and much
stronger relationship with policy makers before. It has wavered, but it’s
coming back up. What has come up since September 11 is unification of
communities around civil liberty issues. The primary issue of focus has been to
rebuild since 9/11.”
The passing of the Patriot Act in 2001, the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and years of negative news coverage have dealt serious blows to the
civil rights and perception of Muslims throughout the country.
“Right now, we are living in an environment of Islamaphobia that
demonizes and marginalizes Muslims,” said Hussam Ayloush, a convention delegate
and Executive Director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council for American Islamic
Relations (CAIR). “And this isn’t just happening on the Republican side, these views
can sometimes be seen on the Democratic side as well.”
One such incident in 2010 involved congressional candidate Ami
Bera, who returned a $250 personal check from the executive director of CAIR due to pressure from his
Despite these challenges, AMT's electoral arm, the American
Muslim Alliance (AMA), organized Muslim Americans around the country to run as
delegates for the 2012 convention as a step to increasing the visibility and
involvement of Muslims citizens in the political process. This was accomplished
through conference calls and emails, where potential delegates were given trainings on
the candidacy process, including how to give speeches, canvass for votes, compile
election materials and organize supporters.
The conference calls also provided a networking opportunity for Muslims
running to become delegates, and pushed them to encourage Muslims in other
states to run.
AMA’s goal was to
have 100 delegates nationwide, which would match the proportion of the US population that is Muslim, according to Saeed. In the end, 35-41 confirmed Muslim
delegates were elected. However, Saeed’s office
believes there may be another 50 Muslim delegates based on their listed first
and last names on the convention roster.
By sending a Muslim delegation, AMA
hopes to organize a civil rights agenda to put forth to the national Democratic
One such initiative addresses the controversial National
Defense and Authorization Act, a law that many allege could allow indefinite
military detentions and infringe upon civil liberties. Both are issues that have affected the Muslim community specifically since 9/11.
The delegates themselves understand how momentous their trip
to Charlotte will be.
“As a Muslim, our faith tells us to stand for justice for
others and those without a voice,” said Basim Elkarra, a delegate and California
Democratic Party executive board member. “Becoming more politically involved
would hopefully shift the negative views of Muslims as marginalized outsiders.”
For Talat Khan, a US
Navy veteran and family physician, becoming a delegate carries a personal responsibility.
“I work to be a role
model for children and young people,” Khan said. “Muslim children, my children,
all children need to be part of the system. We live in this country. We need to
have our influence in there. This is our movement, not only to inspire others,
but to teach people how to make change happen.”
S Nadia Hussain is a
writer for Hyphen’s politics blog. She will also be going to the Democratic
National Convention as an elected delegate.