Mejgan Afshan’s father warned her about the danger of discussing religion and politics, but as a girl, she couldn’t resist the two things she thought mattered more than anything else. Now 28 and watching the 2008 presidential campaign closely, Afshan sees how uncomfortable those topics can be when they intersect.
While an unholy amount of campaigning has been in the form of Godtalk—former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee talking about how much he loves Jesus, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney swearing there’s nothing wrong with being Mormon and Sen. Barack Obama reminding potential voters that he’s not Muslim—Afshan feels like the greatest effort candidates are making with Muslim Americans like her is to distance themselves.
“It’s like when you are a kid, and everybody is getting a piece of candy, and you don’t get one,” said Afshan, who spent the past three years as a field representative for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and recently left to join the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). “I want some attention, too.”
That is a sentiment shared by many Muslim Americans, including many of the 1,000 who came to the Long Beach Convention Center last Saturday for MPAC’s annual convention.
“Today in the country,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, a federation of Southern California mosques and nonprofits, “Muslims are treated as some permanent foreigner who by mistake landed in America.”
That was echoed by an absence of candidates at the convention. Speaker invitations were sent both to the Republicans and Democrats running for president; only Mike Gravel, the former Democratic senator from Alaska who is considered a fringe candidate, accepted, and he cancelled his keynote address the night before because of pneumonia.
And a few missed R.S.V.P.s isn’t the only reason Muslim Americans feel snubbed by some of the presidential candidates.
I wrote about the rest of the reasons, about the Muslim-American-immigrant evolution and about their primary domestic concerns in this week’s Jewish Journal. I didn’t have space to discuss foreign-policy interests, but it’s safe to say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq are at the top of that list.
As a sidebar to that story, I spoke with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who last fall became the first Muslim American to be elected to federal office. His campaign was filled with all kinds of questions about whether he was linked with Islamic extremists that want to destroy our government. And after he was elected, the controversy didn’t die down.
JJ: What did you think when Dennis Prager, among other people, criticized your decision to take the oath on the Quran, saying, “The act undermines American civilization?”
KE: I chalked that up to him trying to increase ratings. The people who complain about what I swore in on and what others did, too, these people are poor students of American history. In the United States Constitution, not only does the First Amendment say there is no state religion, but it also says later on in Article Six that there is no religious test for service in public office. It says it in the Constitution. No religious test.
JJ: Forty-five percent of Americans in a Fox News poll earlier this year said they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim presidential candidate; John McCain a few months ago said the same. How far along do you think American Muslims are, and how long until we see a greater presence?
KE: Like every other ethnic group or every other religious group in American society, people need to get engaged and get active. America in many ways has been a recurring expansion of participation and inclusion.
A lot of Muslims today are very concerned about civil rights in America as it relates to Muslims—things like rendition, things like immigration detention centers, things like the FBI visits to every foreign-born Muslim in America after 2001, things like watch lists in the airports. Maybe there are some people who truly need to be focused on, but because we have this broad prophylactic, you catch a lot of people who didn’t do nothing but go on a business trip.
It’s also important to note that in a Pew Research poll, 71 percent of Muslims said if you work hard in America, you can make it, whereas only 64 percent of the general population would report that level of optimism. You’ve got people who love their country, are glad to be in America, feel like America is a great country, but also in this post-Sept. 11 world feel like they are the scapegoated group.