By Suzy Shuraym
Editorâ€™s note: This is a first report from the ISNA convention. We plan to have a more comprehensive report later.
What should be the role of Muslims in politics? That was the question before the panel Saturday morning [September 1, 2012] at the 49th annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America in Washington, D.C.
First up was Mustafa Tameez, founder and managing director Outreach Strategists in Houston, Texas. A seasoned political strategist, he suggested that the problems for Muslims came from people â€œat the marginsâ€ of American life.
Noting that the United States is a country of immigrants, he suggested that â€œour focus has to be broader than earning our right to be part of the fabric of this nation. We will help make it stronger.â€
Tameez noted that â€œif others have succeeded, so can we. We must be active citizens where we live and start by serving our local communities.â€
Azizah al-Hibri, founder and President of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, pointed out that part of the â€œproblemâ€ is that Muslims have been â€œpainted as a political not a religious groupâ€, just as â€œterrorism by the fewâ€ has tainted the many.
She suggested forming something like a council of political elders â€” both male and female â€” to sift through the welter of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. and formulate strategies to combat the falsehoods.
The third panelist, Nihad Awad, is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He pointed out that his organization, a civil rights and advocacy group, is prohibited by law from endorsing candidates.
He nonetheless called on the audience to be politically active.
â€œIt is not an option to boycott the upcoming election,â€ Awad said. â€œWe have to be civically engaged so that our leaders stand out and are part of the decision-making process.â€ Photo-ops are fine, but â€œaccess is not influenceâ€, he said.
Al-Hibri agreed. â€œWe need to be â€˜in the roomâ€™ making our voices heard,â€ she noted, but â€œwe should not overvalue gestures.â€
The controversy over shariâ€™a was discussed, with Al-Hibri (a former law professor) noting that the laws passed in the U.S. as a result were â€œeither unconstitutional or redundantâ€ because â€œof course U.S. law is supreme in U.S. courtsâ€.
The moderator for the panel was Suhail Khan, a senior political appointee in the Bush administration who described himself as a conservative Republican. He said that the â€œno foreign lawsâ€ movement by the GOP was to counter environmental regulations that the United Nations intended to impose on the U.S., not a response to concerns about shariâ€™a.
In their concluding statements, all three panelists encouraged the audience in civic engagement. â€œItâ€™s important to empower our children to become politically active,â€ emphasized Tameez.
Awad added that political activity â€œis not enough. We also need to be socially active and â€˜give backâ€™ to show the human face of the Muslim community.â€
Al-Hibri agreed: â€œIf you donâ€™t volunteer in your community, youâ€™ll always be on the fringe.â€