Should American Muslims Reconsider the Liberal Alliance?

Background

As a result of the Bush years and a neoconservative ideology that disproportionately favored policies curtailing the rights of Muslims domestically and interventionism on the international stage, American Muslims have, for the bulk of the last decade, overwhelmingly affiliated with the Democratic Party. This affiliation came to the forefront in the 2004 Presidential Election when 76% of American Muslims supported John Kerry while only 7% supported President George W. Bush.  Having been a historically Republican voting bloc, the political realignment exhibited by American Muslims was so drastic that John Zogby characterized it as “virtually unprecedented” at the time. American Muslim support for the Democratic Party intensified during the 2008 Presidential Campaign, as 89% of American Muslims voted for then-candidate Barack Obama. Four years later, President Obama’s re-election campaign was widely supported, again, with a nominally lower 85% support from the American Muslim community, a number nearly identical to those who formally affiliated as ideologically liberal.

The Muslim community’s political realignment has not only been evident in the context of presidential elections, but is also on full display vis-à-vis contributions and volunteer hours for liberal democrats, Facebook posting and re-tweeting of liberal politician and pundit statements, along with shifting opinions within the American Muslim community on topics such as gay marriage, evolution, abortion, and related topics. This dynamic is what I have termed “the liberal alliance” which represents the political, social, and ideological commitment to liberalism, which American Muslims have and continue to make en masse.

As of late, political discussions in the American Muslim community have placed this relationship under the microscope, with critics centering on President Obama’s domestic and foreign policies that have, in large part, not been a significant departure from that of his neoconservative predecessor. In fact, a number of his policies have been systemically worse, engendering a bipartisan consensus around issues that were historically viewed as uniquely conservative. Military interventionism, curtailment of domestic freedoms, and protections for Wall Street executives and firms guilty of fiscal malfeasance stand today as the prevailing positions of both Democrats and Republicans alike, with rare exception.

Given this reality, the question begs itself as to what American Muslims should reasonably do – if indeed the best chance for political viability is uncritical support for a party whose platform is virtually identical to its counterparts (at least in regards to core ‘Muslim’ issues such as domestic surveillance, indefinite detention, Guantanamo Bay, interventionism, Israel/Palestine, etc.) then is it really worth participating at all? Should Muslims ‘throw away their vote’ and cast ballots for third-party candidates that have no chance for victory?

Red/Blue Dichotomy

Perhaps the first component of this discussion that needs addressing is the simplistic nature of political engagement that has dominated Muslim communities for the better part of the last decade. Though not uniquely Muslim, the tendency to view politics as a blue/red proposition is, without question, problematic. In this framing, Republicans are frequently caricaturized as representing the worst that their party has to offer, whilst Democrats are brandied as ‘pro Muslim’, in seeming ambivalence to said candidates’ public statements and voting record.

Muslims need to realize that the red/blue dichotomy is a false one, and that political debates are little more than theatrics that depend on factors above and beyond substance. Journalists, political pundits, and candidates frequently employ what is termed manufactured outrage by taking a perspective that is nominally different than their opponents but presenting the two sides as being representative of a deep philosophical divide.  The utility in doing so is that it provides the illusion of real debate while implicitly structuring what constitutes politically permissive discourse.

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Accordingly, the strictures of permissive political discourse work to marginalize alternative voices as fringe or otherwise eccentric while yielding a citizenry that is largely obedient, a dynamic Chomsky articulated when he said,

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

In addition, American Muslims need to view politicians for who they are – politicians, not friends, family, or community members. Politicians are rarely principled enough to be ‘pro-Muslim’ or ‘anti-Muslim’, rather they are apt to act on that which is politically expedient at a given point in time. The fact that certain members of the Democratic Party and liberal establishment advocate on behalf of Muslim causes has more to do with a shared political adversary than a common moral/ethical paradigm.

This is even more so when it comes to political commenters and satirists.  Yes, there is little question that political commentators and satirists such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, and others serve as proportionately more balanced brokers of political conversation than their right-wing counterparts. That said, even the best pundits are not inherently aligned with mainstream ethical Muslim commitments (and it would be unreasonable to expect them to be such). When Stewart, Colbert, Maddow, Maher, and the many other liberal political commenters portray arguments against gay marriage as ontologically inferior and borne out of an outmoded world of theism run amuck, they critique not only the ‘religious right’, but frankly, the ethical framework outlined in the Qur’an. The secular framework wherein Muslims and fellow co-religionists are cornered into abdicating their theistic commitments in assessing what to advance in the context of positive law is a fickle distinction, one that Noah Feldman terms the “Orthodox Paradox” and Daniel Haqiqatjou wrote extensively on in this post last May.

Perhaps more problematic than the desire to consistently reformulate traditional Islamic commitments to coincide with modern secular liberal sensibilities, is the likely outcome of such a syncretic theology.  If American Muslims persistently recast Islam in light of secular liberal values, how can they expect to fend off the spread of secular liberal movements against theism? Can American Muslims engage in the political milieu of the modern Democratic Party while maintaining the line that they are merely electing ‘the lesser of two evils’ without inhering any of the ideological commitments concomitant with liberalism?

So What Should We Do?

Given the aforementioned challenges, what should be the structure of future engagement?

For one, American Muslims should reconsider the liberal alliance, at least as it is currently constructed.  This means critically addressing the areas of incongruence between liberalism and Islamic Law, as well as engaging in informed discussions concerning the range of contemporary challenges facing civic society beyond the red/blue dichotomy. American Muslim leaders cannot afford to merely parrot red/blue talking points when discussing current events without expecting that same discourse to pervade the congregation. In addition, American Muslims need to prioritize their ethical/moral commitments over the desire for acceptance, understanding that although strategic compromises need to be made in the process of political participation, not every compromise is worth making or representative of a modern ‘Hudaibiyah’ moment.

Secondly, American Muslims need to severely attenuate the current fervor tied to national elections.  There is no act of political participation less meaningful than voting in presidential elections, as the Electoral College renders 90% of the states decided well before the election date.  In a contentious year, three or four states are legitimately in play, whereas in most years the states that may actually swing one way or the other are the one or two which candidates tend to focus their efforts on.  If American Muslims find themselves residing in a swing state, then casting a ballot for president makes sense and assessing candidates electability within ones moral framework should indeed be done, even if that means relenting to the ‘lesser of two evils’.  Otherwise, American Muslims in non-swing states should consider voting for third party candidates or perhaps refraining from casting a presidential ballot.

Thirdly, American Muslims should embrace Oppositional Politics as part of a broader engagement strategy.  No one is proposing that Oppositional Politics be “the platform” for American Muslims, but it should certainly be a component of the broader strategy – you can read my earlier post on this for more details concerning it.

Cognate to Oppositional Politics is support for issues ‘uniquely Muslim’: Guantanamo Bay, interventionism, drones, Mohamed Soltan, Aafia Siddiqui, global conflicts (Syria, Gaza, etc.), and related areas of concern need to be issues that American Muslims feel no compunction advocating on behalf of.  American Muslims cannot allow intimidation or domestication to curtail their ability to advocate for policies deemed politically inconvenient, even as a beleaguered minority. A platform devoted to remaining within the safe timidity of populist liberal politics whilst circumventing politically contentious topics engenders a political climate of fear and passivity. Organizations that pursue such an approach risk alienating their constituency and losing legitimacy within the American Muslim community.

Lastly, American Muslims should heighten their involvement in local politics. This is not only with respect to elections for local congressional candidates and state government positions (school board, etc.), but with respect to outreach, community engagement, and interfaith programming. Amaanah Refugee Services in Houston, IMAN in Chicago, and ICNA Relief represent successful models of community outreach programs, and interfaith coalitions such as Shoulder-to-Shoulder pioneered by ISNA have demonstrated what can be accomplished when we work with other faith communities to advance areas of shared values. Though it has been emphasized time and again, the imperative to support our local communities cannot be understated, and if we are to have any chance of carving out a dignified future for ourselves and our children, we must ensure that we genuinely care about those around us and wish them good.

In doing so, we pray that Allah allows us to fulfill our covenants to Him, live up to the moral responsibility concomitant with being the Best of Nations, and manifest the injunction to:

Let there be from you a nation inviting to [all that is] good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, and those will be the successful.” [3:104]

Ameen.

And Allah Knows Best.

13 / View Comments

13 responses to “Should American Muslims Reconsider the Liberal Alliance?”

  1. GregAbdul says:

    Praise be to Allah, this is a great subject.
    Being as brief as I can. The argument that there is no difference in the two parties is an old canard. The Republicans seethe at the thought of Obama. They call him a closet Muslim and accuse him of treason and malpractice. Democracy is a process that moves incrementally. American Muslims will not reach a magical point in time where we are instantly liked and respected all at once by all of America.
    The only trap we have to be wary of is the trap we have in the black American community. We vote 93% for the Democrats and it causes our votes to be taken for granted. If there is a small difference it is that the Republicans are extremely pro-business, while the Democrats are slightly less pro-business, which means they are for more government aid for the less well off. Some argue that too much aid for a lazy national community. Others say, the fight to reduce aid represents a meanness among white America aimed at blacks and immigrants.
    Clearly the strongest anti-Muslim rhetoric comes from the right. To say that God is a choice is not a lie. God gives us a choice of if we choose to believe. The American political right means to make Christianity the only choice and to suppress alternative forms of belief. It’s why they say we are sleeper terrorists. They never want to debate the theology that tells them to worship a man. The only debate the right has about Islam is the debate where they say Islam is not a religion, but that our faith is a criminal enterprise that should be outlawed in the 50 states.
    In America, politics make strange bedfellows. Either we stand with the gays politically because America gives us the freedom to pray or be gay, or we stand with the Republicans, who say America is a Christian country founded on Christian principles. Either way, there is no Muslim party on the horizon about to take over the US political system. Today our argument is over our freedom to be Muslim. Gay is popular politics in America today.
    But I would argue that the same principle that allows gay marriage has the potential to legalize having more than one wife. This is the way it works. Back in 2000, we tried standing with the right wing moralists. We then found out that when we follow our Prophet, they consider us more immoral than the gay people.

    • Mobeen says:

      Salam GregAbdul,
      I pray you are well. To respond briefly to your points:
      – Re: Difference btwn the two parties. My point was not that there is no difference, but that the difference is far greater rhetorically than at the policy level. This has been played out time and again, and you can see the article I linked to concerning the topic in my article which I think explains this dynamic well.
      – Re: Republican obduracy. I think you’ll find the voting record of Democrats under Bush, particularly when they were a congressional majority, to be remarkably similar to that of Republicans under Obama. The two parties are political adversaries, and political grandstanding, personal attacks, etc. are commonplace in Washington. Efforts to make either appear morally upright are specious at best.
      – Re: the Right and Islam. I don’t know if you are attempting to disagree with me, but this is the point I made in the first line of the article (“As a result of the Bush years and a neoconservative ideology that disproportionately favored policies curtailing the rights of Muslims domestically and interventionism on the international stage”). If not, I think we are in agreement here Alhamdulillah.
      – Re: standing with gays. I don’t think I’m following. Are you suggesting that voting down propositions to support gay marriage or otherwise opposing it will render us unable to practice our religion?
      – Re: polygyny. Though I’ve heard this argument before, to borrow your own term it is a bit of an ‘old canard’. I don’t think anyone in the Muslim community seriously views polygyny as a strategic priority, and in fact would venture to guess that an opinion poll in the community would overwhelmingly oppose polygyny. This is an extension of how it is viewed in society, and if such a situation were to change, it would have to be a result of us advocating for it, which I dont think will happen anytime soon.
      – In general, I think your points represent a larger attitude in the community which caricaturizes the right via its most vitriolic rhetoric while excusing the same from the left. As I mentioned, my personal belief is that we should engage politically as an extension of our values, and that should mean seriously looking into third parties, especially in presidential elections where the impact of our votes are nominal due to the Electoral College. Locally we can have a much greater impact if organized, and in local elections you will find the situation with politicians and their views of our community far more nuanced than what you are describing concerning Republicans, but this will require a shift in priorities for our community as local politics does not inspire the same concern at the moment.

      • GregAbdul says:

        May Allah reward you for your response.
        The main point I try to make about politics is that we will have to forge unsavory alliances in order to create effective coalitions. The gay marriage movement is not political process where people are using massive numbers to pass legislation. It is instead, a legal movement, where gay men and women are going into court and standing on the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. At the right time, a similar case can open the door for polygyny based on religious grounds. Properly understood, this polygamy would be used, by well-off Muslims, solely to aid women in distress, which is my understanding of the Sunnah.
        Where democracy can be corrupted, and the American corruption we see, is when politics turns into PR campaigns based on disinformation. The argument against the Democrats is that Obama as extended and enhanced Bush’s evils against Muslims. Yet the President over and over says he is not fighting Islam and seeks Muslim alliances against the enemies of Muslims. When a group of Muslims decides to be Kharajites, any enemy they have is my friend. I am not with Al Awlaki. I am not with Bin Laden. I am with those who go after such people.
        Today Muslims sit in the middle of a huge Western disinformation campaign called “the Islamic State.” To take the worst of any people and project those worst people as normative of any community is a clear act meant to promote hatred. This is being done by a white-controlled society and it is aimed at people they consider not-quite white, just as the worst black Americans are projected as showing a core within the black community that is essentially anti-social and uncivilized.
        In politics, it is about direction and small movement towards a great end. The issue of the American Muslim position politically in America will depend on where each of us sits as individuals. Those of us who are better off and run businesses will want to do sadaqa and prefer it to progressive taxation. Those of us, who are not so well off, will prefer the government coming in, taking money from the well-off and giving aid.
        Either way we should never lose site of Hate Inc. There is a Western movement, led by demagogues, out to deny Western Muslims the basic freedom of choosing our prayers as free people. Those who would deny us that freedom are overwhelmingly fundamentalist evangelicals and secularists in the conservative movement, just as most KKK members vote Republican. Each person is a composite of many competing needs. I don’t ‘mean to sound holy.
        For me, I know I get grief from Americans in general and white managers in particular because of my faith. I live in the South. I am not crying or saying I should not do a better job of managing people at work so that they are more accommodating.
        However, when I see a group consistently working to deny me my freedom to pray to God, free from coercion and compulsion, that issue by itself trumps said groups economic and foreign policy platforms. My primary concern is not Guantanamo, which does not hold even 200 people.
        In order for us to really grow Islam in America, we must first establish the legal fact of us having a right to be Muslim in America and the West. This is not a settled question. Let’s be honest. Our sisters take off hijab and brothers shave and won’t wear kufis because there are a bunch of “civilized” people out there claiming they believe in freedom, who will punish us for being open about our faith and most of those people reside in the Republican party. If I have to move one issue based on joining with someone not like me and do the mandatory compromising of my values I have to do to be a part of a larger coalition, I do so for individual freedom for Muslims. This is my primary agenda item that I choose over a group of moralists who all too often tell me that Islam is inherently immoral.
        Finally, I agree with Dove. The best action for any person in the West is to work locally. That is where you get the biggest bang for your minutes and money spent.

  2. Muslim Dove says:

    Great article! In terms of national election, we need to prioritize the issues that we care about, based on their relevance and significance to our lives. Does gay marriage or abortion affect my daily life or policies that single out Muslims to spy on them in their homes or mosques? While we may have some shared religious teachings in common with the conservatives, in no way those commonalities translate to any type of affinity toward the Muslim community or political policies of common interest. If they had their way, they would have no qualms about stripping Muslims from the constitutional rights that are afforded to us. If you think that is an exaggeration, just look back into Herman Cain’s (a GOP presidential candidate) views on Muslims, but more importantly the views of many GOP members in congress.

    I would’ve loved to see a bit more emphasis on local politic in this article. It is apparent to me that the most Anti-Muslim politicians come from local congressional districts. Although, Muslims are still a tiny minority of US population and we are spread out throughout the country, we should try to become active in local politics as much as we can and expose the Anti-Muslim local representatives for the voters to see.

    • Mobeen says:

      Salam Muslim Dove,
      Jazakum Allah khayr for the reply. My own feedback:
      – Re: what affects ones daily life. I would argue that yes, the daily life of Muslims in America has and will continue to be affected by the gay rights movement and abortion. As for policies that single out Muslims to spy on them, you do realize that these are policies that have been championed and protected by Democrats just as much as Republicans? In fact, Obama and his administration has expanded the warrantless wiretapping programming dramatically, strong-armed telecoms that resisted, and blocked judicial conversations concerning the program under the auspices of national security.
      – I tried to emphasize the need for us shifting our priorities to local politics at the end of the article. The article was not an attempt to be definitive or exhaustive, but rather to animate the conversation on our political engagement as it has and continues to currently play out. At the moment, local politics is not given its due, and I think the recent siege on Gaza brought to the fore how many politicians from districts with significant Muslim populations sided with Israel. One can only assume this is likely because they don’t see the Muslim vote as a threat, and organizing locally to impact and affect elections where we have large Muslim concentrations would certainly be to our benefit.

  3. GC66 says:

    I believe as Muslims in America we should refrain from voting on the national level.

    Doing so, either way, contributes to an anti-Islamic rhetoric to Muslims over all.

    The local way is the way to get “some” results to favor the Muslim community, but this still is an obstacle in many communities because many people will not vote for candidates with a foreign name other than what they recognize as to be American.

    Voting on the national level is only a ruse anyway, as the vote is meaningless and gives people a false sense of control.

  4. Tariq Ahmed says:

    Very timely, Mobeen. Jazakumullahu khayran. Politics governs America: it drives the mentality of the legislators (from Congress to the City Council) and the executive (from Presidents to Mayors). Politics influences at a minimum the decisions of judges who hope to advance in their careers, because federal judges are chosen by politicians and local judges are often elected by the public. So as responsible members of society, Muslims cannot afford to be naive about politics, not when critical ssues like health care reform and racial justice affect the lives of every American, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

    We also have to mature as a community, or at least our leaders do. We should not allow ourselves to be devoted to any political personality per se, whether it be the next Ronald Reagan or the next Bill Clinton. Rather we should be the voice of reason when others are willing to let a charismatic leader shred the Constitution or sacrifice the rights of any minority.

    We should realize that no political party is immune from the ills of politics, and thus we should always be the ally of those persons who strive to do what is good, to establish justice for all, to establish fairness in the marketplace, to protect the weak and the oppressed from being ravaged by the powerful. And we should support them without respect to political party as far as that is tenable.

    As for how we support them, votes, money, and manpower are the most powerful currencies of a political realm. Politicians cannot accomplish anything without votes that get them into office, nor without the votes of other legislator-policticans to advance their policies. Money pays for the campaigns that spread the politicians’ messages. But so much money floods politics now that even veteran politicians worry that displeasing the sources of money will bring on a well-funded challenger. The most underrated commodity is manpower: volunteering in campaigns, working as staff if a person chooses to dedicate themselves fully, these can be used to “get out the vote” or spread the message one block or telephone call at a time.

    A mature strategy appreciates the assets of our community, uses them in the most responsible manner, and on behalf of campaigns that truly benefit the community.

  5. Thaer Momani says:

    Wonderful Analysis!

  6. fiqhonomics says:

    “Properly understood, this polygamy would be used, by well-off Muslims, solely to aid women in distress, which is my understanding of the Sunnah”. You are naïve. Polygeny is rampant, and here in South Africa 9/10 cases result from affairs and/or in the serious deprivation and neglect of the original (if not all) households. Muslims, who enjoy considerable rights here, have actually engaged the kuffaar legislators in attempting to CURB polygeny, based on the abuse of women and children it so often entails. Considering these realities, the last thing Muslim women and children need, is laws enabling polygeny.

    • GregAbdul says:

      People abuse laws. The big thing I have been thinking about lately is that the private business enterprises we encourage in the name of freedom often allows merchants to practice and maintain their prejudices. The merchants are alone with customers in their shops and they, like all human beings are given wide latitude in deciding how they will treat each individual customer. Ten years ago, this caused a bunch of minorities with bad credit to get sucked into a housing bubble in which they overpaid for homes they could not afford. My point? We make laws and bad people take advantage of them all the time. Then we go back and rewrite and fine tune the laws. Polygyny is the Sunnah and the Quran allows it. So we don’t have a right as Muslims to banish it. The right approach for South Africa, I can only guess. You live there, so you are the expert on where you live, but to put in place income requirements on polygamists or heavy penalties on abusers instead of banishing behaviors are examples of fine tuning. Business facilities prejudice. However no one is saying business is evil and should be banished. we put in laws making it illegal for businesses to discriminate. In the same way, if a man wants more than one woman, irregardlesss of the law, those men usually find a way have more than one woman. Islam simply demands that the man be financially responsible for his wives and kids. If men in South Africa are not being responsible about the wives and children in their care, they are no different than the men who marry one wife and do not take care of their responsibilities and we should show them social disapproval and create laws that discourage irresponsible behavior in men. That has nothing to do with whether the man has more than one wife.

      • fiqhonomics says:

        Monogamy is also sunnah. In any event, polygeny is a non-issue in as much as very few men, especially in Western countries, can afford to provide nafaqah for one household, let alone more than one. Enter the fiqhi innovation of the misyaar marriage. Furthermore, in cultures where “companionate” marriage (i.e. husband and wife are “best friends”) are the cultural norm, women are simply not as likely to accept such an arrangement – and, given women’s relative financial independence, compared to “traditional Muslim societies”, they have more clout to determine the conditions under which they remain married – either by divorcing the polygynous husband, or exerting enough influence for him to divorce the additional wife. So even in your hypothetical example of wealthy men, it would be advisable to consider the status and independence of the first wife. Also, look up r-selection and k-selection.

  7. Hyde says:

    *sarcastic clapping* I have been saying this for past five years or so; don’t trust these liberals. They will come after you after they have their hands washed with these Evangelical/republicans. Very timely essay.

    I am a proud Muslim, who DID NOT vote for Barack Hussein Obama and would never do. The Muslims that did, I hope they hug their children at night when they go to sleep, because they are many of their faith that can’t, because their children are dead.

  8. Ramy says:

    Good article brother Mobeen.
    Reposted on Muslims4Liberty just in time for election day:)
    http://www.muslims4liberty.org/should-american-muslims-reconsider-the-liberal-democrat-alliance/
    JAK

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