American Muslims in the 2016 Election and Beyond: Principles and Strategies for Greater Political Engagement

Muslims have yet to realize their full political potential through voting, organizing, and coalition building. More and more, however, a new generation of activists and community leaders is engaging the political process as full participants, motivated both by the desire to make a difference and a sense of civic duty. Ironically, Islamophobic rhetoric so common in the 2016 election cycle aimed at marginalizing Muslims may have given a fragmented community a rare common concern around which to mobilize, and a united party platform for which to cast their ballot. The mosque, a focal point of attacks, emerges as a gathering place for grassroots civic engagement, education, and community service. To realize their full potential, Muslims must build for the short term through education, local participation, and effective getout-the-vote campaigns. Muslims must plan for the long term by building a sustainable infrastructure for political mobilization, investing in more research on American Muslim voters, and cultivating an American Muslim civic culture.

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Evidence does not support fears of Islam in the West

jocelyne_cesariWashington, DC – While scholarly work has debunked the idea of incompatibility of Islam with Western values, it has not really changed this dominant perception pervading political discourse and policy making. This notion of incompatibility between Islam and the West has actually intensified in the last 15 years, as the perception of Islam as the external enemy has combined with the fear of Islam within liberal Western democracies. The consequence is that Muslims are now seen by many as an internal and external enemy both in Europe and in the United States.

The persistence of the Islam versus West dichotomy has nothing to do with the quality of academic work, but rather the fact that this work is seldom utilised by political and cultural actors, not to mention media.

Yet hope may lie in better understanding the social and cultural reality of Muslims that starkly contradicts the perceived divide – namely that Muslims in the West are supportive of Western values and civic integration. In this regard, efforts could be made to familiarise citizens with this reality through different educational and cultural means.

My book Why the West Fears Islam: Exploration of Islam in Western Liberal Democracies (June 2013 by Palgrave McMillan) indicates a persistent predisposition in the West to link Islam to un-civic behaviour and to see assertive Muslims as internal enemies threatening national values and identities as well as external enemies at war with Western civilisation.

Intriguingly, there is no empirical evidence based on behaviours of Muslims in European countries or the United States that supports this fear. Actually, Muslim political practices are not different from their average fellow citizens. My investigation shows that in Europe and in the United States, Muslims express a greater trust in national institutions and democracy than their fellow citizens and that mosque attendance actually facilitates social and political integration.

Still, the construction of Muslims as the enemy within liberal democracies takes place in a preexisting environment influenced by history, adding the dimension of an internal enemy to the enduring feature of the external enemy.

Muslims have been seen as “others” to the West since medieval times. More specifically, Western self-definition based on the concepts of progress, nation, rational individual and secularisation was built in opposition to Muslim empires. Europe’s relationship with the Ottoman Empire gradually established the East-West binary that had a decisive impact on world politics since the 19th Century.

In the United States, during the 20th and 21st Centuries, the perception of Islam as the external enemy traces back to the Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979 to 1981) and became more acute after 9/11 when Muslims came to be seen as internal enemies due to the fear of home grown terrorism.

Many Muslims in post-WWII Europe have an immigrant background, and are currently estimated to constitute approximately five per cent of the European Union’s 425 million inhabitants. As immigrants, generations came with very low labour skills, unlike most Muslims in the United States who generally possess a high level of education and marketable skills.

Low levels of education and few job opportunities explain poor economic performance of Muslims in Europe. Muslim immigrant populations across Europe are often concentrated in segregated, urban areas, which are plagued by delinquency, crime and deteriorated living conditions.

There is a need across the Atlantic to rebuild national narratives to include Muslims and Islam as part of the memory and culture of the national communities they belong to.

This can likely be done if Islam is disconnected from partisan interests and becomes a national cause for political, social and religious actors across the ideological spectrum.

The educational and political efforts of the last five decades to include African Americans into the US national narrative are a good illustration of such a collective effort. In the case of Islam, it will require a coalition among religious actors from all faiths who can play a decisive role in promoting similarities between Islam and other monotheistic religions.

This is a noble political task for the decades to come.


* Dr Jocelyne Cesari is Director of the Islam in the West program at Harvard University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. This article, the fourth in a series on contemporary Muslim-Western relations, was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 21 May 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

Radstock Town Council Deems St George’s Cross Offensive to Muslims

15 May 2013


The town council in Radstock, Somerset, voted not to fly St George’s flag on the town’s civic flag pole because the flag’s association with the crusades and the “hijacking” of the cross of St George by far right organizations may make it an offensive symbol to local Muslims. Instead, the council decided to purchase a Union Jack and to design a flag specifically for Radstock. Eleanor Jackson, a Labour councilor, has called for dropping the flag for 20 years.


Many, including Nasima Begum, spokeswoman for the Muslim Council of Britain, disagree with the decision made by the council. Said Ms. Begum, “St George needs to take his rightful place as a national symbol of inclusivity rather than a symbol of hatred.” Similarly, the vice-president of the Royal Society of St George labeled the decision “nonsense.”


In April, a multi-faith coalition issued a call to “reclaim” St George from far right organizations, arguing that St George has no place in extremist right wing politics. In acknowledging the association of St George’s Flag with right wing extremist groups, the Radstock town council has angered many who argue that St George, having lived before the advent of Islam, should not be associated at all with anti-Muslim politics.


Amsterdam’s Muslim Gay Bar Closes

March 1 2013


Habibi Ana, an Amsterdam café which bills itself as a Muslim gay bar, is shutting down March 2 2013. The closure is not due to the club’s demographic or status as a Muslim gay bar but rather due to breaking noise regulations. RNW provides a profile on its history and the role it played in the city’s social landscape. The club opened in 2001, complete with participation in the city’s Gay Pride Parade. Founder Atef Salib explains that he did not feel welcome in Dutch gay bars and wanted to create an establishment for Arab homosexuals with a particular atmosphere. The bar is closing after having broken civic licensing regulations more than three times.



Jocelyne Cesari
Director of the Islam in the West Program
MINERVA Chair, National War College

With the contentious Congressional hearings on the “radicalization in the American Muslim Community” now open, there is an opportunity to reflect on how fear can tear at American security and social cohesion.

Hearing supporters cite an increase in the last two years of the number of Muslim-Americans indicted for terrorism-related charges. This includes well-known figures like Fort Hood murderer Major Nidal Malik Hasan, Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and Colleen LaRose, a.k.a. “Jihad Jane.”

Despite this rise, hearing opponents insist that the number of violent extremism acts planned or conducted by Muslims remains negligible. A study published February 2 2011 by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in Durham, N.C. shows that from September 11, 2001 to the end of 2010, the number of Muslim-Americans involved in terrorist plots against domestic targets remains quite low at 70. Brian Jenkins, a senior terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation, documented 46 cases of domestic radicalization between September 11, 2001 and December 2009.
Hearing supporters, however, counter that the quantity of the attacks does not reflect the potential destruction that some Muslim terrorists seek. In other words, it’s not the number of perpetrators, but the potential destruction, that is so worrisome.

It can also be argued that hearing proponents base their support for the hearings on the false assumption that practicing Muslims are a danger for American society. But most data, including a 2007 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and a 2009 Gallup survey, suggest the opposite: that Islamic religiosity and cultural identification are not obstacles to loyalty to America, but vehicles to civic engagement. Not surprisingly, these attitudes are consistent with those of practicing members of other religious groups. Moreover, the current discussion on religion and loyalty should not revolve solely around mosques, as surveys also show that a majority of Muslim-Americans do not even attend mosques.

For these hearings to have any positive outcome, a more efficient approach would be to move the core of the discussion to: how to include Islam and Muslims in our nation’s narrative? This is work that needs to be done, first and foremost, by America’s leaders, as well as the media, civic and religious groups, and individual members of society. As New York Times columnist Bob Hebert wrote on March 8, “(T)here have always been people willing to stand up boldly and courageously against such injustice.”

On March 10, the hearings provided a platform for at least two individuals who used the occasion to weave Muslims in the American narrative. In his testimony, Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress, tearfully etched into America’s consciousness the story of Salman Ahmad, a Muslim paramedic and New York Police Officer cadet killed trying to help fellow New Yorkers on 9/11. Giving Muslims a historical hug, Congressman Brian Higgins, a Catholic, stated in his remarks that America’s tradition is not just “Christian-Judeo,” but “Christian-Judeo-Islamic.”

This is not empty feel-good talk, but the prefiguration of how historical references can be used to achieve symbolic integration and counter the dominant narrative that tends to present Islam and Muslims as an alien religion.

Updating a national narrative is a huge political and symbolic task, something equivalent to the effort that led to the integration of the African American and Native American past into the dominant American narrative. This could be accomplished by telling the stories of the estimated 10 percent of all African slaves brought to the United States who were Muslim, or the long-standing presence of Islam within several ethnic and cultural communities, and the hybridization of Islam to the American pop culture. What better antidote to the shadow of Bin Laden than Malcolm X?
Unless the hearings are the first step to such a discussion, they will offer little help to either reducing the risk of radicalism or increasing American cohesion. If they move us closer to a more inclusive narrative, then something will have been accomplished.

The Emerging American Muslim Civic Identity


The recent spate of high-profile news on Muslim-Americans can be summed up easily: horror and terror. The high-profile actions of the few are overshadowing a trend that is capturing the many: the emergence of an American Muslim civic identity, which is to say, how Islam inspires its followers to be better citizens in America.

Controversial celebration of Reconquest Day in Granada

The “Toma day” is a traditional festival in Granada that commemorates the end of the Spanish Reconquest of Spain. This celebration takes place in the Town Hall square on January 2 and commemorates the entry of the Catholic Kings into the City, and the end of Islamic presence in Spain.

In the crowd there are usually fascist groups that use the occasion to publicize their racist and xenophobic claims against the immigrant and Muslim population. Different civic organizations are against this practice and, every year, organize an alternative event in sign of protest. These organizations are collecting signatures against the celebration of the Reconquest.

Struggling B.C. City Aims to Attract Muslim Professionals with new Islamic Center

The northern British Columbia city of Prince George (population 70,000) 800 kms from Vancouver is getting its first mosque, and with it a sense of new life in the struggling city. Civic leaders hope the multimillion-dollar Islamic cultural and educational centre will be a beacon that draws highly skilled professionals to a city that badly needs to diversify its forestry-dominated economy. For the city’s roughly 200 Muslim families, the mosque is a welcome change to the non-permanent prayer locations in past years.

The B.C. Muslim Association’s Prince George chapter approached the city six years ago with a pitch that a mosque could attract desired professionals. In 2003, the group approached the city to buy and rezone a piece of land to build a mosque. The city unanimously approved the request. The projected cost is between $1.5- and $2-million. About $500,000 has been raised from private donors across the province.

Strengthening America: The Civic and Political Integration of Muslim Americans

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to announce the release of the findings of its independent Task Force on the civic and political integration of Muslim Americans. “Strengthening America” calls for Muslims and non-Muslims to work together to create full and equal opportunities for Muslim Americans to participate in American civic and political life.

The Task Force, led by Farooq Kathwari, chairman and CEO of Ethan Allen Interiors Inc., and Lynn Martin, former secretary of labor and congresswoman, brought together a group of thirty two distinguished Muslim and non-Muslim leaders to examine the Muslim American experience and provide a roadmap for accelerating Muslim American engagement.

The Task Force found that Muslim Americans are a well-educated, diverse group and concluded that their talents are needed to help address critical domestic and foreign policy challenges related to homeland security and U.S. relations with Muslim countries and peoples. There are opportunities for Muslim Americans to expand their contributions to national security and continue to take the lead in encouraging greater civic participation, leadership development, and institution building within their community. Non-Muslim groups and government leaders can work to better recognize Muslim American contributions to national security, improve collaborations with Muslim American institutions, and provide greater opportunities for young Muslim Americans.

For more information about the Task Force and its findings, including access to a downloadable version of the full report, please visit the Muslims Task Force page of the Chicago Council Web site.

Necla Kelek: “Immigrants Set up More Borders”

Necla Kelek, the Turkish-born sociologist and widely read author, argued in a debate that the German “multi-kulti” model is misapplied or has failed, insofar as it allows self-inflicted social isolation and discrimination – such as Muslim fathers keeping their daughters away from standard swimming lessons in school -, and that carving out new “religiously justified liberties” is not compatible with a democractic system. Her debating partner, Bishop Wolfgang Huber, pointed to the failure of the German education system as an additional cause of cultural intolerance. They agreed that successful integration presupposes some sort of shared social, cultural and civic identity.