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American Muslims Get Involved in U.S. Politics


Minnesota is home to thousands of Muslims from around the world. Like other immigrants, they have worked hard to establish themselves and support their families. But, since 9/11, the state's Muslims have become more concerned about presenting the real image of their faith and getting involved in their local communities.

When pediatrician Hyder Mohamed Khan immigrated from India 30 years ago, and settled in Minneapolis, he could hardly find a place to do his prayers. Today, he says, he has dozens of choices. "There are 25 to 30 places where Friday prayers are being offered in town," he says. "There are a dozen mosques in this community."

And across the 'North Star State', mosques and other Islamic organizations have become part of many communities, according to Ikram Ul Huq, Religious Director of the Muslim Community Center in Bloomington, Minnesota. He says there are more than 20 mosques in the state and 33 other Muslim organizations.

"We have SNAP, Sisters Need a Space, a small organization that was started to help battered sisters. We do have some cases where their husbands have gone away and they need a space. We also have 'Alber,' [Arabic for righteousness] where if you're in need for finding a job or some financial assistance, initially, they do help out." These institutions, Ul Huq says, grew out of the need to serve the expanding Muslim communities across Minnesota.

"Until 1998, the Muslim community in Minnesota, the whole state, was about 5,000 to 6,000 people," he says. "But in 1998, there was an influx of Somali immigrants, about 70,000 of them. Then we had another 15,000 from Bosnia and Kosovo. They got political asylum." Ul Huq estimates the number of Muslims in Minnesota to be more than 150,000.

Like other American Muslims, the Minnesotan community felt victimized in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Hydar Khan says federal authorities shut down several money-wiring services used by Muslim immigrants. He says Muslims have had to live with new challenges.

"There has been curtailment of our civil liberties since 9/11 in subtle ways, which I believe is a very concerning issue that eventually, I think, should be the concern of every American," he says. "There is not any overt discrimination that I've personally encountered, but there are reports here and there. Overall, I believe there is a tendency to malign the name of Islam, [by using] terms like 'Islamic Fascism,' and to always implicate Islam as an ideological evil. I think this is a very concerning issue."

Community leaders felt the need to educate their neighbors about Islam, and Muslim Center director Ul Huq says they began reaching out. One thing they did, he says, is form the Islmaic Research Group, which gives presentations in schools and churches. "We invite non-Muslims to come into the mosque. We also have a team that goes to churches on Sundays, on Thanksgiving and on special occasions to tell them what Islam is all about, just inform them, we're not trying to convert them!"

Community leaders also felt the need to educate other Muslims on their rights and duties as American citizens, according to Asad Zaman, Imam of the Muslim American Society in Minneapolis. "We train the Muslim community as to their rights and responsibilities through our conventions, lectures and seminars," he says. "We conduct about six to eight legal or rights awareness seminars where we train people about what are your rights and responsibilities. Once a year we do the Muslims Day at the Capital program here in St. Paul where hundreds of Muslims show up and meet the legislators and say, 'We are Muslims. We live in your district. We are voters and these are the issues we care about.'"

In the process, says community leader Mukhtar Takur, the Muslim Community Center has become more than just a place where Muslims gather to practice their religion. "In this facility, we had a number of community group meetings where we've had opportunities for the broader community to come, participate and learn about the political process, simple things like registering to vote, where we've had registration drives," he says. "We also review issues meetings where we come and talk about issues, not necessarily foreign issues but local issues in the town."

And they host fundraisers at the Muslim Community Center. "Today we have a fundraising for the Democratic Party, though I'm not from the Democratic Party," the Center's Religious Director Ikram Ul Huq says.

Ul Huq is not only preaching about the importance of political participation, he's practicing it. A Republican, Ul Huq serves as a State Delegate, and he's not alone. "We have a good number of Muslims from my community here who are elected members of the Democratic Party, they are state delegates," he says. What is more, Ul Huq points out, another member of the community, Keith Ellison, is running for U.S. Congress. "If he wins in the election, he'll be the first Muslim in the U.S. Congress."

Ul Huq says he hopes more people in his community will be inspired to become politically active. By being part of the American political scene, he says, Muslims can have a significant impact on American life.

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