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Arab-American Political Activist - 2004-02-20

As the U-S presidential campaign season heats up, leaders of various ethnic communities across the country encourage their people to become engaged in the political process, as a way of furthering the groups’ interests. Alaa Bayoumi is an activist in the American Islamic community and works to increase the political involvement of Arabs and Muslims in America. Mr. Bayoumi is our guest today on New American Voices.

A burly, soft-spoken man, Alaa Bayoumi works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a private organization whose goal is to promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims. He believes that one way to achieve this is for more Arabs and Muslims to take part in American grassroots politics – and he sees it happening.

“I think we are becoming more active, because our issues now are becoming more clear to us. The issues – first, civil rights. We are concerned about our civil rights after September 11th. Second issue, we want to help our American neighbors and our American friends understand Islam and Muslims better. We feel that our image in the media is not correct. We also want to push more Muslims to be active in the American political system.”

There are a number of strategies the Council uses to increase political participation by Arabs and Muslims. Mr. Bayoumi says one is to educate people about the American political process.

“The more you inform Arabs and Muslims about the American political system, the more they will understand it, they will not fear it, they will think there is an opportunity they would like to join.”

Another strategy is organizing voter registration drives to encourage Arabs and Muslims who have become U-S citizens to use their newly acquired political power – the right to vote.

“Through our media outlets we tell people that they need to register if they are voters, and during Friday prayers, mosque congregations, Eid celebrations we just offer them the opportunity, educate them more about how to register, maybe we help them register and fill out forms. And we also keep them informed about the issues that are important to them, because there should be a connection and a reason for them to be part of the American political process.”

Mr. Bayoumi believes one of the most important issues for the U-S Muslim community, is correcting what he says are the misconceptions many Americans have about Muslims and Arabs.

“I think the greatest mistake is to think that Muslims are against American values and against American society and American culture. Muslims and Arabs in general they like the American people, they like American culture, it is very widespread. They don’t like certain parts, like materialism – but I know lots of Americans don’t like materialism, either.”

In general, Alaa Bayoumi feels that there is no conflict in being Muslim in America. He cites his own experience as a case in point.

“I moved from being an Egyptian to an American Muslim. American Islam is a very diverse religion, it’s a religion that can welcome foreigners. And I think this form of religion cannot exist any place other than the United States. This is why I love to be a Muslim in this country.”

Alaa Bayoumi came to the United States from Cairo in 1997 to do graduate study in political science. Until then he had never been outside of Egypt. He says that after only a few months at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he came in contact with a wide variety of different people, his view of America and Americans underwent a transformation.

“My professors. I had a Mormon professor, who was very conservative in his religious values. One of my favorite teachers, she taught me conflict resolution, she taught me mediation – she was a Jewish professor and she listened to me more than anyone else, I would say, in my life. My classmates were Peace Corps volunteers, Americans who voluntarily chose to spend part of their lives in a foreign country to help other people. Seeing all of this, I felt that Americans are very moral people, people that any religion, any race, any group or nationality should be proud to be a part of.”

Mr. Bayoumi has been involved in politics ever since his graduation. It’s the only career he says he understands, being drawn to it by both his education and his personality. Most recently he was active in supporting Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. With Mr. Kucinich’s prospects fading quickly, however, Mr. Bayoumi is prepared to move on.

“You see, politics is about practicality, it’s about realism, it’s about real life. I support Mr. Kucinich because he’s very close to Muslim and Arab issues, but I know once the primaries are over I’ll be supporting the Democratic candidate, whoever he is. I will be writing articles, I will be volunteering my time, I will be educating Muslims and Arabs about the candidate, I will be supporting them to be active, holding events, I will do whatever it takes to help the candidate.”

Alaa Bayoumi is confident that Arab and Muslim activism in American politics will continue to grow. He says that in the last two years he has met hundreds of Muslim students who want to go to law school and then enter politics. He has no doubt that in a few years there will be a new generation of Muslim activists and leaders in the American political arena.