The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is the leading Muslim Organization in North America, representing a diverse community. It was established in 1963 and has been involved in Muslim issues throughout North America ever since. Among the topics at its annual convention in early September, attendees discussed strategies for Muslims to participate in the democratic process as well as create a strong lobbying presence in Washington and elsewhere.
One of the speakers was Zahid H. Bukhari, director of Muslims in Public Square (MAPS) who dealt with Muslims' political participation or lack of it:
"Think tanks in Washington have held conferences on Islam. However, there were no Muslim speakers on the panel, no representation from any Muslim organization. Why not? Because we are not articulating, we are not representing forcefully, and we are not defining ourselves."
A member of the Muslim Student Association and president of the Political Action Task Force, Zahid Robinson, said educating Muslims about the political process is key:
"The first step is creating political literacy among all Muslims, especially now at the university level and even at the high school level. So when they turn voting age, they'll be ready to cast an educated vote. The cultivation of a young community that is ready to create a unified voice not now, but in the future continuously engaged in the democratic process, to create a better place for all Muslims. Not ten years, but twenty, thirty years from now to keep Muslims as a unified body to address concerns which Muslims have continuously that will always be with us. These are civil rights, foreign policy issues, education, and health care."
Mr. Robinson also said addressing youth is important to create a sense of connectedness among Muslims. All Muslims from different socio-economic and cultural groups must feel they have a voice.
Mr. Robinson also urged Muslims to register to vote and show their children they are registering. When the youngsters are old enough, they must do the same. It's a matter of education, said Mr. Robinson. Muslims must understand democracy and how to participate in it, how to tell right from wrong in the voting booth.
The president of the Muslim American Society, Esam Omeish, said, the idea is for Muslims to integrate, not melt, into the larger American society, to have a parallel vision.
Mr. Omeish thinks political participation is crucial to developing a sense of community that is strong and politically influential:
"We in the Muslim American Society view our political participation, view our political activism as part of a broader developmental strategy for the whole community. We talk about comprehensive reform that is our method toward positive integration. We talk about doing it through a dual paradigm of development and outreach, the development of the individual and the development of the community, and both are as important. But when it comes to the development of the community, political empowerment and political involvement are at the core of developing our community."
The panel of speakers also included Mr. Agha Saeed, director of the Muslim Alliance and the American Muslim Task Force, which has assigned Muslims two tasks:
"You as Muslims must do two things- first, ask your elected officials to support civil rights in public and secondly write letters to both Bush and Kerry, asking them to amend significant sections of the U.S. Patriot Act."
Muslims believe that the U.S. Patriot Act, intended to combat terrorism, is directed largely at them and in many cases violates their civil liberties. For that reason and others, speeches at the ISNA convention urged Muslims to get involved in the democratic process as soon as possible. The sooner, the better it will be for them in the long run.