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Arab and Muslim Americans Running for Political Office Say They Offer New Solutions for Old Problems - 2003-10-23

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Muslim activists in the United States have increasingly talked about the importance of entering the political stage on the local, state and national levels to combat stereotypes and preserve civil rights.

Arab and Muslim Americans are running for office in many electoral districts across the country. But, these ambitious candidates do not highlight their ethnicity or religion in the campaign. Instead, they present themselves as citizens with new solutions for their communities' old problems.

Kamal Nawash, 33, is an independent running as a Republican for the Virginia State Senate. He spoke no English when his family arrived here from the Middle East in 1979. Mr. Nawash went on to earn a degree in business and law. Today, he is an immigration attorney and a partner in a Virginia law firm.

"I was born in Bethlehem to a family from Jerusalem, and I came here when I was nine years old," he said. "I am for the most part, an average person. I was an average student, but I attribute all the success that I have just to good education. So I think good education is essential and I want to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to get a good education."

Beside education, easing the local traffic congestion and providing affordable housing are the most urgent issues on Mr. Nawash's agenda. He says he understands what's important to most immigrants. He also believes that being a Muslim American of Arab origin gives him an edge as a candidate.

"It is very significant. There seems to be a total lack of understanding between these two cultures," he said. "The American Culture and the Arab and Muslim World. I think both of them are completely misunderstanding each other. You have Arab and Muslim world that thinks that America hates them which us totally wrong. And you have America that thinks that Arabs and Muslims hate them, which I think is also wrong. I represent a very small minority of people in the United States that understand both cultures fluently and I believe I can help bridge the gap between of misunderstanding."

Mr. Nawash says immigrants are not generally very active in politics… and new arrivals from Muslim and Arab countries are no exception. But according to Nasser Beydoun, executive director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Detroit, a city with a large Arab population, that's changing. "It is an evolutionary process of all immigrants," he said. "They came here, they look for their social organizations, their religious organizations, and then they move forward to start looking at political organizations they need to help them protect their rights as Americans and give them the influence they need in the political structure."

That's already happened in the Arab American community, according to Jean Abi-Nad of the Arab American Institute (AAI). He says it's only in the last 10 years that Muslim Americans have become more involved.

"So, we're seeing much broader participation by Arab and Muslim American communities in the election, particularly in 2003-2004 we anticipate a very good turnout," he said. "There are very high registration rates among Arab Americans. Over 70 percent of the community is registered to vote. This is second only to African Americans in terms of ethnic groups. More Arab Americans are running for office, also more Muslim Americans, Pakistanis, Indians Bangladeshis and others. Right now, I'd say probably in terms of state and national elections in 2004 we're looking at two dozen or so Arab American candidates. If you're looking at local elections in 2003, you're probably are looking at 30 or 40 candidates who are either Muslim or Arab Americans running for office."

One of those candidates hopes to become Loudoun County Supervisor.

"My name is Afeefa Syeed and I'm running for office, and I like to hear what your concerns are," said Afeefa Syeed, the director of a private school in Virginia. She was born in Kashmir and raised in the United States. She says she's always considered herself an American.

"I've gone to visit other countries but this is my home where I live. And because of my involvement, I realized that there is more that I can do for the community," she said. "I feel I can help in the political arena, to represent the people I live with, my neighbors, my community and be able to represent diversity in politics."

Ms. Syeed's platform stresses improving basic services, developing roadways and transportation alternatives, and controlling development. She wants Loudoun County to maintain its distinct character and heritage, and continue to be a highly desired place to live, work and raise a family.

"I am concerned because we have a lot of growth in Loudoun County. It has been the fastest growing county in the U.S. It affects people living there very tremendously," she said. "We have congested roads; we have schools that we have to build, every year we have an average of three schools being built. So there is a lot of stress on the community. I'm looking forward to making the growth better managed."

An observant Muslim, Ms. Syeed wears a hijab head cover when she appears in public, and says it doesn't affect her election campaign.

"I think it is the minority of people in America who have a negative reactions to Muslims," she said. "I do not think that's the majority. I'm visiting people in their homes, and when you're in their homes and talking to them they are very sincere, very open about how they feel. I haven't felt that negative reaction from people themselves, the issue of being Muslim American never comes up."

Virginia State Senate candidate Kamal Nawash agrees. Yet, he believes the awareness of the ethnic and religious difference is real.

"Every couple of years something seems to pop up, whether it's the Gulf War II, or when you have for example Muslim Americans being accused of spying, like in Guantanamo Bay," he said. "I am certain that there is going to be, subconsciously at least, people who are going to have in the back of their mind, 'well, a Muslim American is running for office.' I wonder, but I really cannot put too much emphasis on that, because even if I was not an Arab Muslim American, it's [running for office] still going to be very difficult."

Nevertheless, the candidate is optimistic about the future of his community's political participation. He says in the past, many Arab and Muslim immigrants hoped to retain their culture, and have it influence their new home… and that did not work. Now, he says, Arab and Muslim Americans are being encouraged to assimilate in this country. He says that doesn't mean losing their identity. It just means becoming an involved member of the larger society.