Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Speak for Yourself

This year’s presidential race seems to be all about identity. Candidates and their voters are being grouped by various characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, age, faith, even down to the trivial details of what car they drive and the coffee they drink.

But more importantly, we’re seeing candidates and voters take control of the identities that are forced upon them, reshaping them to serve as empowering tools rather than demoting qualities.

No more clearly is this seen than in Senator Barack Obama’s efforts to dispel the misconception that he is Muslim. While Senator Obama refutes the apparent “smear” on his reputation and avows his Christian faith, American Muslims – whose identities have been hijacked by radicals, extremists and, yes, terrorists – are increasingly taking ownership of their identities, affirming their faith and American citizenship.

I recently had the opportunity to further define my own identity as a young American Muslim at the Second Annual Muslim Public Affairs Council’s National Muslim American Young Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. The summit brought together 25 young Muslim-American leaders from across the nation in the spirit of building civic engagement, serving as voices for the American Muslim community and working to help improve this nation for everyone.

The summit embodied the values for which this nation stands. The diverse group of young American Muslims met with an equally diverse panel of leaders from government agencies and think tanks. We viewed a presentation by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, met with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher at the Department of State, and held spirited discussions with members of Congress on issues including the presidential election, the environment, foreign policy, religious freedom, and immigration.

Those three days in our nation’s capital made the political wonk in me feel like a kid at Christmas – or rather, Eid. And they gave me a renewed appreciation for the various civic engagement opportunities back here in Chicago, where I sometimes felt disconnected from the larger political realm. The deliberate engagement of minority communities is not foreign to such a diverse yet segregated city.

As a senior at DePaul University, it is ingrained within me to interact with diverse communities. We are united in our shared values while learning from differences. We are committed to service and social justice as part of DePaul’s history and Vincentian values. Chicago Muslims have been actively involved around the city in their academic settings, with mosques or with community organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Inner-city Muslims Action Network, and the Interfaith Youth Core.

Although a large part of American Muslim civic engagement today puts a strong emphasis on faith – as in response to the misconceptions and radicalizations about Islam – it also asserts an American identity, established through cultural awareness and engaged citizenship on issues shared by all Americans. But I wasn’t sure that the government officials in Washington, D.C., would understand this part our American-Muslim identity and worried that we would be neglected or met with disdain on the Hill.

I found instead that our nation’s leaders are enthusiastic about engaging the American-Muslim community – contrary to the demeanors of our current presidential candidates – and are very receptive to our concerns, recognizing them as common concerns shared by all their constituents. Although there was the occasional obligatory pandering, it was refreshing to interact in an open and honest dialogue and be challenged by leaders like Congressman Keith Ellison – the first Muslim elected to Congress – to stand firm as American Muslims.

Minority communities around the world have historically been forced to deal with the identities that are defined for and then thrust upon them by others. Like others in the past, and those who are still trying, Muslim Americans now face the challenge of recognizing and redefining their identities and roles in this nation.

We are tasked with debunking Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory – the flawed assumption that aggressors outweigh the peaceful and pluralistic. The peaceful and pluralistic must work to make their voices heard through actions that speak louder than those of the aggressors. American Muslims will find that voice through civic engagement.


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