The so-called “Muslim ban” inspired 90 Muslims to run for office in 2018. For many, their candidacy is a retaliation to a presidency they see as hostile to their religious identity. However, running for political office doesn’t make someone a better Muslim, nor a better American. Shaping what it means to be a conscientious Muslim in America, let along a strong political candidate, comes down to three things:
- Don’t lead with religion.
Look for candidates who engage in honest, value-driven participation in civic duty above “self-tokenizing” identity drivers. In other words, religion is a private matter and not a political tool to win elections.
- Islam is a hot topic. It’s time for an honest conversation.
Elected officials will have to face tough issues, including issues that touch on their faith and religious identity. Muslim candidates have to be willing to reach across the aisle to cultivate conversations and nurture relationships that can be used to help address some concerns around policy. This can’t happen when Muslim candidates are in an enclave mindset and sensitive to challenging discussions.
- Welcome Western human rights values above allegiance to foreign identity.
Inherited cultures, along with interpretations of Islam, are often a great source of friction for Muslim Americans navigating dual identities. Highlighting human rights as the highest value is key for all Muslim Americans, especially those running for office.
To be clear, the issue isn’t the number of Muslims running for office. The issue is that for many of these candidates, their aspirations for political office are motivated by further insulating their Islamic faith, rather than running on the premise of their American identity. Meaning, their faith comes first, and their national identity as Americans comes after.
Yet, many of these Muslim candidates for office are first or second generation immigrants whose family history includes escaping rigid theocracies or societies that mandate religious adherence. America was founded on the separation of church and state, and the next generation of political candidates are alarmingly blurring the important dividing line between religion and state by towing their religious identities into the race for office.
Candidate or not, Muslims have an opportunity to shape what it means to be a Muslim in a landscape that does not persecute them for deviating from normative behavior. The space America provides is a gift to explore identity — a critical skill for Muslim candidates who will face tough and controversial issues.
Radical Islam, for example, is our collective problem and a far higher priority for Muslim Americans than wearing American flag hijabs or engaging in momentary protests. If Muslims are unable to explore the uncertain realities of the future of Islam as guided by its most zealot practitioners, then there is little impact a Muslim American in office is capable of having as far as it benefits his faith group.
Islam is in need of radically honest conversations. It becomes very difficult to work for the interest of minority communities if one cannot also be honest about the cracks within those communities.