I remember the day my Indian Muslim family became Latino. It was 2006 and Ted Strickland was running as the Democratic nominee for governor of Ohio. My father declared our new identity with a "Latinos Unidos por Strickland" bumper sticker on the back of our minivan. "We want him to win, right?" he reasoned.
My father's attempt to change our family's ethnic and religious identities into something he believed would be more acceptable to our neighbors reflects the sad reality of the role of Muslims in public life in the United States.
It is no secret that many Americans are wary of Muslims. A 2007 report published by the Pew Forum indicated that just 43 percent of Americans held a favorable view of Muslims. This fact was not lost on the Republicans who launched a whisper campaign the following year to frame Obama as the Muslim Manchurian Candidate.
Last week's "Tea Party" demonstration in D.C. illustrates that using the term "Muslim" as a slur is still acceptable in many parts of the country as protesters exclaimed they were afraid "Muslims are moving in and taking over" - an echo of their leader Mark Williams' comments about candidate Obama being an "Indonesian Muslim" during the presidential campaign.
That Muslims aren't well liked hasn't been lost on Muslim Americans themselves. But rather than confront the stereotypes and misunderstandings that led to the negative views, most Muslim Americans seem to have gone into hiding and decided not to participate in American political life.
During last year's presidential campaign for example, Muslim American leaders debated for months whether or not to publicly support Barack Obama's candidacy. Although Muslim Americans lean overwhelmingly towards the Democratic Party, many community leaders feared that their public support of then-candidate Obama would ultimately hurt his campaign. So, instead of mobilizing the community, many determined they could best help Obama by sitting quiet. One such leader, who ran MuslimsforKerry.com in 2004, went so far as to register a website for Muslim supporters of Obama but then ultimately decided not to develop the site, concerned that public support from Muslims would hurt the candidate.
If we think we're that toxic, how do we expect anyone else to think differently?
Muslim Americans certainly have a legitimate reason to complain about the discrimination and stereotyping we face in America, but if we want to actually do something about it, we need to reach the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans. A poll conducted by the Pew Forum last week suggests that higher levels of familiarity with Islam, and especially knowing someone who is Muslim, are associated with more positive views of the religion. In our case, familiarity breeds regard and respect.
Muslims also need to be politically invested in the country. A recent Gallup report showed that Muslims vote in far lesser numbers than other religious groups. This trend is particularly acute with young Muslims. Some 78 percent of Protestants under 30 are registered to vote while only 51 percent of young Muslims are registered.
Finally, Muslim Americans need to field some candidates for political office, where we are painfully absent. Like the Muslim American community, both the Jewish and the Mormon American communities each comprise approximately two percent of the U.S. population. But unlike these two groups, Muslim Americans have virtually no representation in our federal legislative body. Currently in the Senate, there are 15 Jewish senators, five Mormon senators, but no Muslim senators. In the House of Representatives, Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman in history, was elected in 2006 and was joined by the second, Andre Carsen, in 2008. By comparison, there are currently 33 Jewish and 14 Mormon Representatives.
Until Muslim Americans claim their seat at the political table, we will continue to be vulnerable to slurs and misperceptions and our many contributions and service to this country we love will go unnoticed. We will continue to be defined by extremists abroad and political fearmongerers at home because we have not fully stepped into our American identity.
Our lack of political involvement at the local, state, and federal levels not only hurts the community but hurts the political health of the entire country. This democracy cannot work without its citizens participating and we all suffer when one group is silent.
Our presence in our country's political life is the most powerful testament to the Muslim World that the United States truly is a nation founded on the idea that all are created equal. It is time to peel away any false bumper sticker identities and educate our fellow Americans on who Muslims really are while demonstrating to the Muslim World the ideals of this great country.