The uprising in the Middle East demonstrates the desire among predominantly Muslim countries for change and a better quality of life. This so-called movement among Muslims started in the United States during the 2008 Presidential Campaign. It was the first time that American Muslims were increasingly engaged to organize, register, and vote. According to a survey by MuslimVotersUSA, a grassroots American Muslim political advocacy group, 17% of American Muslim voters were first-time voters and a quarter of them did not vote in 2004.
American Muslims tended to shy away from directly being involved with political campaigns. However, 2008 was the exception. As the American Muslim Vote Director for the Michigan Campaign for Change, I witnessed firsthand a different type of "uprising" among American Muslims.
In 2008, the Bosnian community in West Michigan had one of the most successful voter drives. Local mosques participated in nonpartisan voter registration and Imams gave sermons on the importance of voting and being involved. That has paid off. They were aggressive in engaging the community to vote and participate in election events. We now have had the first American Muslim woman elected to the Michigan Legislature; Congressman Andre Carson became the second American Muslim elected to Congress; Jacqueline El Sayed was elected to a local school board in a wealthy suburban community and a number of Muslims became active donors and convention participants at all levels. A number of American Muslims ran for office for the first time in 2008 and even though they were not successful, their elections inspired others. Today, the Michigan Democratic Party has one of the most active Muslim Caucuses working on candidate recruitment and policy.
Similar to the countries where we are witnessing historical uprisings, United States Muslims are being targeted by the government, subjected to profiling, hate crimes, and many other policies that stereotype them and negatively impact their livelihood. Children are questioning their identity and many are struggling to find ways to freely express their faith. Many are changing their names because they can't obtain a job while others are consistently on the defensive. The very essence of America is access to opportunity. Being Muslim in America today is treated as a hindrance. Just as we see Libyans fighting for better opportunities, American Muslims since 2001 have been fighting to maintain their access to the American Dream. The frustration grew as candidates for office were running on who was the strongest opponent to so-called Islamic fundamentalists, which many Muslims took as direct attack on their faith.
The importance of improving one's community is an extension of Islam. Just like Ellison and Carson, I represent a predominantly non-Muslim community. As Michigan's first female Muslim legislator, I have received many questions regarding the role my faith plays in my political life. A noted Islamic scholar, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, wrote that "Charity begins at home. A true believer is thus always prepared, after meeting the needs of his family, to assist other people in need of his help." This is extremely important because as I, along with a number of Muslims in primarily non-Muslim communities, can expose our religion to others in the most profound and powerful way -- through our faith's requirement to protect the most vulnerable and serve the needy.
Our role as Muslim elected officials during these turbulent times creates a unique opportunity to directly contradict the critics of our faith through our desire to serve. The need to be engaged on all levels (federal, state and local) is more important than ever due to the aggressive and consistent attacks on our faith so that our children are no longer affected by the negative stereotypes and misinformation about Islam.
I cherish the fact that I was raised in the most diverse part of the city, Southwest Detroit, where there wasn't a large Muslim population, but a perfect mixture of people -- from Latino and African American, to Polish and Hungarian. Life was challenging to say the least, but I was so fortunate because in many ways it made me a better Muslim and a better public servant.
Rashida Tlaib is the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan Legislature. Her essay on the 2008 election appears in 'I SPEAK FOR MYSELF: AMERICAN WOMEN ON BEING MUSLIM', a new book released this month. She was awarded the Emerging Leader award by the National Network for Arab American Communities.