08/19/2014 02:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The American Muslim Imperative


A declaration last week by a European Muslim academic that he would indefinitely abstain from several North American Muslim conferences and conventions because of a perceived political apathy on global crises, such as in Gaza and elsewhere, has sparked intense and important debate on the role of North American Muslim -- and, for the purpose of this piece, American Muslim -- community organizations.

In order to forge stronger community progress while not seeking to restrict the right to activism on contentious humanitarian issues, one must undeniably consider what the overarching priorities of many of these community organizations must be. American Muslims have indeed lived in the United States since the nation's founding, and there have been impressive Muslim individuals and organizations that have constructively impacted both domestic and foreign policy and served as leaders within various movements, including civil rights in the 1960s, as well as prior. This cannot be overlooked, nor should credit for these historic efforts be understated.

The fact remains, however, that the bulk of the community's population only immigrated to the United States in the past 50 years, rendering a temporary mark of novelty upon the community -- as well as upon many of its organizations. So, in the same vein, it should be recalled that most other demographic communities immigrated to this country, struggled intensely, established themselves as rooted citizens, involved themselves in community building, and contributed to the social dynamic and the genuine assistance of other communities as well as their own, often long before they effectively addressed the complex state of international affairs.

This is not to silence or to dismiss efforts -- I myself am politically active and vocal about many international affairs, and I do yearn for a foreign policy that better connects our strategic interests with our most noble values. This goes for many issues. I believe that just as American society at large has a role to play in remaining a beacon on several fronts, our country also has a role to play in ensuring that our policies do not contribute to the rise of corrupt leadership, international extremism, and other global dangers. Given the state of international affairs, American Muslims are an imperative part of that conversation.

It is, however, to suggest that many are too frequently operating with impractical expectations, expecting government officials to hear their voices clearly or organizations to deliver victories for balance on contentious issues, when they often lack pragmatic approaches on them and are still more or less invisible at both the political and social levels -- and have, at present, only taken few steps to remove that invisibility (or, perhaps most detrimental, when they continue to vigorously debate as to whether they should even be present at the most critical tables).

There also exists the misleading assumption that all communities, including the American Muslim community, will not inevitably require internal as well as external discussion, or will be a virtual monolith on views -- while this monolithic nature is far from reflected in the Christian, Jewish, nonreligious, or other communities.

I share the occasional frustration about the decisions of some community organizations. I also believe that the most "politically correct" path is not always the most moral path.

But while maintaining the inherent right to be critical, we should be supporting the most productive of these organization's efforts -- and seeking reform, where necessary, in the most pragmatic, constructive, and farsighted of ways. It is reasonable to expect that influential groups and their most prominent supporters, when taking a humanitarian stand, objectively stand on the side of human justice. It is not reasonable to expect that groups with largely domestic or community-fostering missions will take identical or as strident of foreign policy positions as those that prioritize foreign policy.

And from my observation, there is a torrent of American Muslim and cultural initiatives and organizations that prioritize international humanitarian and policy concerns, as well as steps to elevate our nation's global standing -- with some but admittedly limited success -- partly due to a lack of balanced community priorities, partly due to an overarching lack of sophisticated pragmatism on several issues, and partly due to inconsistencies (e.g., activism on the U.S.-Afghanistan invasion but not those suffering under the Taliban, protests on Israel-Palestine but not on ISIS, etc.).

Yet perhaps most importantly as one discusses community organizing priorities, it need be asked again: At the domestic level, where are we on education, on health care, on social welfare, on gun violence, on women's rights in America, on immigration, and on so many other concerns? Where do we stand?

How many rallies do we attend for any of the above? How many petitions do we create? How many boycotts do we participate in? How many phone banks? How many meetings? How many nonprofits do we create or join?

If leaders nearly exclusively hear concerns about foreign policy from American Muslims, do we morally place ourselves as conscientious citizens that are to be respected and heard on diverse fronts? If organizations with largely domestic missions are not encouraged to build momentum on domestic issues without being repeatedly questioned for not taking a harsh enough stand elsewhere, who is left to do this critical work of aiding in the issues that impact every American? And how much effort has been made to reach out to and engage with those in external American communities with whom there is difference in international viewpoints, to see if any common ground on policy can be found?

To advance our communities in ways in which we can have meaningful dialogue and pragmatic activism on all issues -- and have policy concerns taken more seriously at all levels -- we must see more organizations focusing on their members' personal enrichment and balance. We must see more outreach to external communities, to our neighbors and fellow Americans, with whom among many there is even a significant or perhaps contentious policy difference.

Above all, we must see the empowerment of organizations focusing, with sincerity, on the critical domestic issues and causes mentioned above. We must see more "giving back" on all of these domestic fronts (beyond charity to the broader American community, something that the American Muslim community does indeed give in numbers).

We must see more organizations focusing on forging better citizens here at home.

So with respect, the lacking is not necessarily in what was suggested in the academic's widely published statement. The above is where the overall dearth is for American Muslims -- and where change should be prioritized or begin.