Friday, May 07, 2004

Sleeping with the enemy -- Muslim participation in U.S. Elections

Reuven Paz is founder and director of the Project for Research of Islamist Movements (PRISM), GLORIA Center, The Interdisciplinary Center, Herzeliya. Prism was founded in 2002, in order to combine academic and field research of new developments of radical Islam and Islamist movements.
PRISIM web site is --

In recent months, the coming presidential elections in the United States, scheduled for November 2004, have raised a public debate among American Muslim organizations. Issues such as U.S. support for Israel; the occupation of Iraq; the global war against terrorism; question marks on the human and civil rights of American Muslims; feelings of general hostility towards Muslims by the American public and politicians; and the shutting down of Islamic foundations in the United States, have raised doubts among American Muslim organizations and private citizens, over whether or not the six million member-strong American Muslim constituency should take part in American political life, including the presidential elections. Meanwhile, the general opinion of Muslim leaders in the United States supports the active and intensive participation in the various election campaigns and the political life in the United States.

The issue of Muslim participation in elections has also been raised in countries other than the United States, primarily in Europe. Thus far, only a small number of Salafist scholars have called upon Muslim citizens in Western countries to boycott such elections, and have at times even issued such a ruling in favor of a boycott. Yet, the severe attacks embodied by these rulings (Fatwah), as well as other declarations, books, and articles directed against the United States; the total disqualification of Western democracy, including its political systems; and the direct calls to stop immigration from the Muslim world; are an indirect call for limiting Muslim participation in Western life and culture. For those Salafi Jihadists that live in the West and take part in its political culture, their situation is hence tantamount to “sleeping with the enemy.”

Yes to participation
On November 1st 2003, the popular web site Islam On-Line published the most recent Fatwah on this issue, by Sheikh Muhammad Al-Mukhtar Ash-Shanqiti, President of the Islamic Association of Lubbock, Texas.1 The Fatwah was an answer to the following question:

Dear scholars, As-Salamu `alaykum. There is a great controversy among the Muslim communities in the US concerning whether it is permissible for Muslims to participate in the coming elections, its benefits and regulations. Some people say it is essential for the Muslims to take part in the U.S. elections so as to change the extravagance of the current administration, which has started its colonial policies in the Arab and the Muslim World. On the other hand, another group sees that it is haram (unlawful) to take part in elections in non-Muslim countries, either by voting or being a member of their parliaments. They see that Muslims must keep away from such elections. So, what is the juristic view on the whole issue? Jazakum Allah khayran.

Sheikh al-Shanqiti, who is regarded a supporter of Saudi pragmatic Wahhabism, categorically supports the participation in the American elections, based on the Qur’an and the Hadith of the Prophet:

That is the way that Muslims living in non-Muslim countries in the West should look upon participation in the political life there. In this context, taking part in the U.S. elections is required, so that goodness may overcome evil and justice would prevail. It is not a sign of affiliation to the polytheists, nor is it a kind of support for the oppressors. Therefore, judging parliaments to be gatherings of disbelief and polytheism is inappropriate, as this does not take into account the complicated nature of such parliaments. The U.S. Congress, for instance, is not a religious organization, as the American constitution neither supports a certain religion nor restricts another. The U.S. Congress is not thus, a gathering of disbelief, even though its members are disbelievers. Also, it is not a gathering of belief, even if there are Muslim members in it. It is a neutral political body in relation to matters of religion, according to the American constitution...

The last ruling is a continuance of two previous ones from October 2003, by Dr. Taha Jaber al-`Alwani and Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, two of the leading Islamic scholars in the United States. Dr. Siddiqi, former president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), was answering a question about the participation of Muslims in local elections across the United States.2 Dr. al-`Alwani, President of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences and President of the American Fiqh Council, widened the spectrum of this question to the participation of Muslims in the American political system at large.3 Both these American Islamic scholars support the participation of Muslims in all fields of American political life, and thus simultaneously, pave the way for Muslim candidates to nominate themselves to various elected posts.

The most interesting and important Fatwah in this regard however, was provided in February 2002, by Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi of Qatar.4 The Arab World and Muslim communities in the West regard Qaradawi as the supreme religious authority of the Muslim Brotherhood of our times. His Fatwahs serve as a basis for many major rulings in cardinal issues, including suicide operations against civilians; Islamic economy; immigration; participation of Muslims in the U.S. military forces in Iraq, etc.

Qaradawi, who prohibited the participation of Muslims in the Israeli parliamentary elections, and thus helped encourage a split of the Israeli Islamic Movement over this issue, presented an inverted opinion concerning the elections in Western countries, including the United States, where he permitted such participation. A look at the Sheikh’s considerations concerning the American political scene, to which he dedicated a special section in his Fatwah, is exemplary:


Particularities of the American Situation:
America has special conditions that need to be addressed in order to reach a rule in this matter:

1. America is a nation composed by immigrant communities from all over the world. It is not connected to one nation or one culture, in a limited sense where non-Europeans are excluded.
2. It is a young country. Its cultural patterns are still open to Influence from Islam. It also provides Islam with an opportunity to contribute to its growth.
3. It is a country that respects the freedoms of all religions to exist regardless of some shortcomings

Based on the above mentioned, the following conclusions can be reached in terms of Muslims participation in politics in America:

First: It is incumbent upon Muslims to participate in politics effectively in America. They need to involve for the following reasons:
- If Muslims needs to protect their rights they have to involve in politics.
- Supporting their fellow Muslims around the world
- Spreading Islam’s message
- Expressing the universality of Islam

Participating in politics is an obligation not “a right” that they can quit exercising it whenever they wish. It’s a matter of “protecting societal necessities” and the improvement of Muslims conditions in America.

Second: What ever helps in achieving such noble goals takes their rule Islamicaly. This includes:
1. Nominating any able Muslims to public offices in order to promote what is good for the society and for them, as well as preventing what is evil from harming the society and harming them. These offices are mayors, governors, members of the congress, and alike.
2. Individual Muslims nominate themselves, if Muslims did not nominate him
3. Supporting a non-Muslim candidate if he is more beneficial to Muslim’s causes or less harmful than a Muslim.
4. Supporting non Muslim candidates financially
5. Pursuing citizenship in America because it’s the bases of exercising rights
6. Registering for elections and voting. These are two separate but mandatory obligations.

Regulations and limitations:
1. In order for Muslims to gain their rights in this country, and their positive interaction with the native people of this country, it requires from us consultation and agreement on the main principles of Islam, and we should excuse each other on the minor differences. The righteous Companions of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, set up an example hundreds of years ago when they met to consult each pother on the best response to the critical situation during their migration to Abyssinia.
2. Muslims minority in America is in need for strengthening their belief, and enhancing their Islamic culture. Interaction with others should not lead to concessions that hinder their religion. Again the example of Ja`far At-tyar and his refusal to paw for An-Najashi (Negus) King of Abyssinia is the best example.

3. Muslim minority is in need of expressing the facts of Islam in the best manner. Eternal values of Islam, and its humanitarian system should be practiced and reflected in the best way. Exactly as Ja`far did in his speech in front of An-Najashi, when he stated the Pringles of Islam and the difference between Islam and darkness. In doing so, Muslims not only gain support and sympathy of others but an encouragement to others to follow the path of Islam.

4. Muslims in America should familiarize themselves with the art of communication and public relations. Again, Ja`far’s example when he ended his speech addressing the kin “we have come to your country’ we have chosen you among kings, we seek our neighborhood, and seek not to be dealt with unjustly.”

For the time being, Islamic leaders and organizations answer the question whether Muslims should take an active role in Western political life, and the American political system in particular, in the affirmative. This approval generally follows the lines of thought of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks a compromise with Western democracy on one hand, and judge many of its principles according to the benefit to Muslims (Maslahah), on the other. This line of thought, approved by Al-Qaradawi, follows previous doctrines developed by Sudan’s Dr. Hasan al-Turabi and the Tunisian exile in London, Rashid al-Ghannushi.

Thus far, the issue has not attracted a great deal of attention among the Islamists of the Jihadi-Salafi scholars of global Jihad. This is partly due to the fact that their Muslim supporters in the United States are still a small minority. They enjoy greater support among Muslims in Europe. Since the attacks of September 11, support for global Jihad and anti-American sentiments among American Muslims, are channeled primarily in two directions: The first is anti-Israeli propaganda and support for the Palestinians. The second is an effort to fight for Muslim human rights and to confront the anti-Islamic atmosphere in the American public and Media. Muslim Americans do not tend to adopt the Islamist terms of the Salafi Jihadi scholars, and regard themselves as living in an “apostate state” (Dawlat Kufr) or under the rule of a “tyrant” (Taghut).

So far, Muslim leaders and political activists have refrained from publicly calling upon their constituency to vote for candidates of the opposition Democratic Party and against President George W. Bush. Presumably, these leaders would seek the support of Democratic candidates rather than risk reelecting Republicans affiliated with the present Administration, but they will closely weigh the benefits they could gain with the price they would have to pay.

Another element in the equation, and perhaps one that is linked to the election campaign is the position of major Jewish American communities and organizations. In terms of numbers of eligible voters, the Jewish and Muslim communities within the United States today, are roughly equal in size. The Republican Party would probably attempt to increase its support among Jewish voters, who traditionally tend to support the Democrats, by expressing support for Israel, the occupation of Iraq, and the war against global/Islamist terrorism. In the longer run, the development of future competition between the two communities is likely to strengthen the support for a more intensive participation of the Muslim community in the American political system.

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