On Being An American and a Muslim: Dilemmas of Politics and Culture
By Ali A. Mazrui
The Crisis of Participation
The Muslim community in the United States is also facing a crisis of participation. Is it religiously legitimate for the believer to be politically active in a system of government which is not only non-Islamic but is potentially anti-Islamic from time to time? Should a Muslim agree to vote under the United States constitution and against the background of the role of the United States' controlling if not intimidating many Muslim countries? In the 1990s alone American bombs and missiles have fallen on Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and accidentally, Pakistan.
We could use some of the categories of medieval Islamic jurists who divided the world between Dar el Islam (the Abode of Islam) and Dar el Harb (the Abode of War). Are Muslims in America an enclave of Dar el Islam lodged in the body politic of Dar el Harb? Where does the political participation of Dar el Islam fit into the political process of Dar el Harb? Or should we abandon altogether these medieval Islamic divisions of the world as being outdated?
Another dilemma concerns possible differences between Muslim minorities from one Western country to another. Are British Muslims in a different predicament from American Muslims? Is there a difference between Muslims voting in a Christian theocracy (like England) on one side, and Muslims voting in a secular state (like the United States), on the other?
The Head of State in England is also the Head of the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen with the participation of the Prime Minister. And major doctrinal changes in the Church of England need the approval of the British Parliament either directly or by delegation through the Synod of the Church. The United States, on the other hand, is a secular state which constitutionally is supposed to favour no religion. Is it therefore more halal to participate in U.S. elections than in British elections?
In the world as it exists today, we have to allow non-Muslims to vote in every Muslim country. If non-Muslim minorities vote in Muslim societies, why should not Muslim minorities vote in non-Muslim countries? If Christians can vote in Egypt, why should not Muslims vote in the United States?
The most famous Egyptian of the 1990s was for a while Boutros Boutros-Ghali who would not have been eligible for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations had he not had extensive political and diplomatic participation in Egypt before hand. Boutros-Ghali was and is of course a Christian.
The Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq is Tareq Aziz, another Christian. No Christian country in the West has as yet allowed a Muslim to rise to such a status. Should Muslims themselves in Christian countries prevent their own rise to power?
For 20 years Muslim Senegal had a Roman Catholic President (1960-1980) - Leopold Sedar Senghor. The percentage of Muslims in Senegal is 94% - higher than the percentage of Muslims in Egypt. Senegal is a remarkable illustration of Muslim ecumenicalism.
If Muslim countries allow the participation and even empowerment of non-Muslim minorities, why should not Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries seek participation and increasing empowerment for themselves?
On the other hand, it is possible for a Muslim to attain the highest office in the land in a country in which Muslims are a minority - provided the Muslim minority has not been politically inactive.
This happened in Malawi in May 1994 when, in the first internationally supervised election since independence thirty years earlier, the voters in Malawi elected Bakili Muluzi as their first Muslim president. According to most estimates, Muslims in Malawi are less than a third of the population. Could a Muslim president have been elected if the Muslim minority had declared themselves to be politically neutral?
In Sierra Leone the numerical strength of Muslims is less clear. Are they a minority or are they over 50%? What is clear is that Sierra Leone elected its first Muslim President in 1996 - Ahmed Tejan Kabba. Once again the question arises whether Sierra Leone would have had its first elected Muslim president in 1996 if the Muslims of the country had declared themselves politically neutral? (President Kabba's forunes have had ups and downs in that militarily troubled country).
The fourth largest concentration of Muslims in the world is a minority in a largely non-Muslim country in the world. This is the minority of some 100 million Muslims in the Republic of India. They are fourth numerically after the populations of Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (others have argued that Indian Muslims are second numerically).
One of the factors which have influenced most political parties in India to be tolerant towards Muslims has been the voting leverage and participation of this 12% of the population. Had Indian Muslims opted out of politics completely Indian Muslims would have been more marginalized and perhaps even more victimized than ever.
The following distinctions need to be made concerning Muslims and U.S. laws:
The central underlying question is that once American Muslims have recognized that they have to obey the laws of the United States, almost all of which have nothing to do with the Shari'a, the next question is whether Muslims should strategize to help influence the making of those laws and their implementation in the hope of making those laws more sensitive to the multicultural and multireligious nature of the population of the United States.
- Can Muslims live in the United States without obeying U.S. Laws? - Can they refuse to pay U.S. taxes, even if the taxes are not remotely Islamic?
- Can Muslims become U.S. citizens without allegiance to the U.S. Constitution which is not Islamic?
- Can Muslims insist that their money should not be used in wars against Muslim countries abroad?
- Since Muslims in America cannot long endure without obeying U.S. laws, should they not try to influence the process of making those laws? Voting for Members of Congress and for the President constitutes part of the process of influencing the making of those laws - and not merely obeying the laws. Even those militant opponents of Muslim voting in U.S. elections do obey U.S. laws.
- The Third domain is not merely Muslims voting but also Muslims running for office. This would be a process of Muslim empowerment. If elected, Muslims would not only be more directly affecting the making of the laws. The Muslims would also be influencing the implementation of the laws and their enforcement. Overtime the judicial and legal system of the United States would become more sensitized to the Muslim experience and related issues.
Fifthly, there is the nagging question: If Muslims cannot be voters in the United States, can they even be lawyers or legal consultants? Do opponents of Muslims voting in U.S. elections have sons or daughters training to become U.S. lawyers?
If it is haram to be a voter in a U.S. election, is it ten times haram to be trained as an expert in U.S. law and practicing it? Is a Muslim-American lawyer who is devoting his or her time defending Muslim clients committing at least a double haram?
On the other hand, if we concede that Muslims may become attorneys and lawyers in the United States, why should not Muslims become voters also? Voting is connected with law at many different stages and in many different respects.
What we have here is the complex inter-relationship between law-making (legislature), law interpretation (the judiciary), law implementation (the executive). Voting is part of the process of choosing who makes these laws, who interprets them, and who implements them. The logic of the legal process is intertwined with the logic of the electoral process.
The logic of saying that it is haram to seek to influence law- making in the United States would make it haram to have Muslim lawyers practicing under U.S. law. It would also make it close to haram to obey the laws of the land. Such advice would be dangerous indeed for a Muslim minority living almost anywhere in a primarily non-Muslim country.
The conclusion to be drawn is that it is to the unmistakable advantage (maslaha) of a Muslim minority to seek ways of influencing governance in the direction of greater enlightenment.
Muslims located in the United States have additional obligations since they are geographically located in the most powerful country in the world - with an immense capacity to either harm or benefit the rest of the ummah world-wide.
The United States can either do such positive things as helping Afghanistan get rid of Soviet occupation or do such negative things as bombing Khartoum and Tripoli when there is suspicion of so-called Sudanese and Libyan "terrorism".
The United States can either look the other way and let Iran arm Bosnian Muslims against Serbian genocide or the United States can pass illegal legislation penalizing Third countries for trading with Iran and Libya.
American Muslims need to be active enough to monitor and influence American policy not only in domestic affairs but also in foreign affairs. The self-denial of voting power by some U.S. Muslims is an exercise in political castration.
Had the United States in the 20th century had very few Jewish citizens, the history of Israel and the Middle East would have been vastly different. Without a large and powerful Jewish lobby within the United States, U.S. generosity towards Israel would probably have substantially evaporated. At the very minimum the United States would have spent less money on arming Israel, used fewer vetoes to defend Israel at the United Nations, been more attentive to Palestinian and Arab concerns, and been more publicly critical of Israeli atrocities. Jewish activism in U.S. politics produced pro-Jewish results.
American Muslims may never equal the power of the Jews in the U.S. system, but the Muslims may one day help provide some counterbalance in policy-formation. Muslim participation and empowerment within the U.S. political system is therefore vital not only for the sake of Muslims themselves but also for the sake of the wider ummah world wide, and for the sake of enriching the pluralism and global representativeness of American civilization.