Participation of Muslims in
U.S. Political System
Prepared By: Mohamed Ramadan
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.
By; Taha Jaber Al-Alwani
I addressed the issue of whether Muslims should participate in the American political system in a previous article entitled “An Introduction to Minorities’ Fiqh,” in which I base my answer to this question on the following considerations:
(1) Mankind comprises one family, all from Adam, and Adam is from the earth. Mankind is divided into two nations: a missionary nation and a receiving nation.
(2) In considering the earth as an arena for Islam, Allah has promised its inheritance to His righteous people, and He has promised that Islam will prevail over other religions.
(3) The Qur’anic message is universal, and does not exclude any nation.
(4) The Islamic Ummah is a positive Ummah; it serves as a witness for other nations, promotes what is good and prevents what is evil.
(5) We should adopt the principle of being fair to non-Muslims.
(6) We should not prescribe to classifications such as “Dar Al Islam” and “Dar Al Harb.” There is no Qur’anic substantiation for these concepts. They are inapplicable to international relations in modern times.
(7) We should base our judgments on the general principles of Islam and its universal message.
(8) We should regard the presence of Muslims in any country as necessary and coinciding with the universal nature of Islam’s message.
(9) The contemporary world is borderless.
(10) Muslims can employ international agreements regarding human rights in the service of Islam. For example, Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Each individual has the right to participate in the management of public affairs either directly or indirectly.”
(11) Abiding by principles of justice is in accordance with such legislation, which itself is aligned with Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) Farewell Speech. We should utilize or participate in all activities that sustain justice. Political participation is one of those activities.
(12) We can benefit from looking at the experiences of the early Muslims – particularly, experiences such as their migration to Abyssinia.
(13) We should abandon passiveness, and strive to be positive and active members of society.
Peculiarities of the American Situation
The American situation involves special circumstances that need to be addressed in order to reach a conclusion regarding this issue:
(1) America is a nation composed of immigrant communities from all over the world. Its population is not limited to one ethnic or cultural group as is the case in most European countries, which often exclude ethnic minorities.
(2) America is still a young country; hence, it is open to the influences of Islam and Muslims. Its youthfulness provides Muslims with a huge opportunity to contribute to its growth.
(3) It is a country that constitutionally respects the right of all religious groups to exist, despite the shortcomings in the practice and enforcement of this right.
(4) Relatively speaking, Americans are typically less racist than people of many other nationalities because of their average higher intelligence and the country’s historical experience. This is particularly true of Protestants.
Based on these considerations, I have reached the following conclusions regarding the participation of Muslims in American politics:
I. First, it is incumbent upon Muslims to actively participate for the following reasons:
(1) In order to protect our rights as American citizens, we must be involved in politics.
(2) Our involvement can facilitate our support of our fellow Muslims around the world.
(3) Our interaction with non-Muslims and our involvement will help to spread Islam’s message.
(4) It helps to convey the universality of Islam.
Our participation is an obligation in Islam, and not merely “a right” that we can choose to forfeit at will.
It affords us the opportunity to protect our human rights, guarantee the fulfillment of our needs, and work for the improvement of living conditions for Muslims and non-Muslims in America and abroad.
II. Whatever helps us to achieve these noble goals becomes Islamically obligatory. This includes:
(1) Nominating qualified Muslims for public offices (as mayors, governors, Congress members, etc.) and supporting Muslim candidates in an effort to promote good and to forbid and prevent evil for the welfare of our society.
(2) Individual Muslims nominating themselves for such offices.
(3) Supporting (both politically and financially) those non-Muslim candidates whose beliefs and values are most compatible with ours as Muslims, and who most address and support our issues and causes.
(4) Pursuing American citizenship because it is the basis by which we can exercise our rights.
(5) Registering to vote and then voting. Although separate acts, they are both an essential part of the electoral process. Our participation in that process is mandatory.
Requirements for Implementing the Above
In order for American Muslims to obtain their full rights as citizens, exercise those rights in their entirety and be effectively involved in the American political system, we must:
(1) Consult with one another and come to a mutual agreement on the main principles of Islam, and excuse and overlook one another on our minor differences. The righteous companions of the Prophet set the example for this hundreds of years ago when they met to determine the best response to the situation necessitating their migration to Abyssinia.
(2) If we are concerned that our interaction with non-Muslims will lead to concessions that are not in accordance with Islam, we are in need of strengthening our belief, and enhancing our Islamic culture. Again, the refusal of the Companion, Jaf’ar Attyar, to cower down to Annajashi, King of Abyssinia, provides a good example of the possible outcomes of our faithfully professing and acting in accordance with our beliefs as Muslims.
(3) We are in need of being able to accurately and eloquently convey the message of Islam to non-Muslims. We must seek to practice the humanitarianism inherent in Islam, and to manifest its eternal values in the best manner, as Jaf’ar did in his speech before King Annajashi, when he stated the principles of Islam and explained the difference between Islam and darkness. In doing so, we will not only gain the support and cooperation of others, but we can influence them to follow the path of Islam.
(4) Muslims in America should become skillful in the arts of communication and public relations. Again, Jaf’ar’ provided an excellent example for us when he ended his speech to the king by saying, “We have come to your country. We have chosen you among kings; we seek out our neighbors, and we seek not to be dealt with unjustly.”
Objections Offered by Muslims to Political Involvement
The objections raised by Muslims to our political involvement can be classified into five points:
(1) Our participation is contrary to the principles of Islam – particularly, as it establishes loyalty to non-Muslims, which is prohibited in the Qur’an.
This is an inaccurate understanding of the prohibition of loyalty. The pragmatic aspect of a creed differs from the creed itself. Fair treatment of and cooperation with non-Muslims are not synonymous with loyalty. Rather, they are pragmatic methods for promoting good and fighting evil. As well, there is a distortion in the understanding of loyalty by some who expand its meaning to include cooperation. The type of loyalty the Qur’an warns against is that when a Muslim favors non-Muslims over Muslims in granting them love and support.
This issue is clarified in several Surah in the Qur’an. Allah (SWT) says in Surah 3:28, “O ye who believe! Take not for friends unbelievers rather than believers.” And in Surah 4:138-139, “To the hypocrites give the glad tidings that there is for them but a grievous penalty. Yea, to those who take for friends unbelievers rather than believers. Is it honor they seek among them? Nay, all honor is with Allah.”
In his explanation of these verses, Attabari said that they prohibit Muslims from being like non-Muslims in their morals and values, and from preferring non-Muslims over Muslims. He added that loyalty means supporting non-believers in their efforts against Muslims, such as spying on Muslim countries to the benefit of their rivals and enemies. This type of loyalty is at the expense of Muslims. There is a big difference between this and cooperation in the interests of Muslims and for our collective well-being.
(2) The second objection that is offered is that our participation is a kind of inclination towards non-Muslims, prohibited by the following Qur’anic verse (11:113): “And incline not to those who do wrong, or the fire will seize you; and ye have no protectors other than Allah, nor shall ye be helped.” According to this understanding, this verse would prohibit all types of cooperation with non-believers.
“Inclination” here means the acceptance and support of the Unbeliever’s actions. Attabari explains inclination as returning to disbelief, being loyal to Unbelievers, and accepting their behavior.
I don’t see any of these actions in political participation. They differ significantly from cooperating with non-Muslims for the sake of safeguarding our rights and protecting ourselves and our fellow Muslims from the injustices of Unbelievers, and from taking actions that may help non-Muslims find the right path.
(3) Some believe that our political participation helps to maintain the status quo in non-Muslim countries, and we are required to change the status quo rather than be a part of it. This is an upside-down understanding. It is the isolation and withdrawal of a society’s citizens from public life that leads to the maintenance of the status quo. Participation is an attempt to change such conditions. Our positive participation seeking to express Islam’s morals and values resists the status quo – not our boycotting elections and withdrawing from society.
(4) Participation within America’s political system will cause us to neglect working to establish an Islamic system. This objection encompasses two misinterpretations.
First, we have to consider two possible scenarios – one where Muslims are a majority, and the other where we are a minority. There is a great difference between the two situations. It is incumbent upon Muslims to establish the Islamic system in Muslim countries; however, it is not required when Muslims are a minority. Furthermore, it is logically inconceivable in America today. What is required is enhancing our presence through our active participation in public life, and working to strengthen our community and to Islamically influence others.
Then, we can consider the establishment of an Islamic system – a task that may take centuries. This has been the path of the prophets throughout history.
The second misinterpretation inherent in this objection is that it limits the definition of an Islamic system to the arena of politics; however, any activity that enhances the implementation of positive and moral values in our society should be promoted whether it is of a political nature or not. Activities that oppose crime, abortion, drugs, etc. are important, and they strengthen the good in society and work to prevent evil.
(5) Political participation contradicts the goal of residing only temporarily in a non-Muslim country. This objection is based on an inaccurate understanding of the historical concepts of “Dar Al Harb” (war) and “Dar As Silm” (peace), which, as mentioned earlier, do not apply to contemporary world affairs. It also contradicts history in that the first Muslim community was established in a place where the Prophet (SAW) and the Muslims had migrated temporarily. It was not established in the land of revelation, Mecca, but rather in Madinah.