An American Muslim’s experience with democracy

Posted on October 24, 2008

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About a decade and a half ago, I ran for the office of state assemblyman in District 31 of Nevada.   My first name Rafik did not sit well with some, and one of my advisors (who happened to be a state assemblyman then) suggested that I change my name to “Rocko Beekun” from “Rafik Beekun”.  I refused stating that if voters could not vote for me on the basis of what I could bring to the state, then I did not want their vote.  Another person told me that I would not win because I was of “the wrong religion, the wrong sex and the wrong color”.   Several people slammed the door in my face when I walked my precincts. A sign I had just put up was even torn up in front of me.  At one point, I was threatened by the campaign director of one of my opponents.  At the same time, the Muslim community itself in my area looked down on me, giving me very little help.  Nevertheless, what gave me hope was that many day-to-day people welcomed me, walked for me, put up signs for me, and donated to my campaign.  My campaign manager was the grand daughter of a former US Congresswoman, and worked tirelessly on my campaign for free. In spite of all that I went through and my eventual defeat in the general elections (I came in second),  I enjoyed the whole process, especially walking each precinct in my district and talking to people about the issues that were on their mind.  To this day,  I can still remember some of the wonderful people I met, and what we talked about.    The democratic process works, but it works even better when one participates in it, and when it includes everybody as our founding fathers wished it to be.  The following article by Nafeez Syed resonates with what I experienced.

Rafik Beekun

Candidates should seek votes of American Muslims

Nafeez Syed, special to CNN

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) — During this election, we have seen the spectacle of two presidential candidates fighting over one voter while snubbing an entire segment of the American population worthy of their attention.

We in the Muslim-American community look wistfully at people like Joe the Plumber, wishing that we too could be courted for our vote by the presidential candidates.

At the same time, we look gratefully at figures like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who reassure us that there is hope for greater acceptance of Muslim-Americans.

Over time, we grew to expect standoffish treatment from the Republican Party. Almost a decade ago, many Muslims, my parents included, supported President Bush for his humble foreign policy stances, strong family values and reaching out to the Muslim-American community.

Things have obviously changed since September 11, 2001, and we have grown used to anti-Muslim rhetoric from Republican candidates. We have run like refugees to the Democratic Party, only to find reluctant tolerance and hope that we will go somewhere else.

American civil rights activist and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “[The American Negro] simply wishes it possible to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly on his face.”

Over a century later, I and many other Muslim-Americans feel the same, hoping that we can be accepted in America as both Muslims and Americans.

As a college student voting in my first presidential election, I have been inspired by Barack Obama’s call for change. My campus is full of Obama posters, and several of my classmates have taken time off to work for his campaign.

There is no doubt Obama has the Harvard vote, but my vote will not be cast as enthusiastically as others.

This campaign means to me what it means for my classmates. In the next few years, the economy and American foreign policy will affect my generation unlike any other, and those concerns are the primary influences on my vote.

However, as a Muslim-American, I see some issues as more personal. I don’t blame Obama for clarifying that he isn’t a Muslim; if someone misidentified my religion, I would likewise point out the facts, especially if it was part of a larger smear campaign. However, as the first Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison stated, “A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim, by the way.”

Indeed, Obama’s responses to accusations that he is Muslim should be more than just denial; they should be a condemnation of the prejudices that lace such accusations.

When I discuss this issue with fellow Muslim-Americans, especially ones who have dedicated significant time to his campaign, I immediately hear that he’s just doing what he needs to do to win.

I respond skeptically to these arguments. Is it really politically necessary for Obama to avoid visiting mosques — something that President Bush has dared to do — while rallying support from churches and synagogues? Doesn’t his careful distance from the Muslim-American community contradict his message of unity?

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