In his powerful and propulsive speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia last week, former President Bill Clinton made a compelling case for Hillary Clinton’s presidency.
As a Muslim American, however, I was most captivated when he said, “If you are a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.”
I heard in those words a blueprint for action that has been missing in the discourse of Muslim Americans. If we can act on this blueprint in this consequential election year, it can empower us to control our destiny and help shape the destiny of our country.
The first order of business for us is to stop wallowing in self-pity.
We cannot help Democrats win and make a future together – the overwhelming majority of the registered voters among the 3 million Muslim Americans are Democrats – if we waste time collecting grievances. Yes, Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from coming to America. Yes, Newt Gingrich wants to “test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in Sharia they should be deported.”
But for every Trump and Gingrich, there are many more politicians and our fellow-Americans who condemn their bigotry and xenophobia and offer their support for us.
Unfortunately, by focusing more on the former and less on the latter, many of us assume the default mode of passivity. For many Muslim Americans, political activism begins and ends with making an occasional subversive post on social media. It is time we realized that keyboard warriors rarely accomplish anything, while grassroots activists accomplish much, even if at a great cost.
I found it telling that at the DNC, many speakers, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, quoted and alluded to Theodore Roosevelt: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who does actually strive to do the deeds … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Muslim Americans must refuse to be timid souls (a synonym for grievance collectors) and fence-sitters during this election year and throw themselves whole-heartedly into the arena.
This demands that we engage in the kind of activism that can be cathartic for us and transformational for our country.
This also means that we must do whatever it takes to help Hillary Clinton become the President of the United States even if we have serious disagreements with her on serious issues, because the alternative is too nightmarish to contemplate.
We cannot just talk the talk. We must also walk the walk. Literally. We have to walk the precincts. We have to knock on doors. We have to work the phones. We have to register unregistered voters and organize rallies. We have to train ourselves to be articulate in making the case for our candidate. There are lots of undecided voters out there who can have a disproportionately large impact on the outcome of this election. If each one of us commit to convincing only one undecided or apathetic voter into voting for Hillary Clinton, we can not only help her win, we can also change our mindset about our ability to make our society more inclusive and just.
In today’s America, it is tough to be a Muslim American. Anti-Muslim sentiments, promoted by Donald Trump and his likes, continue to frustrate and frighten some of us. We are numbed by the terrorism of Muslims who give our religion a black eye. Think of the mass killings by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas (2009), Tsarnaev Brothers at Boston (2013), Mohammed Abdulazeez at Chattanooga, Tennessee (2015), the Muslim Bonnie-and-Clyde-duo of Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Mailk at San Bernardino, California (2015), and Omar Mateen at Orlando, Florida (2016).
But we cannot use these horrific events as an excuse to sit on the sidelines and watch a demagogue tear apart the social fabric of our country. For inspiration, we need look no further than Khizr Khan, father of Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty, who challenged Donald Trump at the DNC to read the U.S. Constitution and understand the meaning of words like ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’ By a singularly symbolic act, he showed how a Muslim American can influence countless hearts and minds across our nation and around the world.
Hasan ZIlur Rahim is a professor of Mathematics at San Jose City College. He emigrated from Bangladesh to the U.S. four decades ago.