On Tuesday, July 5, 2011, the Muslim Public Service Fellows had the pleasure to talk with Suhail Khan, who is currently a senior fellow for Christian-Muslim Understanding at the Institute for Global Engagement. He joined us with a long history of public service in Washington, having served as policy director and press secretary for congressmen Tom Campbell, in the White House Office of Public Liaison during the Bush administration, and on various boards including the American Conservative Union, Islamic Free Market Institute, Indian American Republican Council, and the Muslim Public Service Network.
Speaker: Suhail Khan
"Situating American Muslim Communities in a National Context: Interfaith partnerships and Collaborations "
On Tuesday, July 5, 2011, the Muslim Public Service Fellows had the pleasure to talk with Suhail Khan, who is currently a senior fellow for Christian-Muslim Understanding at the Institute for Global Engagement. He joined us with a long history of public service in Washington, having served as policy director and press secretary for congressmen Tom Campbell , in the White House Office of Public Liaison during the Bush administration, and on various boards including the American Conservative Union, Islamic Free Market Institute, Indian American Republican Council, and the Muslim Public Service Network.
Speaking of his path into public service and his role during the ebb and flow of Washington, Suhail Khan described how his convictions and values as a Muslim sparked his ambition in politics, love of the constitution, and approach to bridge-building. Before entering politics, Mr. Khan recalled, his father had told him, “The moment you feel like you will compromise your Islam, come back.” He has never turned back. A proponent of strong social values and small government, he described how he took an initiative analyzing the legalities (as well as its impact on the Muslim community) of the 1995 Counter-terrorism Act which was enacted during the Clinton administration. This act expanded government and in ways impinged on personal privacy, years before the Patriot Act was even conceived. He described how social and fiscal conservatism bound Muslim-Americans to the Republican party, and how President George W Bush remained the first president and presidential candidate to visit a mosque and openly reach out to the Muslim community. President Obama and candidate Al Gore, he explained, did not extend a hand on their campaign trails. In fact, with 76% of the Muslim community voting for George W Bush in 2000, with 42,000 votes in Florida alone, it is even likely that Muslims gave Bush the presidency, he explained. Yet, with the Iraq war and growing Islamophobia on the political right, many Muslims have effectively switched camps and in 2008, voted overwhelmingly for Obama.
Thus, where Suhail Khan would have once been one of many Republican Muslim-Americans, today, he has become one of the few. Mr. Khan has stood by his convictions and continues to build bridges by working with Republicans and engaging with the political right. This is incredibly important work for one has to engage with constituents on the right, whether secular or religious, to build mutual understanding, peace, cohesion, and unity as Americans. I too remember identifying with the Republican party at one point for the sense of values and their sense of adherence to the constitution. However, for many Muslims, the growing Islamophobia that has come to dominate rhetoric in circles affiliated political right has become a frightening phenomenon to say the least. Though we hope the discrimination and misunderstanding will certainly end, (Muslims will have to get much better at engaging with rather than ignoring those who are most critical of us for this to happen, as Mr. Khan has done), the Muslim push to the left may be a lasting one.
This remains a personal opinion, but it cannot be denied that the past ten years have certainly been defining ones for the Muslim-American community. We have gone from a community which was barely on the political radar to being constantly engaged at both the local and national levels. Our profile, for better or worse, has been heightened, and we have been pushed to define ourselves in a new way as part of the fabric of American society. Though a vague sense of values on issues like abortion or traditional marriage defines many Muslims who continue to identify as conservatives, by being pushed to (and then welcomed by) the political left many people in the younger generation have been exposed to new ideas and insights which will likely affect how they view their faith and politics for some time to come.
Islam, like many faith traditions, has a strong sense of social justice, and when otherwise socially conservative youth like myself were pushed to the left, it was a friendship that was just waiting to happen. My eyes were opened to the social inequities which pervade our country, of injustices which need to be corrected, and values which needed to be upheld. The plight of the socioeconomically depressed, the environment, the marginalized segments of society could not be ignored. They came to our aid in times of need, and we must return the favor. Justice, peace, love, and dare I say faith demand it. Muslim-American youth today certainly seem very socially minded, and this can only be a good thing. Though the community is hardly a monolith and will continue to change and harbor a myriad of views, perhaps it will take a direction similar to that of the Catholic community which often emphasizes social empowerment of the poor, but also stays true to its values. Engagement certainly has to get better on all sides though, and bridges will continue to have to be built for relations to normalize and unity to be restored.