Muslim American Vote Post ’08. A Chaplain’s Challenge

By Gina Hotta

He was hooded and arrested. He was detained and charged with espionage. His family and financial records were put under surveillance. Yet he received overwhelming support to become a delegate at the Democratic National Convention from the State of Washington. James Yee is the former Muslim Chaplin at Guantanamo Bay and he wants people to know that they can make a difference.

A Barack Obama supporter, Yee is also a 3rd generation Chinese American. “I’m trying to be an example for other people within the Muslim and Asian American communities. If they see me having a positive impact, people can also be inspired as well. I want that to happen.” Towards this end, he was on a speaking tour that ended up at the University of California, Berkeley at Boalt Hall Law School.

Yee has a seriousness about him that underscores the kind grit and determination he must have used to endure his ordeal that started at Guantanamo Bay. He’ll need these same qualities to realize his mission. In Election 2008 where an African American man’s audacious dream was realized, it was also said that no one wanted the Muslim American vote.

Across campus in Barrows Hall on the same day of Yee’s speaking engagement, a panel was held about the American Muslim electorate. Addressing a full house, panelist Agha Saeed of the American Muslim Alliance explains that since 1996, meetings have taken place with many mainstream politicians. Since then, an agenda was put forth with a focus on civil rights that will also increase the public good, bring about global peace and justice, stop the war and improve relations between the US and Muslim world. Another result of their efforts is that there is support for Muslim American concerns among some prominent political figures. However, this support has been in private. For the most part Muslim Americans are seen as foreigners who carry a stigma that taints politicians who too visibly have their support.

Panelist Munir Jiwa also talks about this silencing of the Muslim American voice. Jiwa, the director of the Center for Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, says that for some, this silence is self-imposed out of fear. For others, it is a strategic self-silencing that in Election ’08 was done to help Barack Obama’s candidacy. For his opposition to the war and for his stands on social welfare and civil liberties, Obama gained popularity among Muslim Americans. Yet the mainstream mantra of claiming Christianity contained Obama to the point to where it took General Colin Powell, a mostly Republican supporter, to ask the question: what’s wrong with being a Muslim or a seven-year old Muslim who wants to be president?

But, as Americans see their life savings go up in smoke, issues of civil liberties are on the back-burner. This is another reason why Chaplin Yee went on tour. Up at Boalt Hall, Yee said he wants to bring issues of torture and human rights to the fore. “Violating our rights, eroding our civil liberties doesn’t make us safer. Developed nations have the ability to both increase protections of civil liberties as well as national security simultaneously. So when you hear this rhetoric that you’ve got to sacrifice one for the other, we should never buy that.”

Charges against Yee were eventually dismissed and he received an award for outstanding military service. But shortly after his arrest, Yee was put in solitary confinement, something he saw done to break prisoners at Gitmo.

And breaking the isolation and silence surrounding Muslim American narratives remain after Election 2008. Their stories of work in US fields and auto factories, of business owners both large and small, and of the pain of false accusations after 9-11 will still need to be told. The task of breaking stereotypes surrounding people with names like “Hussein”, who are brown-skinned and who wear a head-covering, use rifles and (like Sarah Palin) shoot moose, will still need to be tackled.

Yet perhaps the answers to these questions are found in public discussions and speaking tours like Yee’s and the panel at the University of California. These public platforms are needed now more than ever before. As state surveillance occur with greater frequency, as racial profiling has grown to include people who fit the stereotype of Arabs and Muslims, as immigrants become more suspect, and as the word “socialist” is spoken like an epithet, more stories and lessons must be told that inspire people to up-hold justice and equality for all.

But the hardest step is the first one. It is the courage of a few from the targeted communities to step-up and speak out. Some sixty years ago Japanese in America were incarcerated during World War II. The silence and denial that followed was crippling until Japanese American activists began one-on-one organizing. This led to public government commission hearings on the role of race and wartime hysteria that led to the internment of Japanese Americans. In 2001, this same community came out very publicly to support people who were experiencing a similar situation after September 11th. And more people joined in to form a very loose network that could help make a space for these hidden narratives and figure out how to bring these into the public discourse.

Now those first difficult steps are being taken. The unprecedented election to congress of two Muslims who are also African American (and yes, even the ground-breaking presidency of a man whose name is Barack Hussein), is a reflection in part of Muslim America’s strength. And, on his speaking tour, Chaplain Yee spoke to Muslims, Christians, Asian Americans, and leaders from various communities.

Yee asks one more question. “Why can’t our universities and colleges step-up to educate? Schools should have an Islamic Studies program to provide accurate information. We have Ethnic Studies, American Studies and all these departments can educate the community.” Election ’08 has opened a door that can’t be closed. It has paved the way to a point where, hopefully, someday soon the question, “who wants the Muslim American vote”, won’t be one that needs asking.

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