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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Political Impact of Muslim-Americans

Nadia Hussain, political blogger and delegate, Democratic National Convention
Charlotte, NC
September 5, 2012


Democratic National Convention 

Ms. Hussain:  Thank you all very much for being here today.  I’m truly very honored that the State Department asked me to come in today to speak with all of you. I’ll just have some opening remarks.  The State Department told me to just talk about myself and then talk a little bit about Muslim participation and sort of what that means and my own personal role that I’ve played. 

I guess I’ll just talk about -- I’m a delegate.  I’m a delegate from California, District 13 under Congresswoman Barbara Lee.  I have not always been involved with the Democratic party.  I’m 28.  I’m still young.  But I will say that my interest in politics did come early.  I just didn’t know what it was called. 

I will actually go way back.  My mother’s grandfather used to politic with Gandhi.  There’s a quote that Gandhi said.  It goes like you need to be the change that you want to see in the world.  Something to that tune.  And the reason I bring that up is because my mother’s grandfather politicked with Gandhi he worked for the rights of everybody, regardless of their background back in South Asia at that time.  I think that’s how I live my life. 

I think I want to see the world change a certain way.  I want it to be more inclusive.  I think that quote really does drive what I do and the reason behind my interest in politics. 

My parents always told me, I was born in the United States.  My parents are immigrants from Bangladesh.  They always told me that I was really lucky to be here.  That in my country, Bangladesh is still a developing country.  There’s a lot of poverty.  That I was very lucky to have food, to have a home, to have a loving family, to have education.  And they always drove that point home.  That was just so important to them.   

So even as a little kid I always thought I need to help.  I need to help my community.  I need to do as much as I can to make the world a better place. 

Growing up, I didn’t actually know what politics was.  It sounded like something so high up there, something so disassociated from me.  But as I grew older I started seeing politics as a tool to make that change, to improve my community in the way I had always wanted to. In the way I wanted to as a child and continued to want to do as an adult. 

In terms of the Democratic party and being here at the Democratic National Convention, probably about a year is about, I joined the East Bay Young Democrats. It’s a Young Democrats Club in California.  And I became a chartering board member of the Black Young Democrats of the East Bay to help empower the black African American community in Oakland, California to be more civically engaged. 

Through that involvement, a fellow board member called me up one day.  I’d known the DNC was happening.  I knew that some people were running for delegates.  There was some on-line training.  But I just didn’t know.  I didn’t know if I could fund raise to make it here.  I didn’t even know what it meant to be a delegate.  And I didn’t know if I could make it, if I could really do it. 

So I wanted to do it but I wasn’t really sure. 

Then my friend Igor Tragev called me up. Igor is actually of Russian-Jewish background.  That’s his ancestry.  He reached out to me not because of my background, not because of just my name.  He saw me as a person that could make an impact.  He called me and he said Nadia, I really think you should do this.  I think you should be a delegate.  I would love to see you run.  We need more diversity in our delegation.  I think you could really bring a lot to the table.  That’s all I needed.  I needed a little push to just take that step and run to be a delegate. 

In April I ran.  I was elected to be a delegate from my congressional district and come here to the Democratic National Convention. 

So it’s been a great journey. I’m super excited to be here here.   

I’ll shift a little bit because that’s just my political journey.  How does that relate to the Muslim American participation and the political movement of Muslim Americans in this country? 

I grew up in a Muslim American family.  It’s been a part of my identity ever since I was born.  When I was running to be a delegate one of the main reasons I ran was because I did not see a lot of people that looked like me.  Even though the Democratic party is very diverse.  And as you’re seeing, we have an amazingly diverse delegation.  But I was South Asian, young woman, and a Muslim.  I just didn’t see that many people with a name like Hussain up there.  So that’s another reason why I wanted to go. I wanted to be that change, I wanted to see more Muslims, I wanted to see more South Asians there.  So you know what?  I’m here.  That’s why I ran. 

I’ve been doing a lot of work on advocacy with Muslim American civil rights groups.  Civic participation is definitely one of the most important aspects of that. 

Muslim participation in this country, it’s a newer immigration group overall, Muslim Americans.  And before September 11th there were some activities for Muslims to come together and become civically engaged.  September 11th really set that movement back by many years.  What’s happening now is in the past 11 years there hasn’t been as much Muslim American civic participation.  Even though Obama’s gotten a lot of support, like 70 to 80 percent, something like that, of Muslim American votes, but what I’m seeing now at this current state, and I’ll stop here after I just talk about the current state, is that this is really a rebuilding state. The last 11 years have been very challenging for the Muslim American community, especially when it comes to politics and civic engagement. I’m seeing, I think there are a hundred Muslim delegates that are here in the Democratic National Convention in 2012.  So I feel like it’s a seed that’s sprouting.  We’re growing again.  Everything sort of got raised to the ground a bit, and now it’s time to come back to fruition. 

So thank you very much.  That was my opening statement.  I don’t know if you want to talk or open it up for questions. 

Moderator:  Please wait for the microphone. 

Question:  I’m a reporter from Mexico with the Mexican News Agency, [inaudible]. 

My question is not about how people in the community see this election, but I’m interested in knowing how do you see the enthusiasm among young people in this election?  I gather you have a lot of interaction with other young people in California.  There has been a lot of talk that this year or for this election the enthusiasm that we saw among young people in 2008 won’t be the same.  So I would like to know what is your impression? 

Ms. Hussain:  Overall on young people’s involvement?  Like I said, I’m on the board, I’m part of an organization of young Democrats.  They’re under 35. So they’re very active. 

I think there is still a lot of energy in the youth vote to work with Obama.  There’s been a lot of press coverage of how oh, the energy is not exactly the same, 2008 was all about hope and what happened to all that?  I do think that things have shifted.  The first time around he was new, it was novel, it was this new exciting thing, and four years later I think things are going well.  That’s my personal opinion.  But there is going to be some dampening of energy just because it’s not the first time around. 

But I will say that I think -- So I think youth involvement has gone down.  That’s my opinion.  Compared to what it was in 2008.  I wasn’t as involved in 2008 as I am now so I might not be the best judge of the exact change.  But what I will say is judging from what I saw yesterday at the Democratic National Convention the young speakers, some like Julian Castro, I think there’s going to be some invigoration. I’m really excited to see what happens this week when the convention is over and we go back home.  Because I think the young people that we saw speaking on stage, the younger politicians, I think you might see an uplift actually amongst young people volunteering.  

Question:  How have you seen the role of Arab-Americans in elections change from 2008 until today? 

Ms. Hussain:  He asked how did Arab-American involvement change from 2008 to 2012 today. 

I’m not a representative from the Arab-American community.  That’s also a very diverse community.  From many different religious backgrounds and countries.  But from my feeling, I might be a little bit more, I’m well-versed about Muslim, but Muslim participation. 

I did mention there’s a statistic out there that the majority of Muslims that did vote in 2008 overwhelmingly voted in favor of Barack Obama.  But in terms of involvement, it really did seem a little quieter.  That’s what I said.  After September 11th happened there was a bit of a shift in this country where many Muslim Americans were made to feel that they just weren’t American, that they were suspect.  It was just all around them. 

I think when a community is faced with that kind of environment or that kind of perception, there’s a fear to  put yourself out there, when you don’t think you’ll be received positively.  I think in 2008 it was just not as active.  I didn’t hear that much about it honestly.  Btu this year, for example I’m part of a group called American Muslim Alliance, it’s actually one of the articles, I did a blog about it, that their goal was to get the same percentage of Muslim delegates into the Democratic National Convention as there were in the population.  So that would be about two percent. 

Right now, like I mentioned earlier, there’s 100 Muslim delegates, so I have really noticed a leap.  That to me is very promising in terms of the future of Muslim American civic involvement. 

Question:  I would like to ask you about the current economic situation, how will it play out for the Muslim community in terms of turnout in favor of Barack Obama come next November?  Thank you. 

Ms. Hussain:  Demographically a lot of the Muslim Americans in this country are shown to be doing economically well in terms of salary level, level of education.  That’s just in the statistics. 

I’ll be honest, I think that, and this is my opinion. I can only speak of my own experience.  I think that of course they care about the economy, but I think that Obama’s economic plan probably falls more in line with what a lot of people in the immigrant community agree with in terms of economic policy. 

Also some of the civil rights issues, I think that people feel, Muslim Americans feel that Democrats are more on their side.  They feel part of the Democratic party.  I think that’s going to be a bigger factor in voting as opposed to just more economics.  Honestly, the Republican party has isolated the Muslim community to such an extreme degree that I would say that support will overwhelmingly go to the Democrats, for those reasons I mentioned. 

Question:  I am from GeoNews, Pakistan. 

My question is, why the Muslims after post-9/11, were they traumatized?  That’s why they have shrunk?  Otherwise before 9/11 they were kind of an emerging community in the USA who were politically active and financially well.  What’s your view, what are the reasons? 

Second question is, don’t you think the community leadership in Bangladeshi community, in Pakistani community, in Arab Muslim community, they have not been because they belong to the affluent class, so they have not been able to cultivate and motivate the grassroots level of their own Muslim communities?  Thank you. 

Ms. Hussain:  You mentioned fear or intimidation, could that be a factor in the decrease of Muslim participation in the political sphere.  In American history whenever there’s been any kind of attack, there’s always been scapegoating of a group.  So yes, part of that is true.  I will say there has been, because of the fear that people felt that the Muslim world or Muslims were the enemy because of the September 11th attacks, because of extreme acts of people outside of this country.  It happened in this country but they were not Americans.  Because of what was happening abroad or what was brought into this country the domestic Muslim Americans suffered.  They were seen and treated with suspicion.  There were definitely some legislation that hurt some of the civil rights issues.  But not just that.  There was just, I think Americans in general felt this fear about the unknown, about the Muslim neighbors that they may never have really looked at. 

I think that if anybody feels they’re being made into a suspect they immediately feel like they need to draw back or shrink down.  I think that the community did feel that.  They felt a lot of resistance  They felt a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of fear.  So that was one of the reasons that September 11th really did impact the organizing very negatively.  It’s the remnants of that are still here today. 

In terms of, you were taking about community, in terms of the community leaders and leadership, it’s true that in the 1990s the community leaders were active.  I believe maybe nationally in the ‘90s 700, there were about 700 elected officials in different capacities who were Muslim American nationally.  And now I don’t think it’s because people are out of touch or leaders are out of touch. I think they’re rebuilding.  They’re slowly rebuilding.  There are amazing grassroots organizations that involve South Asians and Arab Americans and Muslim Americans who are making a lot of effort to get people involved and engaged, reaching out to communities, going to community centers, having townhall meetings where community members can come out and learn and be engaged and get some kind of civic education. 

So it’s a slow journey.  I think the leadership is being rebuilt.  I think people are slowly starting to step up.  But again, I think that people are rebuilding.  So you’re seeing us in the rebuilding process. 

Question:  I'm with a newspaper in Switzerland. 

As far as the Democratic party is concerned I have a question about the Israeli-Palestinian issue which is never a very easy issue to tackle within the party.  There has been a shift in the political platform of the Democratic party from saying that actually there’s an unshakeable relation to Israel and things like that, but on the other hand now you damper a little bit the whole story saying that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. 

How do you see this issue within the Democratic party?  Obviously there’s an uneasy relation to this issue. 

Secondly, how is it perceived maybe among Muslim Americans? 

Ms. Hussain:  I agree, it’s a very complicated issue.  It’s a very longstanding issue. 

I will say that since that doesn’t relate as directly to the civic participation I don’t think that I’m well equipped to answer it.  I will just say that I know it’s a very difficult issue and one that will keep playing on, unfortunately.  But it’s not one that I can really speak to in terms of civic participation. 

Question:  Thank you.  Joyce Karam with al-Hayat Newspaper. 

I had met in Tampa some Muslim Republicans who actually voiced concerns about social issues in the Democratic party -- abortion, gay rights, other issues.  How do you reconcile your positions with the Muslim community with what the Democrats are adopting today? 

Ms. Hussain:  Do you mean me personally or the Muslim community? 

Question:  Both. 

Ms. Hussain:  I know that me personally, the views that I hold I’ve always held.  For me they’ve never come in conflict with my Muslim beliefs at all.  So I’ve had no problem supporting the Democratic party and the platform that they have on social issues. 

In the ‘90s there is actually a lot more Muslims voting Republican.  Bush actually got, George W. Bush in 2000 when he ran got an overwhelming amount of support from the Muslim community.  Most Muslims voted Republican that year.  In fact in Florida tens of thousands of Muslims voted for George W. Bush which very well, may have caused him to win the election.  As you know, Florida was won by about 500 votes. 

But in terms of -- The reasons for that are that many Muslims identified with the social, some of the social conservatism and therefore they felt comfortable supporting the Republican party. 

A lot has changed since that time.  We keep going back to September 11th because it’s sort of like when the world cracked.  Many things sort of cracked.  The vibrations of that were felt for so long.  The demonization of the Muslim community, which were done very harshly by many members and elected officials in the Republican party, candidates in the Republican party, and you could see this recently.  Just open the news and you’ll see it even a month ago with Michelle Bachman.  That Muslims feel like their interests are being served by the Democratic party. 

Individually, they might have their views on certain social issues, but at this point I think that the civil rights, the acceptance of Muslims into the Democratic fold is trumping, is perhaps trumping that.  I have not seen a lot of Muslim American Republicans at this point. 

Question:  Can you say anything about the language the GOP uses?  Romney used it in describing terrorism.  He did call it Islamic terrorism.  Is that an issue for Muslim Americans? 

Ms. Hussain:  Rhetoric is always an issue.  Think about, and you all work in media.  We are inundated by messaging advertising in media.  Media is everywhere.  It’s social media, it’s TV media, it’s print media.  It’s everywhere. 

So when rhetoric is repeated over and over again, directed in one direction, it really impacts social situations. I really believe so. 

So when terms like Islamic terrorists or just Michelle Bachman saying these comments about members of, high level members of the Democratic party and elected officials.  When people start using these negative terms, or perhaps even misleading terms, the effects of that really, really ripple outward.  It affects the community.  I really hope that changes.  That is very damaging to the way Muslim Americans are perceived and treated in this country. 

Question:  Anskar Graw from the German Newspaper Die Welt. 

Regarding your last answer, what would you have recommended if the Republican party would have asked you how to describe this kind of terrorism?  Because I think only to say we have to fight against terrorism or there has been a terrorist somewhere would be a little bit too less specific.  What would you have recommended how to describe this kind of terrorism? 

Ms. Hussain:  Just call it terrorism.  That’s what it is.  It’s terrorism.  That’s really all I have to say about that.  Call it terrorism, or talk about a region.  Maybe name a country.  But attaching a religion to it every single time you mention that word, it just makes people think that’s what the religion is.  And so I say, just say terrorism.  I don’t see why you have to add a religion to it. 

Question:  Just to follow up, but don’t you think for example our readers, our listeners wouldn’t have asked about the background of this kind of terrorism?  So at some point you have to explain what kind of terrorism is it.  Just to say there was a terrorist, there was a terrorist attack, I think it’s not enough. 

Ms. Hussain:  For example, the attack that happened in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that was considered a domestic terrorism act.  Domestic terrorism.  And they did say oh, he was a White Supremacist, but I never heard someone say oh, he’s a Christian terrorist.  Or he’s a white terrorist.  Were readers not concerned?  Did they think why didn’t they say white terrorist?  Why are they not more specific about what kind of terrorist he is?  I’m just saying that in terms of -- That makes you really think about what it means, the message.  I think that’s more about messaging than about detail.

Moderator:  If there are no final questions, this event is now concluded. 


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