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New America NYC: The Politics of Islam in America

Elections, Extremism, and Islamophobia


National Security Studies Program Research Fellow Haroon Moghul reports on event's highlights:

There are some 600-800,000 Muslims in New York City; close to 1 in 10 New Yorkers is a Muslim.  The public school system in turn is about 12 percent Muslim.  Those numbers might make it seem like New York's incredibly diverse Muslim population would wield power in the political arena.  But events in the last few years have soured expectations among many New York Muslims about their place in city politics.  In that way, New York mirrors America.

Last night, New America NYC brought together three panelists for discussion about the American Muslim community's political affiliations, its relationship to the Democratic and Republican parties, and challenges to civic and political engagement.  

Zeba Khan, the director of fellowships at the Op-Ed Project, spoke to the surprising intersections between religious and civic engagement—more religiously observant Muslims were more likely to vote, and more likely to vote Democratic. Jennifer Bryson, director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute, pointed to a growing divide on the right over the wisdom of anti-Shariah initiatives and the often overlooked presence of politically conservative Muslims.  And, finally, Linda Sarsour, national advocacy director for the National Network for Arab American Communities, shared the difficulties in organizing Muslim communities in New York and nationally.

Khan and Sarsour discussed the increasing sophistication of American Muslims in the political arena, alongside political resistance that has spiked in the past several years.  Sarsour highlighted  the rise of anti-Shariah initiatives at the state level (roughly twenty states have seen proposals to ban Shariah law) and noted that Muslims are often treated collectively as a racial or ethnic group, rather than as a religious community. Khan pointed out that the level of enthusiasm American Muslims had for then-candidate Obama in 2008 has tapered off.  But perhaps the more intriguing discussion between the panelists considered where American Muslims might be in a decade or two, and whether they would affiliate with the right or the left.

Bryson noted that in the 1950’s and 1960’s, conservative Catholics sided with strongly secular forces  to dislodge a Protestant religious hegemony in public schools.  In Bryson’s opinion, this was a pyrrhic victory: While it opened space for Catholics in American institutions, it undercut the viability of religious expression in the public sphere more generally.   Bryson believes American Muslims were in danger of making this same mistake, as since the 2008 election especially, they allied in the short-term with progressive and liberal forces that in the long-run would be intolerant of Muslim religious sentiment
Sarsour strongly disagreed, noting that American Muslims had found consistent – and lasting- allies among the LGBTQ and progressive communities. As Sarsour described it, far-left and liberal institutions were the first to defend Muslims in the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy, and American Muslims were too badly burned by the Republican Party to seriously consider going back.  Sarsour said American Muslims could balance generally more conservative social and cultural sentiments with a progressive civil rights agenda. She also pointed to rising awareness of common struggles around immigration, police misconduct, race, and social and gender inequality among younger American Muslim leaders.



Founder, American Muslims for Obama (2008)


National Advocacy Director, National Network for Arab American Communities


Director, Islam and Civil Society Project
The Witherspoon Institute


Research Fellow, National Security Studies Program, New America Foundation
Associate Editor, Religion Dispatches

Event Time and Location

Thursday, June 21, 2012 - 6:30pm - 8:15pm
New America NYC
199 Lafayette Street Suite 3B
New York, NY 10012

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