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For Muslim politicians, running for office is the American way

By Assia Boundaoui, Special to CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dozens of Muslims are active in the U.S. political process, running for and winning offices
  • In Chicago, Project Mobilize helps Muslim Americans seek elective office
  • Keith Ellison, first Muslim American in Congress, wept as he pleaded for justice at hearing
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Editor's note: CNN's Soledad O'Brien chronicles the fight over a mosque's construction in the heart of the Bible Belt. "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET.

Chicago (CNN) -- Rola Othman sits at her dining room table littered with papers, poring over school board minutes.

She's anxiously preparing to speak at the Reavis High School District 220 board meeting in Chicago's southwest suburbs, where 11 teachers are about to be laid off.

And she has had enough.

Othman, a mother of two, is pursuing a doctorate in education. She says that when her son's school cut Advanced Placement classes and slashed the budget for academic programming, it was time to act.

"I see my kid's school going in the opposite direction, it's kind of scary. You can only make calls for so long," she said. "You need to effect change by being in the place to make decisions."

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For Othman, that means running for the school board in her hometown of Burbank, Illinois. If elected, she would become the only Muslim American school board member in Illinois.

Stepping up for elective office

Othman is one of seven Muslim Americans running in Chicago-area municipal elections April 5. Five of the seven candidates are women, and all are the first Muslims to run for a seat in their respective races.

Across the country, dozens of Muslims have actively engaged in the American political process, running for -- and winning -- elected offices. From a mayor in New Jersey; to state representatives in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Maryland and Missouri; to congressmen in Minnesota and Indiana, American politicians from the Muslim faith are increasingly in political positions.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, was elected in 2006 and is one of two Muslim Americans in Congress. (The other is Indiana's Andre Carson, a Democrat elected in 2008.) Ellison broke down in tears this month during hearings investigating the possible radicalization of Muslims in America, sponsored by Republican Rep. Peter King of New York.

"We've seen the consequences of anti-Muslim hate," Ellison explained as he wept at the hearings. "The best defense against extreme ideologies is social inclusion and civic engagement."

All politics are local

In Chicago, while Muslims have been active in voter registration, Othman and other candidates like her are part of the first organized effort to prepare and mobilize Muslims to run for political office.

Project Mobilize is a nonprofit organization with the mission of developing the political potential of the Muslim community in Chicago's southwest suburbs.

Launched last spring, it is the first professional political action organization that focuses on the grass-roots political empowerment and engagement of American Muslims through local politics.

Executive Director Reema Ahmed says that Muslim candidates running for public office is a natural next step.

"For the past 20 years, the Muslim American community here has gone from learning about what it means to be a citizen, to registering to vote, to going out on election day. The natural trend of any community is to become more and more involved and seek to give back."

More than 400,000 Muslim Americans live in the Chicago area. In the city's southwest suburbs, in the 10 precincts surrounding one of largest mosques in the country, 20% of the registered voters are Muslim. But only one Muslim is in local office in this area.

But do they vote?

While a growing number of American Muslims are running, and winning elections nationwide, Muslim American have the lowest percentage of registered voters of all American religious groups, according to a 2009 Gallup Poll.

Safaa Zarzour, who is a board member at Project Mobilize and the first Muslim commissioner of the Bridgeview Park District in Illinois, stresses the importance of Muslims running for political office, despite low political participation.

"Getting the community to register and vote is tied to that community seeing people on the ballot that it's familiar with and that it believes will represent its stand on issues. As successes happen, people will be encouraged to be a part of the system."

Beyond identity politics

Rep. Ellison of Minnesota is a virtual celebrity in the Muslim American community, and he is a prominent member of Congress. But he insists that religious identity should not be the most important factor for a candidate.

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"I hope people in the Muslim community run for office, and I hope that they vote, and I also hope that they make a case to the voters, that they reach out on a broad basis, not just on the basis of faith or identity or nationality. It can't all be identity politics. At some point, we got to ask, 'What is your program, and if I vote for you, what do I get?' "

That is why Lina Zayed is running for a seat on the school board in her local district. She insists voters should elect her not because of her religious identity, but because of her credentials.

"I'm just an average person who is out there running to help improve my community ... and who just happens to be a Muslim," Zayed said. "I want a better education for my children, my neighbor's children, my community's children."

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But regardless of whether elected officials like Ellison and candidates like Zayed wish to be identified beyond their religious beliefs, their faith has been increasingly in the national spotlight.

Getting involved a 'good thing'

Rep. King's recent congressional hearings, which drew much heat, focused on the radicalization of American Muslims. Forty percent of Americans associate Muslims and the Islamic faith with violence, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

"I don't know if the community has been cooperative and come forward," King said, "but as I've said, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are good people. The more they can get involved, can bring more and more Muslims into the mainstream, that is a good thing."

Zarzour, the Muslim commissioner, believes this political climate ignores American Muslims who have positively integrated into the U.S. political fabric.

"The fact is that Muslims continue to grow in numbers and are now a tangible and visible part of society. The only way for us to continue to be a prosperous society, as America, is to bring this new group into the mainstream, into the political process."

For Reema Ahmad, executive director of Project Mobilize, the focus remains local. Her goal is to get the Muslim candidates they are supporting into office. She feels the elections in the Chicago-area suburbs in April will be just the beginning.

"If they don't win, it'll be the first step towards getting more and more individuals from the Muslim community involved," Ahmad said. "We're not going away. It's not about making a political statement, its about getting involved in the political process. It's a journey, and we're just starting out here."

CNN's Alicia Stewart contributed to this report.

 
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