Our outreach and civic engagement efforts should be an integral part of our fulfillment of the divine mission and should aim at serving the greater good. Although we do need some institutions to empower people, civic engagement shouldn’t be left to institutions—or to the few individuals who are passionate about it. Rather, all members of our community should be encouraged and empowered to reach out to people around them and to volunteer and support good causes. We should also engage our local governments and communicate with the media and religious institutions and participate in civic society.
Because our community’s isolation has been reinforced for so long, a considerable degree of work is needed to affect a paradigm shift. We need to move (1) from protective isolationism to empowered integration and civic engagement, and (2) from the concept of outreach as a controversial religious matter or a necessary burden for the few toward a new realization that civic engagement is a religious and civic duty for everyone and the thrust of the divine mission.
Civic engagement is the best translation of the concept of enjoining that which is good and forbidding that which is evil, a concept that encapsulates the defining mission and characteristic of the community of believers. Combined, the three processes should constitute the fulcrum of the life of the mission-driven and compassionate patriot. Through these three processes, we better ourselves, our people, and our country. Thus, we fulfill the divine purpose, and that is the way to seek God’s pleasure and rewards. There is hardly anything that has more (direct) effect on society and hardly anything that is a better indicator of societal health than the level of civic awareness, concern, and engagement of a nation’s citizenry.
Our approach to civic engagement calls for direct, genuine, mainstream, and consistent engagement with our sociopolitical environment so that we can uphold the best interests of our country at all levels (local, state, national). This civic engagement is divided into two main branches: (1) charitable work to help the victims of unfair and/or unsound policies and also to help the victims of both natural and man-made disasters and (2) advocacy work to reform unfair and/or unsound policies and to hold public officials accountable.
The first type of engagement, charitable work to help victims of natural or man-made disasters, is a manifestation of the great emphasis that Islam places on charity, and it allows us to put our concern and compassion for others to work. A culture of giving (time, money, and expertise) toward the greater good must be instituted within our community. To be sure, such a culture already exists in our community, but it is neither widespread nor consistent. Plus, our charity efforts are either confined to our own community (mosques, schools, Muslim organizations) or overseas (relief work). That’s why we believe that our charity efforts need a lot of reinforcement and tweaking to focus on the well-being of the society at large, including our community.
The second type of civic engagement, advocacy work to improve policies and hold officials accountable, will have a great bearing on the political climate of our society. By advocacy, we mean making connections with different components of our environment and society at large (politics, media, religious/civic groups) to positively influence policies, social norms, and public opinion. Indeed, the more active our citizens are, the more responsive and responsible the political arena will be. In turn, a more positive political climate encourages more participation from citizens. The opposite is also true and is, unfortunately, indicative of the current state of our society. Here is the good news: what has spiraled downward can now spiral upward.
For all those reasons, civic engagement constitutes the main thrust of the paradigm that we are trying to restore. It is the reflection and translation of our commitment to Islam as a reform mission and to America as a homeland, and it is where the two commitments converge. The more genuine and solid our commitments are, the more passionate, intensive, and consistent our civic engagement will be.
Indeed, our civic engagement rests on rock-solid religious and civic bases that are fused together, compelling us religiously and patriotically to faithfully serve our country and our people, day in and day out. The central idea backing it must be a firm belief that the more we contribute to a better America, the more pleased God will be with us and the better will be our present and future—both as individuals and as a community.
Because civic engagement is one of the noble Islamic concepts, it is important to clearly the main characteristics of the civic engagement that we are advocating:
- Genuine: It must be driven by a genuine concern for the well-being of our country and our people.
- Mainstream: It must be an engagement within mainstream America.
- Direct: As faithful citizens, we should be directly engaged with mainstream civic institutions that work on behalf of all citizens, not just with Muslim institutions that work only on behalf of Muslims.
- About giving not gaining: Our civic engagement will focus on what we can contribute to society, not what we can get from it.
- Proactive, systematic, and consistent: Our efforts must not be reactionary or seasonal.
- Islam inspired and principled, but also civic and pragmatic: Our platform and our positions will be informed by our faith and principles, but they will be expressed using purely civic language. We will seek what is possible, not what is desired but untenable.
- Supportive of liberty and justice for all: We will uphold the constitutional guarantee of liberty and justice for all.
- Results Driven: Our civic engagement will be results driven—not ceremonial or aimed at showcasing ourselves.
- Coalition based: Because of the nature of American society and the U.S. political system, few agendas or campaigns come to fruition without a reasonably broad coalition backing them. Therefore, in our civic engagement, we will actively seek to join and build coalitions in order to advocate our positions.
- Country focused and issue oriented: In our civic engagement, our focus will be on what is best for America and its future. In pursuing the best interests of America, we will be bound only by our values, by the law (American and international), and by our concern for human welfare. Being country-focused will automatically make us issue oriented. Advocating issues is not about supporting or opposing people or parties or groups. Indeed, in deciding whom to support, whom to oppose, or whom to work with, our focus will be on what is best for America.
- Focused on local and pertinent issues: Currently, most Muslim Americans are well informed about international issues. They spend quite a lot of time following and talking about those issues without doing much about them, except for making occasional contributions to relief efforts and/or participating in protest activities. Only a very few Muslim Americans are interested, much less involved, in domestic, state, or local issues—especially when those issues don’t directly affect our community. We want to reverse this paradigm because “all politics are local.” All of us should focus the bulk of our efforts on engaging the system and the players (public officials, media, political parties, civic/religious groups) in our districts, cities, states, and nation. The bottom-up approach is not just the natural way, but it is also the only way to effect significant and sustained (short-term and long-term) impact.
- Focused on the urgent while building momentum for what is important: We are not a special-interest group. Therefore, in our civic engagement, we should encourage people to do their best to be informed about all issues while becoming involved (as they see fit) in those issues that are of high priority. In addition to giving precedence to local issues, we should try to be in sync with national concerns and aware of public opinion. And while we should always give priority to issues that have the greatest impact on the nation’s well-being and future, it is critical that we maintain a balance between short-term and long-term interests and between what is chronically important and what is urgently pressing.