Houston councilman predicts there will be a Muslim U.S. president
Washington – Houston City Councilman M.J. Khan, a Muslim American originally from Pakistan, answered questions sent from journalists and students in Morocco, India, Sri Lanka and Liberia about his political career and about Muslims’ growing political involvement in the United States.
“My election was significant in the fact that I come from a different culture, a different background, a different religion, and yet people voted for me,” he said during the recorded interview hosted March 5 by the U.S. State Department.
Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States, with a Muslim population of roughly 250,000, Khan said. The district he represents, which does not have a significant Muslim population, is overwhelmingly Christian. The ethnic-racial makeup of his district is largely Hispanic and also includes African Americans, whites and Asians.
Khan, a Republican, was first elected to city council in 2003 and has been re-elected once since. He will seek re-election again in 2007.
In addition to his position on the council, Khan is president of a real estate development company and has served as president of the Pakistan American Association of Greater Houston and as vice president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. He came to the United States in the 1970s and earned degrees from Rice University in Texas.
Khan told USINFO that questions about Islam or about his being a Muslim “never came up in elections. Constituents want to talk to me about local issues like barking dogs, garbage pickups, loud clubs, traffic congestion and crime.”
Yet he said his faith does influence his work: “If I do well, hopefully, it will … open doors for other Muslims to follow in [my] footsteps in going into public office and serving the society.” He tries to be “the best public servant” and serve all of his constituents “indiscriminately.”
“I don't wear my religion on my sleeve, but I don't hide it either,” Khan said. “When we open the council sessions on Fridays, we invite someone to pray. When it has been my turn to invite, I have asked a Christian minister, a rabbi, a Catholic priest, as well as Islamic scholars to lead the prayers."
Khan answered several questions during the interview about Muslims’ roles in U.S. politics. He said until recently, the Muslim community had not been active in the political process. The first large wave of Muslim immigration to the United States began in the 1960s. Like other immigrant groups, they focused on finding economic security before thinking about politics, Khan said. They cared about education and developing their communities. “For example, the Muslim community was very active in building the mosques, building Islamic schools, things of that nature,” he said.
But Khan sees growing political involvement. In Houston, the two major political parties choose a chairman to run party business in voting areas called precincts. Until 2002, he said, few of those precinct chairs were Muslim, but today there are more than 70 Muslim precinct chairs in eastern Houston alone.
“If people just take an interest in politics, the chance of success is there for them,” he said.
Referring to national politics, Khan said the election of Keith Ellison -- a Muslim from Minnesota -- to Congress “is a significant step toward political empowerment of the Muslim community.”
Khan said the “9/11 disaster” has focused every community, including Muslim communities, on political activism. “I think American society in general is a lot more interested in world affairs … and getting to know the religions, different cultures after 9/11 than it was before.”
Conversely, Khan said, Muslims historically have been interested in foreign policy. However, he said, they should “diversify and get involved in every facet of American life,” including local politics.
Muslims are doing more “lobbying,” a process by which interest groups in the United States educate and influence members of Congress, Khan said. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are recruiting voters among Muslims, Khan said, and well-educated, financially stable Muslims are attractive to candidates not only for votes, but for campaign donations. In the most recent presidential election, more Muslims than ever before attended the political parties’ nominating conventions and organized political action committees to pool donations to candidates.
When asked about the possibility of a Muslim president, Khan did not hesitate: “For sure, there will be a president who will be from the Islamic community in the future of America … you can be assured that there will be a Muslim sitting in the White House.” He outlined early campaigning for the 2008 presidential election, in which a woman [Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York] and an African American [Senator Barack Obama of Illinois] are getting serious attention.
“American society is ready for diversity in its highest offices,” he said.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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