How to Begin Healing and Uniting Our Country
By: M Baqir Mohie El-Deen, MPAC Policy Program Manager
A new government was sworn in this week that changes the face of both the White House and the US Congress. Although many are rejoicing with the changes, half of the nation is disappointed. The hard work of the American people now begins, a duty to help govern this nation with this new administration.
Where does this duty come from?
Short answer: the founding of this nation. Back in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence and shortly after the Constitution were signed, the idea that the people could govern themselves was a radical concept for the world. When Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the founding fathers had created, he famously responded “A republic, if you can keep it.” In essence, Franklin was charging “we the people” with the responsibility of safeguarding self-government. Over the following years, the concept of democratic republicanism became the central identity of America, and being civically engaged became the vessel that “we the people” used to protect self-governance, and more importantly, to prevent tyranny.
However, in our lifetime, there’s been a tremendous decline in the population’s civic engagement and trust in the government due to a combination of dysfunctional politics and the lack of emphasis on civic education, among other factors. During the Vietnam War, amid the civil rights protests, civil unrest, and political divisions in the United States, Pew Research recorded that 80% of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time. Today, the trust is down to less than 20%. More disturbingly, a study completed four years ago found that a quarter of Americans believed that a “strong leader that doesn’t have to deal with Congress or elections” is a good way for America to govern — a dictatorship. Our Founding Fathers, who had to fight a monarch to gain independence, would be deeply disturbed by the notion of placing too much power in any one branch of government. In fact, the principle behind the system of checks and balances that they created was to protect the rights of the minority as well as the majority, hence the creation of the bicameral legislature, the House and the Senate.
What can we do?
Take action by becoming civically engaged. Dr. Hathout states and reflects on the following prophetic tradition in his book “In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam”, on why taking action is imperative for Muslims.
“If any of you sees something evil, he should set it right by his hand; if he is unable to do so, then by his tongue, and if he is unable to do even that, then (let him denounce it) in his heart. But this is the weakest form of faith.” This hadith stresses action and speech over unvoiced disapproval, as the preferred mode of action in implementing good and standing up against evil. It also demonstrates the spirit in which individuals should relate with each other within a community.”
Furthermore, God commands us in the Quran (al-Ma’idah, verse 2) “…and cooperate with each other in (matters of) goodness and righteousness…” As Muslims, we are commanded to cooperate with our neighbors and communities across all levels, and in a democracy, this includes being civically engaged together, to ensure that our government takes just actions. The glue that holds together self-governance is civic engagement. The onus is on us to to combat the decline of civic engagement over the past several decades by changing our American Muslim culture to include civic engagement. To change our culture we have to put in the hard work and effort, which includes reconnecting with our founding documents, practicing the skill of civic participation, that ranges from voting, engaging our government, speaking out, and building coalitions that can help us solve our problems at all levels of the government — local, state, and federal. There’s no better time to start than now.
The following five ways can be the guide for us to start with as we change our culture to include civic participation:
1) Stay informed
To stay informed, one needs to subscribe to local, regional, and national news. It’s important to ask yourself if the news source is trustworthy, and always fact check what’s being reported. Purchase a personal pocket constitution and read it. Fact check all politicians and political candidates. Attend discussions and events in your community about issues that you find interesting and important, and once this pandemic passes, take the time to shadow a public servant for a day to learn how his or her office operates. Learn the intricacies of how various parts of our government operate. If you’re interested in learning how Congress works, our community’s own Reema Dodin wrote the book on this subject which nearly became a New York Times best-seller.
All elections matter — local, state, and federal. Make sure you’re registered to vote, and double check all deadlines and rules for voting in your locality. Speak to your family and friends about voting and talk with them about the issues and candidates on the ballot. Get your family and friends to pledge to vote by creating a voting pact. When you head to the polls, take your parents and children with you and get them familiar with the process. If you have employees, give them the time off to vote. If you have free time, volunteer at the polls, and offer to drive the elderly to vote.
Communicate with your elected officials to let them know your views on the issues you care about. I cannot emphasize how far a letter, a phone call or a visit goes with your members of Congress. Their staff keep records of all the issues that their constituents are vocal about, and when the congressperson votes, they vote based on what they believe their constituents want. Write op-eds and share them with your community. Attend local city council and board meetings. Due to the pandemic, many of these meetings are conveniently held virtually. Advocate for civic participation and engagement in schools and mosques. Join political campaigns for candidates that best represent the issues you care for. Join your local school’s PTA and get involved with the school board. Join a political party — there are more parties in the United States than just Republicans and Democrats. Finally, if you don’t like the candidates running for office, and you feel that you better represent the views of your locality, run for office.
4) Build Community
Identify problems in your community and work with your neighbors to see how to address them — two examples include playground refurbishment and neighborhood street sweeps. Plant a tree or start a community garden. Visit your neighbor’s house of worship. Help the elders in your community take out the trash. Start a neighborhood book club. Serve as a juror for our judicial system which relies on citizen jurors. Collect and distribute food to those in need. Visit hospitals and nursing homes (when it’s safe). Donate blood at your local blood collection bank. Host exchange students — Rotary Youth Exchange is a great resource. Contribute financially to causes and programs that you believe in. Support local teachers, and shop at local businesses. Volunteer at public libraries, pantries, soup kitchens or food banks, community gardens, and community centers. Volunteer to coach a youth sports team, lead a youth group, and sign up to be a substitute teacher. In short, as the late Speaker Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.”
5) Get Social
Host or attend debate watch parties in your community or university. Plan a picnic or block party in your neighborhood and tell them about your views — of course, respectfully. Talk to your neighbors and learn about their views, and why they harbor those views. Speak with people that don’t align politically with you, and listen, listen, listen. Learning about others and being socially active involves a lot of listening. Host neighbors and friends to watch a documentary about a subject that you care about.
While the above actions are by no means comprehensive, these specific and practical actions can help any American become an engaged citizen. As you may have noticed, the vast majority of the actions are free from politics, and partisanships, and if anything can contribute to helping our communities mend following this chaotic election season and the past four years of divisive rhetoric that governed our nation. At the end of it all, “we the people” hold the power to hold our government accountable to what we deem is the correct way to govern, and “we the people” encompass the whole nation. All 332 million of us.