Despite recent acts of terrorism that may have been committed by Muslim extremists, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, some Muslims in Congress and at Ohio State are holding on to hope that America is becoming less focused on the religion of its leaders and the misconceptions that often surround the Islamic faith in particular.
André Carson, the second Muslim to be elected to Congress and a current state representative for Indiana, came to OSU to speak to the Muslim Students’ Association on May 3 at the Ohio Union. He spoke with The Lantern earlier that same day about his career and his hopes for the future of America, as well as the Boston Marathon bombings.
“The reality is that there are people who claim to be Muslim who are involved in extremist activities that certainly doesn’t represent their faith,” Carson said in an interview with The Lantern. “Muslims are facing a reality that we have to be more entrenched in our community. The law enforcement community, FBI and so on and so forth, they’re going to have to develop closer relationships with the Muslim communities, and in fact, a lot of Americans don’t know that a lot of the potential terrorist attacks have been thwarted because Muslims have helped with these kind of (anti-terrorism) efforts.”
Brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who may have had Muslim extremist group ties, set up bombs that detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, leaving three dead and more than 260 injured. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested later that week.
Carson was a police officer for about nine years and worked for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security anti-terrorism unit before being elected to office in 2008. His predecessor in Congress, Julia Carson, was his grandmother, a factor Carson said only influenced him slightly.
“My grandmother was in public life, but I didn’t grow up wanting to be a politician per se. I wanted to be a police officer, I wanted to be a scientist, I wanted to be a businessman, I wanted to be a TV show, talk show host,” Carson said. “And so those things kind of evolved throughout the years but it was, I think, me seeing the injustices across the country, increasing levels of poverty, having experienced parochial education and public education, seeing the stark disparities in public schools that kind of increased this sense of activism in me wanting to, instead of outside agitation, be a part of the system and change the things within.”
He believes that his background in law enforcement has increased his constituents’ trust in him.
“Because I’m a Muslim having a law enforcement background, I think it has helped me temper the anxieties that come with the unknown of having a Muslim represent folks from Indiana in Congress,” Carson said. “Having that background is giving me a different perspective in terms of different groups, in terms of where real threats come from in our country.
“Terrorism in our country has had an Islamic face if you will, but many of the terrorist acts that have been thwarted have come from homegrown groups who claim to love Americans.”
The first Muslim to be elected to Congress is serving the Midwest in the House of Representatives as well, a man named Keith Ellison from Minnesota who was elected in 2007. Carson thinks though it may have been unexpected that the first Muslims in U.S. government would be from the Midwest, it makes sense.
“A lot of people assumed that the first Muslim in Congress would come from either the East or West coast, would be a second-generation immigrant, have a Muslim sounding name, but you have two Midwesterners with Irish and French names, and so I think it speaks to a kind of Midwestern sensibility,” Carson said. “The Midwest is the litmus test for American politics.”
Carson said overall he thinks American voters’ focus is shifting away from religion toward what candidates can offer their constituents in terms of results.
“We’re in a space where more and more Americans are becoming concerned about what a politician can bring back to their district,” he said. “What we’ve seen in the past, we’ve seen politicians with posture or who take a moral position but who have deviated from that position and that they’ve come with their religiosity but the outputs have been poor, so more and more people want to see what this politician intends to do in terms of keeping their word.”
Some of the MSA members who attended the private banquet event Friday evening said that, to them, Carson’s speech carried a similar focus about what Muslims can do in their communities to start shifting the general public’s focus toward the positives of the Muslim community.
“He talked about the importance of Muslims in this country becoming more involved in the political sphere and the civic sphere. How in some cases, we’ve kind of secluded ourselves and it’s not to the benefit of us and the benefit of this country. It’s important for us to become more involved in the political life here and the political life of this country,” said Abdulrahman Alwattar, a third-year in public affairs and the president of MSA.
Alwattar said that although he doesn’t plan to pursue public office, he was impressed with Carson’s journey and accomplishments.
“It’s awesome because he didn’t go to Harvard undergrad … He kind of was just a common person, a common man, and I feel like he’s a true representative of the people,” Alwattar said. “We were really excited to have him.”
Alwattar added that it proved to him anyone can make it in politics with dedication and passion.
“If you’re a good person, you’re intelligent, and you work hard, and that’s something you want to do, then you can do it,” he said.
Other MSA members who attended the event took away a message of the need to make changes locally.
Zakaria Farah, a fourth-year in environmental engineering and the former president of MSA, said Carson emphasized “participating more in our local communities as opposed to looking at national government.”
“The immediate effects are much more apparent if you start in your local communities and kind of rally the troops there,” Farah said.
Carson said that though he has no plans of running for the presidency, he hopes to see a Muslim president within the next few decades, but believes a female president will come before that.
Alwatter and Farah each said even if a Muslim was running for the presidency, they would be more concerned with the candidate’s qualifications and positions on issues than with his or her religion or race.
“I don’t think religion has much to do with whether or not you can be an effective leader,” Alwattar said. “I’m not going to base … my political affiliation with someone who shares my religion necessarily.”
Carson, in the meantime, is working on organizing a Muslim leadership forum with Ellison for the fifth year in a row, which gathers many government officials to encourage the population to “get to know Muslim leaders throughout the country and see how we can build bridges.”