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Shahla Khan Salter

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A Muslim Canadian and a Muslim American Talk Politics

Posted: 11/05/2012 8:08 am

The American Presidential election between Republican Candidate, Mitt Romney and incumbent Democratic Candidate President Barack Obama, takes place in only a two days on November 6, 2012. Its outcome may result in a remarkably different future for many. What happens in the U.S. affects us all -- both here in Canada and overseas.

As a Muslim Canadian woman, I wonder, what is on the mind of a Muslim American woman right now?

So I emailed my friend, Kelly Wentworth Ismail Khan, of Duluth, Georgia, President of Muslims for Progressive Values Atlanta, whom I met at the MPV Retreat this past summer in New York City. Here are my questions and her answers:

Tell readers a bit about yourself Kelly,

I am a training and development manager for a software company. I am also the President of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) -- Atlanta. I am in my mid-30s, married and would like to have children one day if possible.

What is your family background?

I am a genealogy enthusiast, so I am fascinated by family history. My genetic ethnicity is mostly Scandinavian, but family heritage is English/Irish. The majority of my family has been in North America since the 1600s, including relatives of the Mayflower. I am a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which is a heritage society that traces ancestral lineage to people who assisted in the American Revolution (although I had relatives on both sides).

In what faith were you brought up?

I was brought up in a spiritual household with a strong Christian background. My mom is Baptist and my dad is spiritual. I grew up in Southern Baptist, Episcopal and Cooperative Baptist Churches.

How do you describe yourself in terms of religion now?

I am a Progressive Muslim with Baptist heritage. My mom calls me a Baptist Muslim.

How long have you been married? What is your husband's background?

I have been married almost nine years and together with my husband almost 10 years. My husband is originally from Yemen. He is "just Muslim" and was brought up in a liberal Sunni tradition. He is a wireless engineer.

How long have you led the American Islamic Fellowship, now known as MPV Atlanta?

I have been a leader for MPV-Atlanta for five years -- since the organization was founded in 2007.

The election is upcoming -- what four issues concern you most?

I know that I am told I should be most concerned about the economy, but I see so many other important issues that get overlooked and can have an impact on the economy, such as:

Health Issues
Foreign Policy Issues
Civil Rights Issues and
Immigration Reform

Why do those issues concern you most?

Health is one of the most important issues of the election. If a group cannot get access to basic healthcare or are denied healthcare services based on the whim of the elected, then the health of the economy will not matter because the country will not be able to effectively function.

I want to make sure that the people I vote for are concerned about putting in programs and/or regulations in place that will ensure people can get access to preventative healthcare and ongoing healthcare for existing conditions without the worry of personal economy.

I do not believe the government should base health care decisions on religious beliefs and that the government should allow individuals to decide, with access to medical services, what healthcare path is best, including end of life and abortion-related decisions.

I see pros and cons to complete government healthcare or complete privatization of healthcare, but I do not believe The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act should be overturned.

What have your experiences been in relation to access to affordable health care? As an employer are you finding premiums expensive? Has anyone you know ever been left bankrupt by health care bills? Are there any tragedies that have taken place that have affected you personally that should not have happened in a nation as rich as yours?

I was blessed with access to affordable healthcare through county-sponsored clinics in my hometown and through Planned Parenthood when I moved closer to Atlanta. I have found that premiums are expensive for employees and our company has had to help ensure the insurance plans are affordable for most employees. The healthcare for an employee is free, but the employee must pay for family, which can be expensive.

I know there have been people who have struggled to pay for family, so we have tried as an employer to help balance through plan benefits, company subsidies and salary adjustments.

I have known quite a few people who have been left bankrupt by health care bills, particularly older people who had to use life savings to pay for health issues and then had to go back to work in order to continue to live.

I believe people in the United States would be shocked to find out that there are people here who still die from starvation, exposure and preventable diseases.

I have seen cases of this through charitable work I have done throughout my life and through experiences in my hometown, which is a part of Appalachia. I have personally experienced issues most directly related to the misunderstanding the United States has in regards to mental health. There are so many families that tragically struggle as a result.

On other issues, I believe the United States should focus more on internal security and focus less on external security matters. I do not believe Iran is the biggest threat to the United States, particularly with security-based issues happening continually throughout our country (i.e. mass shootings).

Which ones?

Just click here.

I believe the greatest foreign security threat right now is on the border between Mexico and the United States. I do not mean immigration-related security, but rather the drug-related issues happening there.

I do not understand why the issues there are less of a concern than Iran. I do not believe security issues should trump civil rights issues. I am very concerned over civil rights-based issues. There are so many issues to consider including women's rights, LGBT rights, privacy, personal liberties, prisons, etc.

I believe the government should make no laws in relation to marriage, child custody, adoption if they are based on gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation or sexual preference in regards to consenting adults.

In other words, you believe that government should not, for example, ban same sex marriage, or stop gay Americans from adopting children because of conservative religious views?

Yes. I do not understand why this is a continuing point of contention. I really worry about the potential for a Constitutional Amendment that defines marriage relationships based on a religious document. (Note: I prefer the term civil unions to marriage, but in this society marriage is the outward sign of legal adult commitment.)

And the American law gives couples who are married more rights -- does it not?

Yes. There are around 300 state-based and 1,100 federal-based benefits only reserved for married couples. An increasing number of states are granting the state-based rights, but the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) blocks this for federal benefits. I worry about laws, again based on religion, that would define what legal practices are acceptable in the United States.

Are you now talking about what practices some base on their religious interpretations for religious accommodation?

No. I am worried more about things like abortion, contraceptives, what can be sold in stores and when, and divorce laws.

I am not as worried about religious freedoms because those are protected under the Constitution and would be harder to suppress. I am also concerned about laws that are created or overridden in relation to "security", which ignore Constitutional provisions such as due process.

Like The U.S. Patriot Act, which allows for removal of judicial rights for Muslim Americans?

Yes. I could go on forever here. Immigration Reform is another concern because it is very close to me both from a personal and historical perspective. I had the privilege of being born in a family that has very deep roots in the United States. But I went through the immigration process with my husband. I believe the ability to immigrate to the United States is a very difficult, corrupt and expensive process that needs to be revisited.

I also believe the ability to become and to participate as a citizen in the United States should not be hindered by language, personal economy, origin, religion, politics, and a numerous list of issues.

So what should happen to make it easier for people to immigrate to the U.S.?

Reduce the cost. The application fees are ridiculous, especially when coupled with the expenses for the required medical examinations. It is cost prohibitive for many families, particularly in less economically advantaged areas.

Have one place that processes the applications. Embassies can conduct and schedule interviews, but the processing of the paperwork should be done electronically through a central system.

Have one set of rules. There are different rules for people who file inside the United States and for people who file at Embassies. Embassies are allowed to make up their own guidelines. This allows for too much corruption to be introduced.

Make it easier for families to immigrate and file stateside.

Regularly audit processing centers, including Embassies, on a random basis. This will, hopefully, keep down the instances of very rampant corruption in the process.

I also support alternate paths to citizenship, such as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which provides people, who were brought to the United States illegally as minors, a way to become citizens.

How do you feel your faith impacts on what issues are significant to you and how you may vote?

I am a Progressive Muslim, so I am very concerned with issues that are focused on human rights, women's rights and LGBT rights. I am also concerned about issues regarding freedom of speech and expression and separation of church and state. I am very keyed into candidates and how they treat people who do not hold the same religious or philosophical beliefs. I do not like to vote for candidates that flaunt personal religious belief above civil principles, but unfortunately this is socially acceptable in my area.

And your area is specifically?

Particularly the South -- so I often have to look beyond this flaw.

Up here, as a Canadian, I am appalled by references to conservative religious beliefs some make in order to prevent progress on the part of our government, such as the anti-bullying initiatives put forward by our Ontario government for schools -- like the ones my kids attend. Are you finding this rhetoric is taking place more now in Georgia and other parts of the U.S. than a decade ago? And if yes, in what way? Any examples?

In North Georgia, for example, it used to be far more common for people to run as Independents. This was so the political parties would not control how local governments were run. This has now changed. It was also very rare for politicians to run with mention of religious beliefs. People knew candidates had religious beliefs, but it was separate. Now it is a litmus test for "good" candidates. If someone is not particularly religious, this is seen as a negative.

It is very common now, for example, to advertise what church a candidate attends on political flyers and websites. I agree with Professor Omid Safi, an American progressive Muslim scholar, who recently said:

"We live in a nation where just about half of our citizens experience poverty at some point in their life. We live in a world where over a billion of human beings live on a dollar a day. We live in a world where environmental catastrophe is around the corner. If these two men (Romney and Obama) profess the Christian faith, I want to know how they plan to embody Christ's teachings to care for 'the least of these.'"

How may this election impact Muslim Americans?

There are so many ways the election may impact Muslim Americans. From a specific religious point of view, I believe the outcome of the election will determine who makes decisions in regards to personal liberties that affect Muslim Americans.

What liberties exactly?

Healthcare-based and security-based liberties. I also believe the elected leadership will be key in the continuing help (or hindrance) towards greater understanding and acceptance of Muslims as Americans.

Do you think bigotry against Muslim Americans is getting worse? And what should faith and community leaders like you and government leaders do to promote greater understanding and protect minority groups?

I feel like the rhetoric against Muslim Americans is getting worse on conservative media. I have heard people who formerly were much more accepting of Muslims get less and less so and be more apt to invite people like Pamela Geller on their shows.

Sean Hannity is a great example of that. I worry that with the popularity of people like Sean Hannity who allow hateful people like Geller on their shows will make suspicion of Muslim Americans more acceptable than it already is. I do have people who are very nice to me, but I must say the level of trust some people have in me once they find out I am Muslim palpably drops, even if it is not intentional. There is always that pretext that I might, at any time, break off to become the extremist that they have heard all Muslims have the "potential" of being.

They need to check out our sites!

Yes. And faith and community leaders must continually engage each other and continually engage the public to override stereotypes. They must also communicate to people in the media how hurtful stereotypes are not acceptable. It is important to continually write articles, be on shows and be the person the media will call if someone has a question about Islam.

I am not always available to be that person, so it helps to have an organization like MPV who can assist. It also helps to be a constant presence online and to have resources there to refer people to when there are questions. When people write or call our group, I continue to have a growing group of resources to refer people to in order to show them a wider spectrum of Islam than just the narrow view presented by conservative media or conservative Islamic groups.

Our national MPV website at www.mpvusa.org also has many of those resources.

How may this election impact American women?

Women in the United States still earn less than men, still have to be concerned whether they can fully control what healthcare decisions they make about their own bodies, still have to struggle to have firm representation.

What does "firm representation" mean to you?

Consistently have women as a larger and larger part of Congress, in state and local leadership positions, in state and federal cabinet positions, as viable Presidential/VP candidates, and in other representative positions. And the list can go on forever. I believe the election can determine whether women continue to progress towards goals of true equality or whether those goals stagnate or are stalled.

Can you see the wrong choice for President actually taking America back 50 years to an era where women were not hired frequently, encouraged to stay home and have babies, were unable to plan their pregnancies (and therefore their lives), did not have a strong voice in government and where they were unsafe because the "powers that be" determined it was up to women themselves to ensure they did not "lure" rapists to them when they went out at night or wore short skirts -- the latter being not just unfair but ludicrous?

More specifically, what do you think of what our friend, and MPV USA chair, Ani Zonneveld has said about Christian Shariah in her latest blog?

I do not believe one president will propel the country back 50 years, but I believe consistently voting for more and more conservative presidents and congressional members can undo a lot of the strides made in the past 50 years. The country has already moved back with a more conservative Congressional majority, so I do not believe it would be a good move for the country to also see this happen with the Presidency.

I do believe there are political movements that are willing to erase the lines between religion and politics to institute more Christian-based religious laws in this country that are based on the Bible rather than the secular approach provided by the Constitution. The country is still not removed from the Blue Laws instituted specifically to enforce Christian religious standards. I know there are people who would like to see those laws expanded. I believe Ani is right that if given the ability there are people in the United States who would have no problem instituting a national religion, as long as it was Christianity.

Without telling the Muslim American community how to vote -- what advice do you have for the Muslim community in the upcoming election in making their decision?

Take the time to learn about who is on the ballot and what issues are on the ballot. Each area has a sample ballot available prior to the election. Talk to your neighbours, participate in candidate forums or use the Internet. There are many neutral websites that put up facts about issues and candidates. Even if I have been extremely busy, I will take the time the night before I vote or even 15 minutes before I vote, to remind myself who and what I am choosing before I make a selection.

Do you have a link Kelly we can share with American voters who may need it?

My favorite is: http://votesmart.org -- you can put in your address and see all elections, candidates and ballot measures. It has links to information about candidates and the full text of any ballot measures. I love it!

I also like http://www.procon.org/ for a broader perspective on many issues, which can help a person understand how to better analyze and understand what candidates discuss.

Do you think Muslim Americans are going to head to the polls in large numbers and vote? Or do you think the majority of Muslim Americans stay out of politics too often?

I still believe many Muslim Americans stay at home.

Is there a study or is this your experience in talking to community members and why do you think they don't vote more?

This is only my personal experience. I believe, which is purely from personal experience, this behaviour is more prevalent in immigrant Muslim individuals. I continually promote the idea of voting among all groups (Muslim and non-Muslim) in which I come in contact. I want you to vote regardless of your opinion.

Because?

It is your right as a citizen of the United States and does more than elect a President. It decides what programs get funded, what roads get built, who gets access to healthcare and in what form, who can and cannot immigrate to the United States, whether you can control what decisions you make about your body, who you get to marry, what taxes you pay, how the United States will participate in world politics and the list goes on.

How do you think this election may impact the world -- particularly in the areas of human rights and women's rights?

I really worry that regardless of who is elected the focus of the country currently is still too much on the business of other countries rather than our own business. I am not an isolationist and I do believe we have to make decisions with regard to other countries, but I believe we often make decisions that are self-focused, but destructive both internally and externally.

I see potential for diplomatic solutions being promoted if certain people are in power, but I do not see any particular combination of candidates as a panacea for world-related issues. I believe there are people who are more apt to lead the United States towards better awareness of our impact on human rights, but I believe the opportunity to be a leader in this area still has much work, particularly in our military leadership.

I believe a country can be strong militarily without carelessly disregarding human lives and justice. I seriously worry about the direction of women's rights and LGBT rights if certain people are in power.

I believe the United States is still very young in its approach to women's and LGBT rights. I do not believe certain people really get the concept of equality nor understand how to implement equality. I believe there are too many people who are too concerned with holding power rather than standing on principles

For example?

For example, my congressman, Rob Woodall, claims to be pro-individual freedom, but is anti-abortion and against same-sex marriage. I do not understand how one can claim to be for individual freedom, but then vote on items that are for taking away freedoms.

In the not so distant past, Republican politicians in my state may have been anti-abortion or anti-same-sex marriage personally, but did not believe the state or federal government should legislate such things.

[side note: I was Republican not so long ago (no seriously!), but I can no longer claim to be because the idea of "small government" only applies when it is convenient. Separation of church and state is no longer the goal of the Republican party. I now find myself voting more and more for Libertarian and, gasp! Democratic candidates because they represent the values I have kept.]

As a result, people have been sold on the idea that it is okay to give up personal liberty in the name of "security" or "economic stability" when that is not what is delivered. It is so important to understand what a candidate really is going to do while in office.

It is also important to remember that even if a particular candidate is not elected, the struggle continues in the form of talking to those in power, writing letters and articles, vetting alternative candidates and encouraging legislation that moves towards "a more perfect union."

Thanks Kelly.

Hope this all comes together.

You are awesome.

Much peace.

 
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