Masood Akhtar is a columnist, an entrepreneur and adviser to the Muslim community, and has lived in Madison for more than 30 years. (Photo courtesy of Madison Magazine)

Amid a polarized and heated presidential election in 2016, the participation of Muslim youth in American politics has never been as critical and timely as it is now. If they do not strive to define their self-interests individually and collectively, they will leave themselves vulnerable to being defined by others.
Given the numerous challenges facing the nation, including the criminal justice system, education, the economy and much more, Muslim youth have a moral obligation to contribute solutions, and therefore must have a voice in the American political system. The benefits will be significant to them, their families, the community and to the ummah, meaning the whole community of Muslims bound by religious ties. This will contribute toward a deeper and more accurate understanding of Islam and Muslims by non-Muslims.

Muslim youth are part of America and the lifeblood of this nation. They don’t have to choose between their identities as Muslim or American. They’re not Muslim or American. They’re Muslim and American.

If Muslim youth work hard, understand what America offers and play by the rules, one of them could become the first American Muslim president. This president would become a role model not only for the country but also for the entire Muslim world, which is in great need of reform. While Muslims constitute nearly 1.6 billion people, or 23 percent of the world’s population, we don’t have a voice in our communities and nations. Unfortunately, we are divided and not united.

If I could speak to American Muslim youth, I would tell them it’s time to get involved in the democratic process. I would share these empowering words to help guide them on a pathway to politics:

Approach the ongoing anti-Muslim rhetoric by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump not as a wakeup call, but an opportunity to engage in dialogue and American politics. If you are part of a voting community, politicians will come to you to seek your input. The Pew Research Center estimated that about 3.3 million Muslims of all ages were living in the U.S. in 2015, and this number will double by 2050.

Recognize and embrace diversity as strength, not a liability. In doing so, you will have the opportunity to shape American politics for the benefit of everyone, not just Muslims. We are the most racially diverse religious group in the country. Act from a place of authority and bring invaluable assets to the national dialogue.

Participate in the process. Candidates participate in town hall meetings to present their views and hear from the public. Go to these meetings and exercise your political rights. Show that our concerns are the same as those of other Americans, including civil rights, civil liberty, fairness, education, loss of jobs, health care, immigration, wars and foreign policies. Most importantly, show that we are here and that we are as powerful as any other group of Americans.

Write letters to the candidates and call their local representatives to demand that Muslim issues be addressed in their platforms. Volunteer to campaign within and outside of our community for those candidates who best represent your perspectives and values. Write letters to the editors of local media to express your concerns and opinions of candidates.

Prepare to run for public office in the future. In 2006, Keith Ellison, the U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, became the first Muslim elected to Congress and was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives with a Quran that belonged to President Thomas Jefferson. André Carson, U.S. Representative for the 7th Congressional District of Indiana and an American Muslim, was elected in 2008. Locally, in 2015, alderman Samba Baldeh of District 17 was the first Muslim elected to the Madison City Council. These individuals should inspire you. Now it is your turn.

Stick to principles and priorities, not political parties. American politics is simple as well as complex. The domination by the Democratic and Republican parties simplifies the ideological spectrum. Sticking to principles and priorities ensures long-term strategic power for American Muslim communities.

Become the conscience of America—its inner moral voice. Only then can we protect our lives within the boundaries of Islam and ensure an Islamic future for our children. You can participate at several levels. Find out which issues are driving the elections and how these issues affect Muslims here and overseas.

Educate the general public that Muslims serve in the armed forces and die for this country. We are doctors, nurses, engineers, professors, scientists, entrepreneurs and industrialists. We have alerted law enforcement to more terrorist suspects than U.S. intelligence has. That means we are good neighbors and friends.

I encourage Muslim youth to take their first step today. It will help them realize that despite all this anti-Muslim rhetoric, America is still the best place on the face of this earth to practice their religion and fulfill their dreams.