How to Lead Beyond Stereotypes
We are living in a period of increased polarization which leaves those in the middle exposed to attacks from extremes. The question in every election cycle seems to be less and less about policy ideas and more and more about each candidate’s identity and affiliation. In this leadership perspective, we explore with two brilliant minds in our alumni community strategies to lead beyond stereotypes and return to the middle ground of political discourse. As the few representing the many, seeking to map out a cohesive future, Ufuk Kâhya (TILN 2014), a party leader at the City Council of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, and Sam Rasoul (TILN 2016), 11th District Virginia General Assembly Delegate, share their thoughts on pathways forward.
Beyond Identity Politics
Foremost, Sam called on us to move beyond identity politics and focus instead on values and policy solutions that address pressing needs, such as education, employment, equity, and health. Serving in the “Bible Belt,” Sam shared the inclusive model of his upbringing, working in a family convenience store and learning to talk with all in Roanoke, Virginia, “black, white, rich, poor, whoever walked in,” to build meaningful connections. He asks that we stand ready to call out leaders on either side of the aisle who instrumentalize racism and fear. He described how the day before Election Day, his opposition sent out mailers throughout Roanoke suggesting he was supported by Al Qaeda sympathizers. Sam won with 70 percent of the vote, demonstrating his voters were focused on their candidate, not a stereotype. He shared his decision to take his oath of office not on the Qur’an, but rather on the Virginia Constitution. In the same vein, he also criticized some in his own party for attacking the opponent in the most recent Virginia governor’s race in near racist tones. Sam believes that this kind of behavior perpetuates the problem and that too much focus on identity politics rather than policy is the problem.
Beyond Institutional/Cultural Barriers
Ufuk noted minorities are achieving greater integration, education, and political participation, despite populism. He noted the complexity of serving as a minority in office, called on to be the voice of his community, yet suspected of clientelism. Often, minority representatives find the backlash overwhelming and drop out. He cited the challenges of top-down strategy of divide-and-rule and tokenism, describing how minority candidates in representative systems may be added to electoral lists to secure votes, but at the same time, be listed so low that they will never elected to serve. Ufuk explained how he rejected to support such lists, unless they give him voice too. Once in power, Ufuk noted the importance of allies and described how he and a feminist council member made a pact to spearhead each other’s issues to avoid accusations of particularism and lack of thought of the commonwealth. He described how his situation changed when more people of diverse backgrounds came to hold elected seats and diversity within diversity became apparent. Ufuk predicted that broader representation, which is improving at the local level, will also catch up at the national level. He called for accountability on behalf of the parties: are we doing our best to advance new voices, investing enough in their talent development and looking hard enough to identify them?
Strengthening the Center
A progressive, Sam calls for a transatlantic brain trust to invigorate and reimagine politics. Sam believes that there are two key drivers of polarization today. The first is a consultant class which is segmenting the electorate based on identity rather than policy preferences, forcing candidates to talk less about education, healthcare, or economic development. The second is the acceptance of a neo-liberal economic model on both sides of the aisle, leaving a large segment of the electorate voiceless and susceptible to messaging from the extremes. Ufuk believes that political parties need to stop seeing their members only as representatives of specific communities, but also as experts on certain policy issues. He also advocates for parties to transition to a model of representation of a few of many. Sam believes that intervention of this sort should end once all groups gain fair access. Ufuk agrees as long as investment in talent development continues regardless of one’s race, gender, or any other identity marker. He also pointed out that access to political process differs on both sides of the Atlantic, the right to vote still being challenged in the United States as opposed to the right to voice in Europe. Both call for strengthening the political center based on shared transatlantic values.
Islam in Context
Sam is often asked about Islam. He makes sure to separate his public service from his heritage and focuses his attention only on policy priorities. Politically, the moderator shared that Muslims tend to be more strongly affiliated with left leaning parties in Europe and the Democratic Party in the United States. When we consider that every Muslim member of the German Bundestag voted in favor of gay marriage, we can avoid the mistake of generalizing about an assumed social conservatism among Muslims in leadership. At the same time, when requesting reasonable accommodation for religious practice, there can be obstacles. Ufuk described his effort to seek a pause of the City Council meeting for 15 minutes to allow for the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, and the negative response he received, especially in press, would make many worried about their future job prospects and deter them from entering politics. The current period is particularly trying, with the rise of Islamophobia.
Greater innovation, deeper understanding, and mitigation of blind spots are just some of the solutions to current challenges facing democracy, and hence a step toward achieving good governance on both sides of the Atlantic. As diverse representatives, seeking to lead beyond stereotypes and map out a cohesive future for an increasingly diverse Europe and the United States, Ufuk and Sam shared highly effective strategies. We encourage you to listen in and to consult with them further.
Footnote: Demographic Context
Of note, political representation by leaders who are Muslim remains far below the actual representation of Muslims in our societies. For example, Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, yet only .2 percent of the U.S. Congress are only marginally represented at the subnational level. Across the Atlantic, the German population was already 5.8 percent Muslim in 2010, France at least 7.5 percent, and Russia 10 percent. These populations are young, steadily growing, and hence Muslims are projected to make up 8 percent of Europe’s total population by 2030. Yet political representation of Muslims, though advancing, remains far below these percentages. Pew research indicates that views about Muslims in Europe tend to be tied to political affiliation: 47 percent of Germans on the right give Muslims an unfavorable rating, compared to just 17 percent on the left.
GMF’s Leadership Perspectives informs leaders about trends that are changing the nature of transatlantic relations. During each call, members of GMF's Alumni Leadership Council have the unique opportunity to send questions through an instant messaging group and shape content.
This product is supported by NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division.
Access to GMF's Alumni Leadership Council is exclusive to alumni of GMF's leadership programs, including Marshall Memorial Fellowship, Manfred Wörner Seminar, Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network, Asmus Policy Entrepreneurs Fellowship, APSA Congressional Fellowship, and New Länder Fellowship.
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