MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We're going to continue our discussion of faith and politics with a conversation with Saqib Ali. In 2007, he became the first Muslim elected to the Maryland state legislature, and now he's back in the spotlight.
In a recent op-ed for a local newspaper, the Maryland Gazette, Ali wrote about how he came to support same-sex marriage, or marriage equality. That stance has earned the appreciation of gay-rights advocated, but has also, in his words, earned him much grief from his most conservative supporters and clergy. Saqib Ali joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Delegate Ali, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.
State Delegate SAQIB ALI (Democrat, Maryland): Thanks a lot, Michel.
MARTIN: You're a post-9/11 candidate.
State Delegate ALI: Yes.
MARTIN: And I just wondered if your Muslim identity, your name played any role in how you were treated on the campaign trail. Clearly, you were successful, but was it an issue?
State Delegate ALI: You know, I was a little bit concerned about that when I started running, and I live in Montgomery County, which is a very highly educated place, a very open-minded place.
MARTIN: It's a suburb of Washington, D.C., for those who are not aware.
State Delegate ALI: And it's a very international kind of place. and what I found was that there were a few people who really wanted to focus on my religion and really were offended by it and thought I was some kind of Manchurian candidate. But the vast majority, honestly, they thought, you know, hey, your religion is fine. What can you do for me? Can you fix my roads? Can you fix my school? Can you fix my jobs? And they couldn't care less about my religion or race or if I was from Mars. If I served them well, that's really what they were looking for.
MARTIN: So I want to talk about your op-ed coming out, as it were, in support of same-sex marriage. It would have been very easy for you to just take a pass on this issue, but you decided not only to support same-sex marriage but to be outspoken about it, and I wanted to ask you about that.
State Delegate ALI: What I feel is that people have elected me to not only do what is popular but to do what is right, and I think that's the real definition of a leader. If they just wanted me to do the popular thing, there would really be no point of me being there. I could just, you know, run some polls and put a finger up to the wind and vote that way. But if people always did what was popular only, we probably would never have had the Civil Rights Act in the '60s, and lots of other good ideas would not have become the law of the land. So personally, it's against my religion.
MARTIN: I wanted to mention that. You mention in your op-ed that Islam expressly prohibits - I don't know if it expressly prohibits marriage but same-sex relations, per se, so I guess by extension, marriage.
State Delegate ALI: Well, homosexual acts are prohibited. It doesn't go into, you know, legislative policy, but homosexual acts are very clearly prohibited in Islam, as they are in many other religions. But as I said in my column, if I simply used my position in the legislature to legislate my religion into law, that would really be shortsighted indeed.
I represent people who are of all faiths and of no faiths, and if I simply try to force my religion onto all these people and the people of Maryland, as they do in a theocracy, I would be doing a disservice to my constituents and a disservice to my religion, in fact.
MARTIN: Is it your position that you are acting contrary to the tenants of your faith, that you don't agree with it, or that you are acting as a public official representing the totality of your constituency and acting in what you believe to be the best interests of your entire constituency despite your own personal beliefs?
State Delegate ALI: I'd say the latter. I'm acting as a public official, and that is separate from my religious life. I probably would not - I of course would not be engaged in a gay marriage myself, simply because I'm not gay, but it would violate the tenants of my faith, and my clergy would not approve, of course. But you know, I have to take off that hat sometimes, and as a public official I have to look at what's best for public policy. And there's a very strict separation, in my mind, between church and state, or religion and state.
MARTIN: You write: I expect someday people will look back at this fight for equality like we now look back on oddly antiquated anti-miscegenation laws. I'm proud that I'll have stood on the right side of history in support of full marital rights for same-sex couples.
I'm just curious if you think most of your constituents agree with you on this point, that this is a logical extension of the struggle for human and civil rights in this country - and when do you think that this country will recognize, if indeed it will? You seem to think that it will.
State Delegate ALI: Oh, absolutely.
State Delegate ALI: Absolutely. Well, six states out of 50 have already recognized full same-sex marriage. You can go to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, and any of those places, and go and get married today. It's only a matter of time. I believe by 2011 we're going to have legalized, same-sex marriage in Maryland and probably lots of other states.
So this is a tide that's building. If you look at all the polls, I don't know exactly in my district where we are. I suspect we're somewhere in the middle, but if you look at all the polls, there's a huge generational gap on this issue. People under 30 almost, you know, overwhelmingly support marriage equality.
MARTIN: And what do you say to your constituents, including, I'm sure, members of the clergy, of not just your faith but others who say you're just wrong, this is just wrong and that you shouldn't support it because it's morally wrong, it's religiously wrong? What do you say?
State Delegate ALI: Well, to the members of the clergy and to my family members who are very upset at me, I say, look, I understand that you disagree, and if you are opposed to this, I strongly urge you not to perform same-sex marriages. If you're uncomfortable with it, do not perform them in your church, do not approve them personally, but let those people in this state who want those same rights and protections that come with civil marriage, let them have that. Because it doesn't affect my marriage, it doesn't affect anybody else's marriage, it doesn't harm us in any way.
MARTIN: And what kind of reaction are you getting to your piece since it appeared?
State Delegate ALI: Frankly, most people I've talked to are very pleased, and they say that you've taken a bold stand, and they also are very pleased that I didn't try and tiptoe around the whole religious issue. They're pleased that I've said, you know, I'm not trying to whitewash the prohibition in my religion, which is clearly there.
MARTIN: Saqib Ali represents District 39 in the Maryland state legislature. He represents Montgomery County, Maryland, and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. If you're interested in reading his op-ed piece, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to the new npr.org. Go to programs, and click on TELL ME MORE. Delegate Ali, thank you so much for joining us.
State Delegate ALI: Thank you so much, Michel.
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