I have been traveling to Washington, D.C. from Los Angeles for the past 30 years, and you will never guess what goes through my mind on every arrival into the Beltway. I think of it as a spiritual journey, a response to the call of God to give Muslims a voice and a space in the most powerful city in the world. On each visit, I usually leave a little more hopeful when engaging the many people who care about the plight of Muslims here and abroad. Sometimes, I have to confess, I have left with a sense of hopelessness: seeing Islam used as a bargaining chip for power, a veneer for the powerful to claim that it is best to give them more power, or an invocation for why Muslims should have no democracy, no power.
I have worked with five White House Administrations, the number spanning my 30 years of shuttle diplomacy, and they all struggled to use the right words to claim they are doing their best to mitigate war and suffering, that they were doing their best to defend our civil rights, that they want more Muslim representation. I have attended dinners with all the pomp and circumstance, and I have been to events that met the standards of only paupers. Then I finally ask myself after every trip: what should American Muslims know about what is happening in Washington? They definitely should know because it affects their lives, and they usually do not know because their source of information is breaking news on cable news and what is trending on social media.
You should know one thing. There are Muslims in Washington who do work for your interests. They are not necessarily ones that are afforded status. They are the staff and interns working tirelessly on Capitol Hill and in the federal agencies. They are the clerks of the federal courts. They are the reporters who struggle to get a few lines or a few seconds in the daily reporting. They are the ones that matter.
Martin Luther King met with presidents and dignitaries throughout his civil rights struggle, but he knew that the people will change Washington, and that will then change the world. Hence came the March on Washington, the stand in Selma, the letter from Birmingham jail to white moderates. They were all intended to influence the public and public opinion. The struggle never ended, and we as Muslims have that same challenge — how can we increase the participation of our communities to funnel the current of change into our nation’s capital?
I want to let you know that we do not yet have the answer, but upon my return from my recent trip, I am more hopeful than ever based on what I am seeing. Our MPAC Policy Bureau is thinking along the lines of how we can engage the government to serve people and not just the politics of regional powers. The policy staff is thinking about connecting communities with each other and then with D.C. They are building alliances with like-minded Americans represented in the hundreds of organizations in civil society. They are tackling the policies that impact our civil rights, not as a watchdog to list only problems, but as a partner aimed at problem-solving. They are convening Muslim organizations to think more clearly on the American Muslim agenda as we gear up for another election in 2022. They are heroes in my book, a handful who serve the needs of the rest of us.
I want to tell you much more and will do so in future inshallah. For now, I only leave you with the Quranic injunction that those who believe in God and do righteous work, there is never failure: there is success in achievement and there is success in learning lessons.