Op-Ed: 'For Muslim Americans, Faith Infuses Activism & Politics'

August 3, 2007

By Aiman Janmohamed
Austin American-Statesman, 8/3/07

I recently found myself standing between Shaarik Zafar, senior policy advisor in the Office of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Saqib Ali, Democratic Delegate from Maryland's District 39, casually contributing to a conversation on issues of identity facing Muslim Americans entering politics.

It was the very essence of what we call civic engagement -- government officials who find their Muslim identity an asset were advising young Muslim Americans to become engaged and effective political activists. After all, that is what democracy is all about, right? I found myself in this conversation and in other discussions on Capitol Hill, in the State Department, and in the Department of Justice, to name a few, by a unique invitation to what would become the First National Muslim American Youth Leadership Summit held by MPAC in Washington D.C.

When I first received the invitation to the summit, I was skeptical. What would government officials really want to know from young Muslim Americans like me? And even if they did engage with us, would anything change? Skeptical, cynical, anxious and yet excited at the prospect of it all, I accepted and flew to Washington.

What I came out with, three days later, was nothing I would ever have expected. In 72 hours, I and 26 other young Muslim Americans from all over the country met with policy makers and opinion shapers. Through these meetings came unexpected opportunities for real engagement. We, as leaders in our communities and professionals in our respective fields of study, were free to ask tough questions, offer a reframing of the debate, and inquire into the sources of information used to shape policy.

A few meetings stood out. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, urged us to be agents of social change by reaffirming that Muslim Americans have a duty to their faith and their communities to be active in American policy making.

Later, sitting face to face with staffers from the House and Senate Committees on Homeland Security, we voiced our concerns about the double standard that exists in targeting "Islamic radicalization" when radicalization is not linked to any faith but to deeper issues yet unexplored. We questioned the notion of a developing threat of home-grown terrorism and, in the process, realized how underdeveloped the claim was in the first place.

What was powerful about that meeting was the opportunity it presented. It was a message that young Muslim Americans who are the real "experts" on their communities could share their perspectives with people who help shape policy. Our ideas were welcomed, our criticism accepted, and our insight valued. That was a side of government I had rarely, if ever, seen.

As meetings ended, a newfound resolution to spread the message of civic engagement emerged. The cynicism and skepticism had not left entirely; in a world where there is much work to be done and large obstacles to overcome, it is unlikely such doubts will dissipate easily. But we had inspired each other to keep pushing and keep asking the tough questions to find just solutions. We also found many officials and activists who sought our involvement and our contribution and who urged us to keep the conversations going.

To anyone who plans to engage in policy that will reflect the concerns of all Americans, I leave you with this: The rise of Muslim American political activism has only just begun.

And as we continue to leave our imprint on American politics, you can expect greater accountability, more diligent and sound policy making, and greater justice in our approaches to the issues that concern us all at home and abroad.

Janmohamed is a graduate student at UT's School of Social Work.

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