Op-Ed: 'Closing the Muslim Divide''

An American Muslim Goes to Washington, Speaks Up and Opens His Eyes

August 24, 2008

Nabil Alshurafa
Nabil Alshurafa

By Nabil Alshurafa
Santa Barbara News Press

When the fires broke out near my home in recent weeks, there was almost nothing that could keep me from my friends and family -- but the promise of meeting with members of Congress who wanted to hear what young Muslims had to say was enough to pull me away.

I was one of 26 American Muslims to attend the National Young Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the summit was to engage more American Muslims in civic duties and integrate our ideas into solutions for our political system.

When a friend recommended I apply, at first I was hesitant. For me, there's an imposing stigma associated with politicians. My biggest worry was that the government officials we were scheduled to meet with didn't really want to talk to us; they just wanted to cross off "talk to a Muslim" from their to-do list. Did I want to be associated with that? Was there any chance they would actually listen to us, or would our words go in one ear and out the other?

Once I was accepted, I figured I'd end up with a few nice pictures of myself standing with eminent individuals to put up on Facebook.

Just days before I was set to leave, the region around Santa Barbara was swept up in countless wildfires. Instead of feeding my worries about the purpose of government, watching the fires and quick response unfold so close to my home made me better understand government's value. I was ready for Washington.

I found myself in a new world, unknown and intriguing territory. After meetings with public-opinion experts at Brookings Institution and Gallup, I left confirmed in my conviction that the vast majority of young Muslims in the world aren't dreaming of going to war, they're dreaming of finding work. This and other statistics, like the fact that Muslims around the globe respect and admire American freedoms, began to open my eyes.

It seems strange to admit it now, but I was shocked to find that officials from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury wanted to listen to us and answer our questions. I was honored to meet with Rep. Lois Capps, and as I was ready to say good-bye, I had every opportunity to take that picture with her; I'm sure she would have been more than happy to oblige. However, part of me no longer wanted that picture -- my presence in Washington all of a sudden had much more value than snapshots.

I was beginning to realize that we as American Muslims need not bury ourselves in the shadow of the public's misconceptions, but rather define ourselves and shape other people's perceptions of Muslims however we can.

Fear and misunderstanding exist on both sides of the Muslim and non-Muslim divide. But, most importantly, we all need to be reminded that we share our identities as Americans. Through educating young citizens, lingering animosity is being transformed into love, concern and civic engagement for a country that possesses more religious and civil liberties than almost any other country in the world.

This summit let me see the inner dimension of Washington. I was relieved to see the fires put out back home, but there was a renewed fire within me, fueled by the desire to get involved in my country. I feel honored to have conversed with policy makers for four days and hope to one day join them in D.C.

Truth be told, I did end up with a great album on Facebook. But the far more important things I gained are the ones that pictures can never show: a greater trust in our government and the knowledge that as soon as I'm ready to speak, there will be someone there to listen.

The author lives in Camarillo and works in Goleta. He and his family were evacuated from Kuwait in 1990.

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