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Muslim Youth enter Political Arena

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  • Muslim Youth enter Political Arena

    Muslim Youth Enter Political Arena
    By Sarah Hassaine
    Southern California InFocus - Muslim Youth Enter Political Arena

    A new generation of energized and focused young Muslims in America are pursuing career paths that do not fall in the conventional or preferred science and engineering fields.

    In fact, a growing percentage of youth are considering and practicing careers in the political and social sciences.

    Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, has become the hotspot for young Muslims across America. The political hub and the home base for national offices of multifarious political, social, and humane organizations, is attracting impressive and ambitious youth that genuinely aspire to make a difference.

    Asma Gheyoub, community outreach coordinator for the D.C. office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said that she has definitely seen more involvement from Muslim youth in the past five years. “My generation of over 50 years of age is just now seeing the value of voting and of participating in our communities, but the youth today are well aware of their responsibility and are working hard already.”

    Safiyah Ghori, 25, the D.C. program director for MPAC, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said that she enjoys the “political atmosphere” of the city. “There are excellent opportunities for Muslims to get involved in government. It is great that our community is producing more and more young people who want to make a difference on the governmental level.”

    Influenced by 9/11, Ghori chose to attend law school. “After 9/11, I realized the need for Muslim lawyers and activists, and understood that a legal education would equip me with the skills to make a difference for the Muslim community. We as Muslim Americans are not aware of our rights. By studying law, I feel like I can contribute more towards establishing an American Muslim identity.”

    More young Muslims like Ghori are realizing that they have a responsibility to fulfill.

    Amin Al-Sarraf, 22, a resident of Los Angeles, grew up immersed in politics and is an innate activist. He came to D.C. to pursue his undergraduate degree at George Washington University and obtained internships with MPAC and with the United States State Department at the Office of Israeli and Palestinian Affairs.

    Al-Sarraf’s experiences alone delineate the need for more Muslim involvement in political and social issues. He recounts that his meetings on the Hill were trying because a trust had to be built. “They didn’t have personal contact with Muslims so they had no idea who Muslims were.”

    Fortunately, Muslims who arrive in D.C. today meet with their counterparts from all over America. Now, Friday afternoon prayers are held on the Hill and Muslims can easily connect with other Muslims through the Muslim Student Network (MSN) or through the local universities’ Muslim Student Associations.

    The presence of more young Muslims in offices has also proven to be beneficial in terms of visibility and influence.

    Arshi Siddiqui, 33, is Counsel to House Democratic Leader, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi for the Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful committees on the Hill. Siddiqui serves as Pelosi’s point person and helps form democratic positions on tax and trade issues as well as health care and social security. She shared that her work is for a greater good and that there are moments when she knows that she is influencing and shaping something.

    Another notable young Muslim is Assad Akhter. Akhter, 25, has been working on Capitol Hill for three years and wishes to run for office one day. He works for Representative Bill Pascrell from New Jersey whose constituent pool is made up of the second largest Muslim community in America. Akhter has had the opportunity to work on many community concerns, such as immigration and holiday accommodations.

    Akhter is also vice-president of the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association, a congressionally recognized group whose mission is to educate Capitol Hill on Islam. The one-year old association has held a screening of Legacy of a Prophet after the cartoon controversy earlier this year and hosted an event with a professor from the Navy War College on the misuse of words like “jihad.”

    The Association has garnered positive reception from non-Muslims and has accrued attention from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the AP.

    The MSN is also a growing vehicle for young Muslims to tap into D.C. while examining their identity and faith and focusing on contributing to American politics. Aydan Kalyoncu, 60, the Executive Director of the Muslim Public Service Network (MPSN) in D.C. explained that MSN is a summer internship program designed to encourage and support Muslim college students interested in policy-oriented internships in Washington D.C. MPSN is the successor organization created in 2005, which supports American Muslims who want to study and work in the public service and policy arenas.

    “We definitely need more Muslims involved in the political process, but what we also need are well educated Muslims who understand US policy and who are networked with policy-makers and legislators,” Kalyoncu pointed out.

    Young Muslims are also coming to D.C. through training and leadership programs. KARAMAH, a US based charitable and educational organization of Muslim women lawyers that focuses on the domestic and global issues of human rights for Muslims, has been providing a three-week leadership program for Muslim women for the past four years.

    A lot of the participants in this program were not necessarily interested in politics, but more into social work and human rights. Musarrat Yusufari, 24, applied for the program because she wanted something that would increase her awareness about current issues as well as simultaneously learn the Islamic basis.

    Both MSN and KARAMAH stress the importance of leading a life in a political and social field that is conducive with Islam.

    While opportunities are slowly surfacing for upcoming Muslim generations, contemporary challenges are still at bay.

    The Muslim community at large lacks understanding in encouraging youth to consider a career in political or social work.

    “The community can definitely help by providing more support to students. The only way Muslims can truly assimilate into the fabric of America is by creating an identity that is integrated into all parts of American society. We need Muslim journalists, Muslim news anchors, Muslim artists, Muslim architects etc.,” said Ghori.

    More often than not, parents tend to be wary of a career in the political and social field. Many mentioned that their parents are supportive, but that they really don’t understand the scope of the work that they do and would have preferred if they had chosen another career route.

    While finding work in the political and social field is not easy, Al-Sarraf assured that “if you pound the pavement long and hard you will find something.”

    As America observes the five-year anniversary of 9/11, many say that Muslims need to evaluate the advances made in improving relations with the surrounding American public and with governmental representatives.

    “It is imperative that Muslims be engaged in a visible and effective way. Otherwise, they will have no right to complain for the loss of their rights and liberties,” said the Dean of Saginaw Valley State University’s College of Business and Management, Dr. Marwan Wafa, 48. “I hope to see in my lifetime American Muslims as Senators, Representatives in Congress, Supreme Court judges and leaders of think tanks in D.C.”

    A generation of youth are rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty - penetrating the American system and working for justice. More Muslims are stepping up to bat to get their voices heard. As Al-Sarraf eloquently said, “We are at an infant stage and the people getting involved now will be our future leaders.”

    Dina Dwella, a second generation Lybian who serves as field representative for Congresswoman Lauretta Sanchez sees eye-to-eye with Al-Sarraf. “One thing we are lacking is Muslims in this field,” said Dwella. The recent Chapman University graduate believes it’s very important for the Muslim community to step up and take on more responsibility in the political arena.

    “It’s our responsibility and we have to start at any level possible, so long as we get our voices out there.” Dwella also thinks it’s the youth’s responsibility to be a good example of moderate Islam by getting involved and showing people what Muslim values and Islam are about. “I’m seeing more kids at the university level majoring in political science and getting involved,” she said.

    Although it is more typical of first generation Muslim immigrants to encourage their offspring to pursue an education in engineering and medicine, Dwella said her parents have always been supportive of her love for debate and political involvement.

    With the growing understanding of the importance of involvement of Muslims in the political arena, Dwella said “we should expect more Muslim staffers and more Muslims working in non-profit organizations.” “It is important not to give up even if one starts from entry level… There’s definitely room for growth in the political world.” Dwella believes that Muslims will eventually hold a place since Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States.

    “Muslims need to mobilize and have a voice,” Dwella said. “We need to have a mechanism to get the word out about the different possibilities and opportunities available in this country,” she said. Muslims tend to not know many of the possibilities granted to them within the United States.

    Inspiring, huh?

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