News / USA

Young Muslim-American Leaders on the Rise

Fellows of the Muslim Public Service Network discuss the importance of public service, in Washington, D.C.
Fellows of the Muslim Public Service Network discuss the importance of public service, in Washington, D.C.
Hina Samnani

This year marks the tenth anniversary of September 11, and as the tragic date draws closer, some surveys show Americans still remain conflicted over their views on the Muslim world.  The Arab Spring uprisings have raised a positive image of Muslims striving for democratic values, yet events like the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy and the contentious Peter King hearings only reiterate the fact that a negative spotlight still shines on the followers of the Islamic faith.  But these perceptions have not stopped Muslim Americans, specifically the youth, from taking the initiative to change people’s impressions for the better.

An increasing number of Muslim American students are stepping up and are pursuing careers in public service.  From all across the country, these students come to Washington D.C. to participate in American society and represent Muslims as voices in the political process.

Some Muslim American students are being assisted by organizations that encourage Muslim students to work in the public sector to change these negative perceptions.  These organizations believe that working in public service will encourage better communication between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Encouraging involvement in public service

The Muslim Public Service Network or MPSN is a program, started in 1994, that brings young Muslim Americans from all across the United States to intern in Washington D.C.  This program supplements the students’ experiences with additional curriculum and community service and provides them housing for the summer.

“The founders had a lot of foresight and vision to establish something like this long before 9/11 and now the status of Muslim Americans has really come to the forefront of people’s minds,” said Nada Zohdy, a staff member of MPSN and a former MPSN fellow.

Zohdy remarked that while Muslims make up about one percent of the American population, media attention remains focused on Muslim communities.

MPSN encourages its fellows to interact with others in various fields, ranging from the government to the nonprofit sector.  Zohdy explained that the program strives for diversity, shaping a class that encompasses students of many ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

“We think that one way to proactively combat negative stereotypes is for Muslims to work in all range of fields,” Zohdy said.  “We try day in and day out, regardless of what the headlines are in the media, and just consistently develop a large group of young passionate leaders who are working in all sorts of fields.”

The MPSN program consists of discussions every night where prominent speakers talk to students about public service.  MPSN encourages a discussion about the importance of a Muslim American identity “that’s rooted in faith,” according to Zohdy, and it brings together students who are at different levels of religious practice, to foster diverse perspectives and ideas.

Pernian Faheem, a current MPSN fellow and an undergraduate student at Mills College, explained that people recommended the program to her when she was applying for internships in Washington D.C.

“I wanted to get more of that experience and interaction with Muslim Americans, so what’s why I joined MPSN,” Faheem said.  “I’m interested in public policy and MPSN has that focus, and I wanted to be a part of it and I believe in their mission of civic engagement.”

Building leadership skills

Another organization called the Center for Global Understanding or CFGU, has recently started an internship program as well that encourages minority students - particularly Muslim minorities - to come to Washington D.C. to build leadership skills for their post-graduate endeavors.  The internship program was created in 2009 and has since grown significantly.

“We’re looking 10 to 15 years forward, and what we see is a group of minority leaders stepping up and becoming more of a part of the democratic process in the United State,” said Fatimeh Shamseddine, the Program Consultant of CFGU and a former intern of the organization.

Similar to MPSN, CFGU holds lecture series where students meet prominent Muslim leaders in Washington D.C.  CFGU awards scholarships to students to offset the costs of interning in the city.

Samia El Haj Ibrahim, a current CFGU intern and a graduate student at the University of Southern California, observed that programs like MPSN and CFGU are valuable tools that students should utilize.

“There’s definitely a need for these organizations and I hope that they continue to be supported,” she said.  “It’s also important that they are established organizations, have name recognition, and are partnered with other organizations that help strengthen their programs.”

Are perceptions changing?

Many Muslim Americans are optimistic.  Organizations, such as MPSN and CFGU, have provided Muslim students the opportunity to come to Washington D.C. and interact with people from various fields, but ultimately, the motivation to combat Muslim stereotypes lies within the students themselves.

“Speaking personally, I think 9/11 definitely had something to do with inspiring me to really pursue a career in public service and it is imperative for us, both as Americans but also as Muslims, to contribute positively to society,” Zohdy said.

She mentioned that a significant growth in applicants occurred during 2001 and 2002 - possibly following the events of 9/11 - when the largest class, about 30 students, entered the program.

So far MPSN has seen about 270 fellows filter through the program since its initial creation, who have moved on to pursue careers in different fields.  A few work at think tanks, others at Capitol Hill, while several former students have entered the medical field.  But Washington D.C. still sees the highest concentration of alumni.  Many stay in the city to improve the favorability of Muslims at the federal level.

The program’s most notable alumnus appears to be Rashad Hussain, who is President Barack Obama’s Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference.  Hussain entered the MPSN program as an undergraduate student and has since gone off to work at the White House and State Department.  Currently, he advises the President on issues related to Muslim communities.

CFGU has had about 40 students participate in the program but the impact these students will have in the public sector remains to be seen.

Students discuss issues relating to Muslim Americans with prominent speakers at the house of the Muslim Public Service Network in Washington, D.C.
Students discuss issues relating to Muslim Americans with prominent speakers at the house of the Muslim Public Service Network in Washington, D.C.

Faheem said that MPSN has the potential to help students bridge the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

“The program really stresses a lot on how to give back to society, starting from your own Muslim community,” Faheem said.  “I think it’s important to hold true to your beliefs, but at the same time, be able to convince other communities and other individuals that while we are Muslim, we’re also American.”

Ibrahim believes that the lack of effective leadership has contributed to the negative perception of Muslims.  She stresses that the importance of new Muslim leaders is “what is needed in the Muslim community.”

“You have to be involved in the process, you can’t just emerge as the leader of such and such group,” Ibrahim said.  “I think our first step is to get Muslim Americans in these government positions so that they are seen and heard, and from that we’ll have a new set of leaders emerge.”

Many Muslim Americans, like Zohdy and Faheem, have an interest in international development while a few, like Ibrahim, come to Washington with a passion for public health.

Yet whatever interests each student has for coming to Washington D.C., Shamseddine has noted a clear commonality that links each Muslim intern to the city.

“A lot of students - even if they’re in the medical field, the business field, the legal field - all of them somehow have some interest in policy,” she said.  “I think what these students realize is that policy is rooted in everything that we do, whether it’s the public sector or legal field.”

You May Like

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs