Muslim-American leaders are urging the community to participate in the 2010 Census - the once-a-decade count of the U.S. population called for in the U.S. Constitution - that is now under way.
Like leaders of other religious, ethnic and racial groups, they're working hard to inform their communities about why participating in the census is important to them and the country.
Among the many groups helping the Census Bureau conduct its 2010 count is the American Muslim Interactive Network, or AMIN, a Washington-based organization that fosters activism, community service and civic engagement.
AMIN president Hazami Barmada recently invited members of the local Muslim community to a panel discussion about the census called Muslim Voices Matter. She said it's important to educate the community.
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"Through events like this, bringing people who ordinarily would not be engaged with the census to this platform, where they can actually hear from a census person and also question that census person right back," said Barmada. She hopes the mutual exchange will create a deeper understanding of internal policy and procedures relating to the census while also highlighting the importance of activism in the community.
Barmada said the audience had a lot of questions about why the census is important, what happens to the information that is collected and whether it would impact people's citizenship status. "These are all very legitimate questions especially in light of confidentiality because that is the big thing that keeps coming up," she said.
Confidentiality is a sensitive issue for the American Muslim community, especially because this is the first census since the passage of the PATRIOT Act. The legislation, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, increases the ability of law enforcement agencies to use telephone calls, e-mail, financial and medical records to identify, detain and deport anyone suspected of terrorism-related activities. Arab- and Muslim-American groups say the law has unfairly targeted their communities. At the Muslim Voices Matter panel, Census Regional Director Philip Lutz assured his audience that census data is protected.
"Census is used only for statistical purposes," said Lutz. "Individual information can't be shared with anyone including other federal agencies. It is exempted from the Freedom of Information Act. It is exempted from court orders and it is exempted from the PATRIOT Act. Congress has deemed an accurate count so important that it has iron-clad laws to make people feel secure and safe in filling out the form."
The data from those forms determine how the 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be divided. It guides funding decisions for how the federal government distributes more than $400 billion to state, local governments to finance community facilities such as schools, hospitals and child-care centers.
The Census Bureau's Philip Lutz said his agency relies on trusted members of the community to encourage their neighbors to actively participate, so they can avoid the undercounting of some groups as occured in the 2000 Census.
"We are trying to outreach through you, through wonderful organizations that partnered with us to get the word out, to localize the message, to find the trusted messengers within the community so that no one is omitted in the 2010 Census," said Lutz. "It is unacceptable that anyone in this day and age should not get the fair share and respect that everyone deserves."
One of those community partners is the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Virginia. Its director of outreach, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, said he's been encouraging Muslims to participate in the 2010 Census and stands ready to help them fill out the form.
"At Dar Al-Hijrah, one of the things that I think is very important was to partner with the census, to have workers in the census who will assist people in the community in Arabic language, in Urdu language and if they need any other additional languages," said Abdul-Malik. "We select individuals and if they pass the test and so on, then they will work for the census during this period to do the assistance for people to complete the census."
Abdul-Malik acknowledges that some American Muslims remain wary about why the government that treated them with such suspicion after 9/11 now wants to collect information about them. He says he points out that the census is asking for responders' name, race and ethnicity, not their religion. And he urges his congregation to recognize the benefits that participating in the census will bring to their communities in terms of education, health care and other services.
"American Muslims have an obligation to provide for, to see to it that their communities receive the resources that they should receive, not just for themselves but also for the benefit of their neighbors and their neighborhoods," said Abdul-Malik.