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.
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.”