Young Muslim-Americans from across the United States gathered in Washington recently to speak with national political leaders about the role they can play in shaping future American policies.  As we hear in this report written by Mohamed Elshinnawi, they heard encouraging words from some veteran politicians about the power of civic activism.   
Twenty-five young men and women attended the second annual Young Muslim-American Leaders Summit-D.C., an event organized by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, or M-PAC.  The private, Washington-based public service group has been working for the past quarter century to help American Muslims become active in their local communities and more involved in shaping national policies.

Salam Al-Marayati, M-PAC's executive director, says the Washington summit is designed to give young Muslim-Americans a stronger sense of their civic identity, and to help those with an interest in public service to envision a role for themselves in the policy-making process.

"It opens their eyes and many of them are inspired to this kind of work now," he says.  "We have young Muslims who are eager to join public policy and non-profit work."

But Al-Maravati says, "we need more Muslims in civil society in America; we need more Muslims in government and media; that is the only way to be part of the solution."

During the recent Washington summit, delegates attend workshops where they learned how to become politically active in their local communities, and how to be agents of positive social change.

Youth meet political leaders  

They had a chance to speak their minds directly to some of the most influential political leaders in Washington, D.C.  On Capitol Hill, they met with a group of lawmakers that included Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California and Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress.

"The Muslim community in America is on the move politically and we are getting stronger every day," Ellison told the delegates.  He encouraged them to "get involved in both [presidential] campaigns and shape both of these campaigns in a way that reflects the best interest of this country, to make sure that every body is a part of this thing and that no body is excluded."

Ellison urged the young Muslim-Americans not to see themselves as victims or outcasts because of actions such as police surveillance, airport interrogations and ethnic profiling, which, since 9/11, have frequently targeted Arab- or Muslim-Americans.

The Congressman said many Americans are concerned about threats to their civil liberties. But to change policy, he said, you can't sit on the sidelines or turn your backs on the policymakers.  "What you need is a full heart, you need to have some confidence in the cause you are advocating for," he said.  "What you need to do is to be able to have a well-articulated point of view and then you go there and look those people in the eye and you can tell them how you feel."

But, he added, "then you need to be able to listen to what those policy makers have to tell you."

Discussing civil liberties with government officials

The young Muslim-American delegates got that chance during discussions they had about civil liberties with representatives of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

Officials from Homeland Security told the group their agency is trying to balance civil liberties with national security concerns by setting up an oversight office for civil rights.

Delegate Erum Ibrahim is a political science student from Chicago, Illinois, who is interning in Washington this summer with the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.  She said the M-PAC summit was an educational experience that she will share with her community back in Chicago.

"This has been a great way for us to meet people of different institutions, to meet actual Senators and House of representatives members," Ibrahim said. "It has been great also in terms of understanding how a lot of these institutions work."  

Above all, the delegate said, the summit taught her "how, as a Muslim and as an American citizen, I can get involved."

Ibrahim said she and the other 24 delegates found most of the government leaders with whom they met extremely sympathetic to their concerns about post-9/11 security policies and other issues.

But Nabil Al-Shurafa, a delegate from California who works with an American defense company on border security and video surveillance, said the young Muslim-Americans did not always see eye-to-eye with their political mentors, noting there had been "some tension in a few conversations."

"It is not possible to agree on everything," Al-Shurafa said. "However, we have agreed to disagree and still we leave each other with respect."

Al-Shurafa said that after taking part in the summit, he is more determined than ever to try to persuade skeptical Muslim-Americans back home that their votes do count, and that they are an important part of the American political tapestry.  He plans to educate Muslim-American voters about the 2008 presidential candidates' positions and to make sure all registered Muslim voters in his community go to the polls on Election Day this November.