Muslim organizations bringing message of inclusiveness, involvement
Washington - Assad Akhter, the legislative director for a member of Congress, learned an interesting fact when he helped found the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association at the U.S. Capitol in 2005.
"We discovered that holding events brings attention when you're Muslim," he said. "Being Muslim can bring negative attention, but it's also an opportunity to educate and talk to people."
Akhter is president of the 70-member association, which organizes Capitol Hill discussions on religious and policy subjects. He and other Muslim congressional staffers attend Friday prayers in the U.S. Capitol building that now attract more than 100 worshipers, including dignitaries from other countries.
YOUNGER GENERATION ENGAGEMENT
Akhter is hardly unique, especially among a younger generation that is taking advantage of the remarkable diversity and vitality of the Muslim-American population to bring a renewed message of inclusiveness and interfaith alliances that belie any stereotype of Muslims as monolithic in outlook and ideas.
Take Haady Taslim, 26, an Iranian American who taught in some of the poorest schools in New Orleans before working to register Muslim Americans in Chicago to vote.
"I don't think American Muslims are the only ones to gain when we engage in the process," Taslim said on the One Nation Web site. "America gains when American Muslims become involved."
Razi Hashmi, born to a Pakistani father and American mother, struggled with his identity when he was a child. He found one answer in Islam. "Faith transcends race and culture," he said in an online profile.
But he also became politically active and organized a branch of the Muslim Students Association at his college. Hashmi is now head of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
Lema Bashir, Palestinian American and a lawyer with the Department of Justice, sees political action among Muslim Americans happening on a much larger scale than previously.
"There is a need to recognize that you are American and this is your country," she said. "You have a background, you come from somewhere, we all do. But we also need to understand that living here means getting involved in the process. And everyone benefits from that."
JOINING THE NATIONAL DEBATE
Salam Al-Marayati long has been a national voice for Muslim Americans as executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, one of the country's most prominent advocacy organizations.
Marayati contends that Muslims in America often find themselves caught up in international events over which they have no control. As a result, they frequently have to respond to actions by extremists that they themselves reject.
"Proving what we're not isn't a good media strategy," he said.
He cites the council's "Truth Over Fear" campaign to counter tensions and suspicion among Muslim and non-Muslim groups. "My biggest challenge is to make extremists irrelevant and the mainstream relevant," he said.
Marayati points to the example of Sunni and Shiite divisions in the United States. "If young people feel psychologically that they are part of the American fabric, then the division is practically immaterial for them," he says. "If not, they can feel like visitors to America and become more open to outside or negative viewpoints."
The council sponsors an annual National American Muslim Young Leaders Summit in Washington to meet with senior government officials and members of Congress.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council is part of a growing constellation of national organizations that are making Muslim voices and views heard. They include the large and influential Islamic Society of North America, the advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the New York-based American Society for Muslim Advancement, which stresses its work in interfaith activities and cultural exchanges.
Two active legal organizations have emerged as well: Muslim Advocates, founded in 2005, and the nearly 500-member National Association of Muslim Lawyers.
The voices of a new generation of Muslim-American officials are increasingly being heard in the federal government. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, has appointed Farah Pandith to the newly created position of representative to Muslim communities.
Pandith served for the last two years as the U.S. representative to Muslim communities in Europe. There, she organized multinational discussions around issues of how one can be both Muslim and Western, and how American Muslims manage their identities as both citizens and people of faith.
She anticipates a similar role in her new worldwide position. "To act as a facilitator, convener, an intellectual partner. And then walk away," Pandith said.
Dalia Mogahed, born in Egypt, is head of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and co-author of the authoritative survey "Who Speaks for Islam?" She has been appointed to President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Ask her the book's question, 'Who speaks for Islam?' and she answers, "A billion Muslims do. Rather than letting vocal extremists define the discourse, we should listen to the voices of ordinary people and thus let facts, not fear, shape our global engagement."
In Congress, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, an African American and the first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives, has been joined by a second Muslim congressional representative, Andre Carson of Indiana.
"I try to urge people to understand America is a country that has deep roots of tolerance and religious inclusion," Ellison says frequently in public statements. "Do good works, engage politically and get involved."
For more information, see the publication Being Muslim in America on America.gov. See also the Web sites of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Islamic Society of North America, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
About America.gov: U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.
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