A Networking Feast

Young Muslim-Americans Gather for Conversation

Posted July 11, 2008 at 4:25pm

It was a packed room Thursday on the first floor of the building that houses the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and even though the air conditioner was running full blast, it hardly made a dent in the conversational heat generated by the 50 up-and-coming Muslim-American leaders gathered to network with Hill staffers and snack on pizza.

The event, at the CAIR headquarters on New Jersey Avenue Southeast, was part of a four-day leadership summit hosted by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which works to encourage the political and civic participation of Muslim-Americans. All present shared a passion for American politics and a desire to have the Muslim-American voice heard in the U.S. political system.

“I am showing that I am a Muslim and I am participating in the political arena,” said Aidan Ali-Sullivan, one of 25 participants in the National Muslim American Young Leaders Summit.

Before arriving at the luncheon, summit participants spent the morning meeting with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and were scheduled to meet with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) after the luncheon. Later that night, the group attended a banquet at the Hyatt Regency, where Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, was honored as the keynote speaker.

“Meeting these Congressmen is as close up as you can get to a one-on-one conversation,” summit participant Shabbir Chaudhury said. “They really listen to our views.”

Over the course of the four-day summit, the participants also took part in an interagency meeting with representatives from the departments of Homeland Security, Treasury and Justice, attended an interfaith panel and met with public opinion experts at the Gallup organization.

Summit participants ranged in age from 17 to 28, but they all shared an interest in American politics and a desire to have their voices as Muslim-Americans heard.

“This is a very diverse nation,” summit participant Erum Ibrahim said. “I want to engage that diversity and put more of a value in multiculturalism and religious pluralism.”

Ibrahim and her fellow summit participants were joined at the networking event by interns from the CAIR and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, as well as Muslim-American Hill interns.

Adult representatives from all three groups spoke at the luncheon, stressing the importance of networking and strengthening the faint Muslim-American voice in politics and Congress in particular. Out of the thousands of staffers on Capitol Hill, only about 35 are Muslim, according to J. Saleb Williams, legislative assistant for Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and active member of the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association.

“We need more of you on the Hill,” Williams said to the crowd of young people.

Corey Saylor, the national legislative director for CAIR — which keeps a presence on Capitol Hill — had a similar message for the Muslim-American youth.

“What we need you to do is consider jobs in journalism and public affairs,” Saylor said. “We have a lot to add to the political dialogue in this country. We just aren’t there yet.”

Although summit participant Ali-Sullivan has always had a passion for politics, he understands why many Muslim immigrants are not preparing for political careers.

“I think for most Muslim-Americans there is more representation in sciences, mathematics and medicine, and less in politics,” Ali-Sullivan said. “Politics is not ingrained in new immigrants coming from Muslim nations because there is often no similar democratic institution as we have in the U.S.”

A former intern for Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif) and a current consultant to the California Senate’s Local Government Committee, Ali-Sullivan hopes to take his passion for politics to the national level and run for Congress one day.

His parents just became U.S. citizens last spring in preparation for his Congressional ambitions.

“They said, ‘We may need to vote for you someday,’” Ali-Sullivan said with a laugh.

Despite the apathy for politics among many Muslim-Americans, Ali-Sullivan thinks the tides may be shifting with his generation.

Saylor agrees, asserting that the Muslim-American community has already made great strides in American politics.

“Eleven years ago we could not even move the needle,” Saylor said. “Now we can — a little.”

As for the upcoming presidential election, Ali-Sullivan says his vote as a Muslim-American comes down to foreign policy.

“I am concerned with how America is viewed internationally,” Ali-Sullivan said. For that reason, he is supporting Obama.