As one of the few visible Muslims sitting in the Sessions confirmation hearing this week, my experience was an uncomfortable one. I could barely watch as Senator Sessions calmly informed the Senate Judiciary Committee that religion could be used as a means of vetting people from entering the country, that he was open to conducting surveillance of religious institutions, and that he knew nothing about the history of the anti-Muslim hate groups he received awards from (which he also failed to disclose). The hearing left me highly concerned about the future of the Muslim American community over the next four years.
However, it was also a strong validation that the efforts that I and others have put forth to increase American Muslim participation in the political process are extremely crucial.
Last week, millennial Muslim leaders, including myself, launched Poligon Education Fund (Poligon), a national, non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing American Muslim engagement with Congress. My motivation to do so stemmed from years of civic engagement work with the Muslim community and my experience working as a Middle East policy analyst at a Quaker lobby in D.C. While the Quakers are a relatively small faith community of less than 100,000 in the U.S., their positive impact on the federal government is significant. By contrast, the political influence of the 3.3 million Muslims who call the U.S. home is disproportionately small.
Sure, the Muslim community did a great job educating and mobilizing voters during the Presidential campaign season, but there is much more progress to be made when it comes to sustained engagement with those that represent us and create our laws on Capitol Hill. In fact, Muslims are actually the least likely faith group to be politically engaged. At a time when anti-Muslim sentiment in the public and private spheres has reached an all-time high since 9/11, this is downright dangerous.
Consequences of Islamophobia include bullying in schools and universities by both teachers and peers, public harassment of men and women perceived to be Muslim, and political discourse about registering and banning Muslims from the U.S. outright (including at the Senate confirmation hearings). At the same time, anti-shariah legislation, passed and pending in states around the country, is threatening to eliminate fundamental rights of Muslim to pray, fast, and give charity as prescribed by their faith. This is certainly not an environment that espouses our constitutionally protected principles of freedom and liberty for all.
Poligon aims to educate our representatives about Islam and issues of concern to Muslims and their allies such as civil rights, Islamophobia, and the economy, while increasing the community’s political acumen through trainings, legislative updates, and policy guidance. It will also work with faith-based organizations and civil rights groups to ensure that the right to religious freedom, as protected by the Constitution, is not denied to Americans who practice Islam. In doing so, Poligon hopes to help shape an America where all people, regardless of background or belief, are treated with justice and dignity and can live together in peace and security.
Since our launch last week, I have already seen tweets alerting known Islamophobic individuals and organizations (including those that granted awards to Senator Sessions) about Poligon, referring to it as “another Islamic takeover.” Such criticism is proof of exactly why we need such an institution in the first place. The misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims has impacted our public and policy makers to the point where anything related to Islam is looked upon with suspicion. This is a true shame, considering Muslims have been in America since the birth of this country and have every right (and responsibility) to be civically engaged.
Thankfully, the feedback I’ve received from Muslim friends and non-Muslim allies has been much more positive. People around the country are eager to help Muslims get more plugged into the political process because they recognize that the stakes are extremely high, especially in light of the incoming administration. Strengthening relationships with old and new allies and changing the narrative about Islam on Capitol Hill is a much needed start. Such relationships no doubt contributed to the positive statements and keen questioning about Muslim and immigrant rights during the hearing by representatives such as Senators Durbin, Klobuchar, Blumenthal, and Hirono.
American Muslims are grateful for their support and will continue to look to their leadership over the next four years. Hopefully, with increased participation from the community, others will join them in standing up for Muslim rights and questioning fellow representatives about their involvement with Islamophobic organizations.
If the Sessions confirmation was any indication, we certainly have our work cut out for us, but the potential to make a positive change together is certainly possible.
To learn more about Poligon Education Fund, visit www.poligonnational.org.