As I was walking through the gates of the White House, and making my way towards the west wing, I remembered my last visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I was a little kid, probably wearing my first suit and red clip-on tie, and had been invited to the Reagan White House for a Christmas party. As a child, I recall three things: meeting President Ronald Reagan and the First Lady, meeting many children from diplomatic families, and a lively performance from the California Raisins. This time, the visit was very different.
As the COO and Director of Policy Impact of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a national applied research organization and think tank with a focus on issues of concern to the American Muslim community, I was invited along with a group of American Muslim leaders to a historic, first of its kind meeting with President Obama and high ranking administration staff to represent the American Muslim communities’ collective concerns at the White House. It was both an honor and yet a burden that weighed heavily on my shoulders. Alhamdulillah, the diverse group that presented did so to the best of their abilities. I do remember thinking, as I looked around the room, that we as a community need to discuss the politics of representation. I was honored to be invited, although I believe the community should ask the question, “Who else needs to be present in the future?”
The group presented on a broad range of issues impacting American Muslim communities. Among the topics discussed were the Affordable Care Act, issues of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination, the 21st Century Policing Task Force, and the upcoming White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.
I shared ISPU’s research on American Muslims with the Obama administration on specific topics such as anti-Muslim bigotry, civic engagement, entrepreneurship, and concerns about anti-Muslim rhetoric around the upcoming elections. The meeting also afforded an opportunity to highlight how American Muslims are serving as job creators, innovators, and philanthropists in their communities, and making nationally significant contributions to America’s growth and development. We asked the White House to use our objective data as a foundation for policy making, analysis, and when speaking about American Muslims’ positive contributions to the nation.
I strongly feel this meeting was a collective win and should be celebrated. It set a precedent for future years and administrations. Until this point, the President would only meet with American Muslim leaders at White House iftars and private fundraisers. However, this sit down meeting provided the opportunity to dig deeper, in a more substantive way into the state of affairs of American Muslim communities. Events such as this do not come about without years of effort and this success should be attributed to both the many individuals who were in the room and the many outside who helped to make this meeting possible. Meeting with President Obama should be seen in a nuanced way. It will not change the world, nor was it an exercise in futility. The outcomes are dependent on the continuation of the great work that multiple organizations are currently pursuing in our local communities with a mindset towards national and global implications.
I appreciated the many national leaders and mentors who provided invaluable advice in preparation for this meeting. Additionally, I was thankful to be positioned with evidence-based, rigorous research, made possible due to the hard work of ISPU’s scholars and thought leaders.
Since I returned to Michigan, people have continued to ask, “What do we do now?” I encourage the following:
1) We need to actively participate in our democracy and organize the communities to continue to value and exercise the rights we are blessed with. This means more civic engagement, voter registration, and political participation.
2) Continue to sacrifice and support our specialized nonprofits with money, time and expertise, while constantly challenging our leadership and ensuring a high level of accountability at every step of the way. Although we may feel overburdened, we still need more specialized groups and greater resources to match the communities’ many needs and challenges.
3) Encourage, cultivate, and support more individuals in our communities to go into public service, more specifically to work in all branches of government to serve our nation. This should include career public servants and elected positions within local, state, and the federal government.