From Muslim Youths, a Push for Change

Rabia Ethage, 24, of Arlington, left, Aalaa Abuzaakouk, 22, of Fairfax and Shejea Khan, 20, of Indianapolis were among those at a Thursday coffee hour that encouraged youths at the summit to explore common interests. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

Attending what Muslim American activists say is the highest-level meeting ever between Muslim American youths and U.S. officials, Mohamed Sabur couldn't help but notice a frustrating paradox.

Part of what motivated the 23-year-old to leave computer science for politics was anger at seeing his community constantly defined by extreme topics such as religious violence. And yet Sabur sat last week through unprecedented meetings with officials from the departments of Homeland Security, State and Justice, and one subject kept coming up: Muslim American youth radicalization.

"I'm trying constantly to figure out: How can I be a civically involved Muslim, interact with other Muslims as well as the government while not seeming like a sellout, like my allegiance is in one camp or another?" the native Minnesotan said Friday, just before dinner on Capitol Hill with the two dozen other participants of the first National Muslim American Youth Summit, which ended yesterday. The summit was organized by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, one of the largest U.S. Muslim advocacy groups, to expose future leaders to the workings of a government many Muslims feel speaks about them but not to them.

Six years into a serious political and religious awakening prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks, American Muslims know why such meetings haven't happened before. The community, 65 percent foreign-born, is just starting to build the type of institutions that can produce young Muslim civic leaders (some call this period "embryonic"). On the government side, things were just too brittle for a lot of invitations to be extended, officials say.

But what young Muslim Americans don't know, summit participants said, is precisely what to do with their newfound drive. Anxious to take the reins from their immigrant parents, they have questions unique to them and to today. Do they see themselves working on Capitol Hill, even though there are so few Muslim staffers? What is the overlap between Islam and the U.S. Constitution? Can they maintain credibility with their peers if they team up too much with an administration many Muslim and Arab Americans see as hostile?

The last question is familiar to the 27 participants of the summit, as the Muslim council is viewed as having the coziest links to law enforcement and the Bush administration among the handful of major Muslim American advocacy groups, other groups and summit participants say.

"When we go to the Pentagon, the community goes nuts; people are like, 'Are you guys becoming the Muslim mouthpiece for these agencies?' " said Safiya Ghori, the group's government relations director. "We are trying to be very transparent, but it is important for us to be here. There are always people who don't feel like engaging [with the government], but we feel that is our strategy."

The issue of acceptance flips quickly to that of language, and a term that many young Muslim Americans find loaded: "moderate." While Muslim council Executive Director Salam al-Marayati liberally uses the term, some members of younger generations bristle at the notion of getting an official stamp of approval and prefer "mainstream" -- though that, too, they say, is not well-defined and has become politicized.

An essay making the rounds among summit participants, "Why I Am Not a Moderate Muslim," argued that the push for "moderate" Islam implies that orthodox Islam entails violence.

"To be a 'moderate' Muslim is to be a 'good,' malleable Muslim in the eyes of Western society," read the essay by University of Cambridge master's student and Indiana native Asma Khalid that was published in the Christian Science Monitor.

Omar Sarwar, 25, came to the summit on a mission. Driven after terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe to "contribute to the future of this country," the Columbia University graduate ditched a career in banking to go back to school and study politics and religion. After two days of meeting with agency staff members, he was thinking he might have more influence at a think tank than in the government.

"These people aren't making policy. They're carrying it out," said the New Yorker, whose parents are from Pakistan.

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