Muslims lobby for recognition at State House

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SHAFAQNA – Frustrated by a mismatch of political representation and population, and disappointed by a recent incident of vandalism at a Burlington mosque, a group of imams, students, and activists gathered at the State House Thursday to deliver a message: We are here, we care about our communities, and we will vote.

Organizers of “Muslim Day on the Hill” said it is a message that can get lost in a State House without a single elected official of Muslim faith, located in a city where the most infamous crime was committed by Muslim extremists.

“We want people to know that this is our home just as much as anyone’s,” said Afif Rahman, a lead organizer with MassMuslims, who sponsored the event along with the Muslim Justice League and the Council on American-Islamic Relations branch in Massachusetts.

Activists estimate that 50,000 to 70,000 Muslims live in Greater Boston alone, and constitute about 1.5 percent of the state’s population of about 6.7 million. But only one Muslim-American holds an elected office in the state — Nadeem Mazen, who was elected to the Cambridge City Council.

Thursday’s event was a chance to mingle with lawmakers, and lobby for bills that the participants support: on increasing affordable housing, reforming school discipline, and reducing mass incarceration for non-violent offenders. It was also a field trip for 30 students at Muslim schools, who prepared speeches to deliver to legislators.

“In a climate where Muslims are somehow seen as opposed to democracy, we see today as countering that narrative,” said John Robbins, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations -Massachusetts. “We are here to stay.”

“We are here to stay” is a slogan that would be intuitive for other religious and ethnic groups, activists said, but in the wake of the US “war on terror,” and in the shadow of terrorist attacks carried out by militants who say they represent Islam, some Muslims feel unwelcome in the nation of their birth, they said.

“It’s not just bigotry, it’s actual government policies,” said Shannon Erwin, the cofounder and director of the Muslim Justice League. “There are communities that feel targeted, and the government framing of these issues are sometimes why our kids are being bullied.”

She cited as an example Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Texas boy who was arrested at school in September after a clock he made was suspected to be a bomb.

The “Clock Kid,” as Mohamed was called, was used as a lesson in civic engagement and democracy at Malik Academy of Roxbury and Alhuda Academy of Worcester, whose students attended Thursday’s event.

“The only reason he was arrested was because of his name,” said 12-year-old Mohamed Farah of Malik Academy. “I feel like people were judging our religion.”

“How would you feel?” asked 13-year-old Laila El-Samra and 12-year-olds Farrah Haytham and Ridha Alam. The girls were reciting their planned speech for lawmakers. “Sending a student to jail stunts their imagination” and “creates negative effects of embarrassment,” the girls said.

Senate president Stanley C. Rosenberg attended the opening ceremonies as did Representative Marjorie Decker, who was the official State House host.

“I hope that some year I’m talking to you about my concerns as a retiree, and you’re up here making the decisions,” Decker told the schoolchildren.

“This is your building. This is your government,” the Cambridge Democrat said.

Taymullah Abdur-Rahman, a Muslim chaplain at Harvard University, echoed the sentiments of the representative and said he hoped to see Muslim people eventually reach the highest levels of government.

“The logic of democracy begins with public education, proceeds to informed citizenship, and comes to fruiting in the securing of rights and liberties,” the Muslim chaplain said, quoting political theorist Benjamin Barber.

Abdur-Rahman said Thursday marked the beginning of Muslims in the Commonwealth securing their desired rights.

Omar Khoshafa, a 21-year-old Malden native and Harvard student studying government, said he was pleased at the event’s turnout, and hoped it signaled an increase of political organization for Muslims in Massachusetts.

But for Khoshata’s friend, 19-year-old Salman Habib, who is from Pakistan, this was all very new.

Habib is a junior at Harvard studying government, but more importantly, he became an American citizen just last week at Faneuil Hall, he said.

“It was one of the best feelings of my life,” Habib said about taking the oath of citizenship. “I’m trying to learn more about Boston politics, and today is an opportunity for me to get involved,” he said, while stopping to pore over a folder of pressure points for legislators.

Just one week into citizenship and Habib was already a lobbyist, ready to master democracy.

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