Civic engagement for America’s Masajid could not be more crucial than now. America is facing challenges that can only be overcome by propelling the voices of reason into public and civic life and driving the voices of bigotry and closed- mindedness out of the public spotlight. We are facing the public rise of anti-Islamic sentiment while some of the country’s political leadership, both at the local and state levels and in Washington, D.C., have become detached from reality. Consequently, the safety and security of our families have become a growing concern for everyone. Muslim-Americans must engage in the civic arena in order to ensure, by Allah’s permission and will, that we contribute to the betterment of America, something that we, and all fair and decent citizens, want for ourselves and for our children.
With civic engagement, your Masjid will have a voice in government decisions both big and small; your Masjid can achieve solutions for issues in the community; and your Masjid can do its part to ensure social justice and equality for all – with Allah’s guidance and help. Muslim-Americans’ civic engagement with their communities and our participation in the political process is a mutually beneficial affair. Engaging with our elected and public officials guarantees that the voices of Muslim-Americans are heard, especially on topics such as presenting accurate information about Islam, countering terrorism and violence in our communities, and finding sensible solutions to community issues.
The Muslim Association of Virginia (MAV) has, in fact, been active in the civic arena for some 16 years now. Alhamdulillah, MAV has been successful in achieving major accomplishments for our community including the successful defeat of the anti-Sharia legislation in the Virginia Congress; the introduction and passing of a Halal bill in Virginia to regulate the labeling, identification, and sale of Halal products; lobbying for legislation granting students a religious holiday for Eid; and active voter registration which resulted in registering over 200 voters during Ramadan this year.
MAV has identified some crucial steps and activities in a successful civic engagement program, and encourages all Masajid and Muslim organizations who have not already done so, to develop their own civic engagement program. Some of the steps and activities include:
Set Up Voter Registration
Your primary leverage with elected officials is demonstrating that you represent a large group of voters. In order to effectively represent your Masjid, you must ensure that its members are registered to vote. There are two ways to accomplish this goal: (1) your Masjid can set up its own voter registration team with registration tables at Jumu’ah prayers; or (2) you can bring in an outside organization that focuses on getting voters registered.
Provide a Forum for Community Engagement
The Masjid is a perfect space for school board or town hall meetings, and for debates between local, regional, and even national candidates. Not only does this benefit your community by bringing the information directly to your Masjid, but this also allows some non-Muslim members of the community an opportunity to set foot inside a Masjid for the first time in their lives. That opportunity to introduce community members of other faiths to your Masjid and their Muslim neighbors is critical to the success of your civic engagement program.
Assist Homeless Shelters
Show your community how vital charity is in Islam. Assist with food drives, help find shelter for families in need, visit the elderly at senior centers, become mentors/tutors for disadvantaged youth, volunteer at local schools or hospitals — your involvement in charity outside the Masjid demonstrates that you are dedicated to improving the community and, more importantly, that we care about our fellow citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Build a Relationship with Local Law Enforcement
The security, good will, and community building that your Masjid receives from fostering a good relationship with local law enforcement is vital to the success of your civic engagement program. When a tragic event injures or takes the life of an officer protecting your community, be proactive about supporting the police station and the families of the officers. Your support of law enforcement events, memorials, and parades establishes a relationship of trust between the Masjid, its community, and local law enforcement. Inviting local law enforcement leaders to the Masjid is a great way to begin that relationship.
Encourage Members of your Masjid to Get Involved
Members of your Masjid should strive to serve on school boards, commissions, and civic associations, and to run for elected office. Having Muslims in those positions amplifies the voice of your Masjid and the Muslim community, from the grassroots level and up.
Participate in Public Events
Announce at your Masjid public events like parades and 4th of July celebrations and encourage attendance. If possible, provide transportation to such events to ensure turnout and that your community supports these events as a unified group. The more the wider community interacts with the members of your Masjid, the more successful your civic engagement program can, and will be, insha’Allah.
Offer Elected Officials Speaking Time During Jumu’ah and Eid Prayers
Invite local, state, and federal elected officials and candidates to speak at your Masjid. This benefits your Masjid in the following ways: 1) gives your members an opportunity to hear directly from officials and candidates; and 2) offers an opportunity for your members to speak directly to their elected official, asking questions to learn where that official stands on important issues. Set aside time (approximately 10-15 minutes) before the start of prayers to allow elected officials to speak to your community (for those officials who did not get to speak, acknowledge them and their attendance). It is vital that you make every effort to invite all candidates who are running for an elected office, regardless of party affiliation. Ensure that you are keeping a record of those invitations so that the non-profit status of your Masjid is protected and not placed in legal jeopardy.
Support Sensible Elected Officials Regardless of Party Affiliation
Do not engage with only one side of the political spectrum. Not every issue your Masjid encounters will be a shared concern of the major political party you (may) typically affiliate with. There are sensible elected officials in every party and it is important to have the opportunity to speak with them and raise issues, regardless of their political affiliation.
Work Towards Common Goals
When you engage an elected official, work towards achieving common goals rather than debating divisive issues. Your Masjid’s civic engagement program cannot solve every issue. Identify what issues are feasible for that elected official to accomplish and focus on those. Aggressively pursuing issues that the elected official is strongly opposed to, or where an agreement cannot be achieved, will usually result in little being accomplished and can burn rather than build bridges of understanding and cooperation. Choose your battles carefully.
Organize with Others When Meeting Elected Officials
Communicate with other Masajid, interfaith organizations, civic organizations, and local entities to encourage leaders from those organizations to attend meetings with elected officials alongside you. Showing unity and representation of a large voting bloc is important when speaking with elected officials. Don’t show up at the elected official’s office with a mob, however. Carefully choose leaders that represent a variety of organizations with goals and concerns in common with your Masjid.
Know your Strengths and Abilities
If you know you have large numerical or widespread support in the community – and can demonstrate or document it – strategically and tactically let officials know. Do not be hostile or overbearing at any time. Do not exaggerate your capabilities and strengths. Accentuate your good relations with other elected officials who support your position(s) and who may be allies to the particular official you are meeting with. Be organized in your presentations, making sure to highlight the key objectives or issues on your list.
Establish Interfaith Engagement
Reach out to other faith organizations in your area and work with them in all aspects of your civic engagement program. They likely already have some activities and strategies in place and may be willing to share what they have learned. And many faith organizations share similar values with Muslims. Remember, the more unity, the better!
Promote on Social Media
Remember that most Americans get their news and social views from what is on their social media feeds. Promote your Masjid and community events on social media and connect with other local organizations and your wider community.
Determine the Intentions of Those Who You Engage With
There are three reasons why another organization or an elected official is engaging with your Masjid:
- They are focused on the best interests of the community
- They are there for their own self-interest
- They just need your Masjid for a photo opportunity
- Know what you want to accomplish with those your Masjid engages with and focus your efforts on those who can produce positive results.
Designate a Credible Spokesperson
Your Masjid’s civic engagement program must have a credible spokesperson who can meet with elected officials, other organizations, and the wider community to successfully engage in the civic arena. The designated spokesperson does not need experience in politics; they just need to be able to accurately and effectively convey the community’s issues and messaging to elected officials.
In order for 501(c)(3) organizations to participate in civic political engagement, they must invite all candidates who are involved in an election and they must announce that they do not endorse or oppose any candidate.
This article is compiled by Dar al-Noor Masjid (MAV) in Manassas, VA.