August 21, 2008, By DAVID OLSON, The Press-Enterprise
Malik Jiffry came back from the annual Muslim Youth Leadership Program on Sunday pumped up and ready to help dispel myths about fellow Muslims. "It was amazing," the Redlands High School senior said. "It changed my life. People there showed an interest and a want to help Muslim-Americans."
Jiffry was one of 35 high school juniors and seniors -- three from the Inland area -- who traveled to Sacramento to attend the fourth annual conference, which was sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The four-day conference featured a mock legislative session -- in which students took roles of state legislators -- and workshops on public speaking, media relations and community organizing and advocacy.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the council's Southern California office and a Corona resident, said his group hopes to get more young people interested in politics, journalism and community work.
"The goal is to demystify these fields and provide tools to be effective speakers, strong leaders and confident organizers in their own communities," he said.
Jiffry is considering whether to one day go into politics. At age 16, he already is active in his high school and community. He tutors and plays with children at a Christian-run center, and is a member of the volleyball team, speech and debate team and Spanish club.
Monsura Sirajee, a junior at Chaparral High School in Temecula and incoming co-editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, said that as Muslims get more involved in their communities and take leadership roles, non-Muslims will see the true face of Islam.
"If they're able to clear up misconceptions, which they can do through the media and through government, the word will get out that mainstream Muslims are not like the radical Muslims that Americans hear about," said Sirajee, 17, who also attended the conference.
Another conference participant, Aatif Sayeed, said one reason more Muslims are not involved in politics is that many are immigrants who know little about the U.S. political system. Sayeed said Muslims like him who have grown up in the United States need to fill the gap.
"Frankly, if we don't get involved in making laws, we don't have a right to protest," said Sayeed, 15, a junior at Centennial High School in Corona.
Many voters hold politicians' Muslim beliefs against them. A 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that nearly half of Americans were less likely to vote for a Muslim presidential candidate.
People who oppose Muslims holding political office because of a fear of them bringing a Muslim agenda to office "know nothing about Muslims," said Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minneapolis Democrat who in 2006 became the first Muslim in Congress.
"There are some (Muslim) people who would say it is anti-Islamic to do this or do that, just as there are a lot of Christians and Jews who say it is wrong to do this and do that," Ellison said by phone. "Extremists and authoritarians are in every faith, and people who are progressive and who believe in love and inclusion are in every faith."
Ellison is a strong supporter of abortion rights and same-sex marriage even though the major branches of Islam view abortion and homosexuality as immoral. Ayloush said voters shouldn't be surprised that Muslims have varying viewpoints on such issues.
"Muslims, like all other followers of faith groups, are not monolithic," he said. "They will have different levels of practice and have different interpretations of religious teachings."
Jiffry said the elections of Ellison and Rep. André Carson, an Indianapolis Democrat elected in March to replace his late grandmother in Congress, have made Muslims more likely to get involved in politics.
"It shows it's not impossible for a Muslim-American to rise up to public office and represent the people," he said.
Reach David Olson at 951-368-9462 or dolson@PE.com