With anti-Muslim hate crimes on the rise and Donald Trump’s insistence on a Muslim ban, political representation for the Muslim community is more important than ever. And while young people, Muslim and not, are taking action across the country to fight for equal rights for everyone, Muslims lack a coherent and established organization to advocate on their behalf on Capitol Hill.
That’s where Wardah Khalid comes in: she’s the co-founder and president of Poligon Education Fund, a non-partisan organization dedicated to strengthening grassroots engagement of Muslims in politics. For Wardah, Capitol Hill is home. A graduate of Columbia University with a Master’s in International Affairs, Wardah has worked as a policy analyst for numerous organizations in Washington, D.C. She’s worked closely with Congress, the administration, and coalitions on human rights and political issues regarding Israel/Palestine, Syria, ISIS, and the Iran nuclear negotiations. She also worked as a counter terrorism consultant for the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee, as well as a strategic communications firm in Houston.
With Poligon, Wardah hopes to leverage that impressive experience to advocate for the Muslim community at the level of national policy. She spoke to The Tempest about Poligon and the power of community engagement.
The Tempest: Where did the idea for Poligon come from?
The idea of Poligon came before I started my position [as a Middle East policy analyst] at the Quaker lobby. I wanted to emulate their faith-based lobby model for the Muslim community, which lacks an institution that is focused 24/7 on Congressional engagement. The Quakers are a fairly small faith group in the US (less than 100,000) yet their impact is great because of how engaged their members are.
I saw no reason why a community of 3.3. million Muslims couldn’t achieve that.
What are Poligon’s goals in the current political climate?
Poligon’s mission is to teach Muslims how to effectively engage Congress on issues they care about and educate their representatives about Islam and challenges they face as Muslims (ex. bullying, Islamophobia, etc). They will no longer be voiceless when representatives make inflammatory statements about their faith, hold baseless and harmful hearings on “radical Islam” and “homegrown Islamic terrorism,” or introduce legislation threatening their civil rights and freedom to practice their religion in the U.S.
We accomplish this through community trainings, providing legislative updates and action alerts, coalition work, and serving as a 24/7 presence on Capitol Hill.
Given the current climate and recent political developments, what are your priorities in terms of Poligon’s work? What are you hoping to accomplish in the lead-up to the 2018 congressional elections?
Our top priority is educating and empowering the community to build relationships with their members of Congress through trainings, information, and engagement. We hope to do Congressional mapping as well to see which districts have a high percentage of Muslims and reach out to them so they can educate themselves and act before election day.
Your website notes that Muslims are the least politically engaged of all faith groups. Why do you think that is?
A significant portion of the Muslim community in America comes from an immigrant background. Those people worked hard to establish themselves and provide for their families but didn’t place as much importance on political engagement. As we can see today when Muslims are under fire left and right, that is a major problem.
For other Muslim communities such as the African American or Caucasian Muslim communities, they may be advocating on other issues, such as race or civil rights, but not specifically as it pertains to their faith. Islamophobia really came into the public eye after 9/11 (specifically around Obama’s election) and now is in the news every day, so it has taken some time for people to finally realize how important political engagement is.
What would you say to young Muslims who are perhaps wary of politics?
I used to be wary of politics myself. Then I came to see it as a necessary evil. And now I guess I’ve embraced it. Rather, I see it is a means to an end. If you want to influence policy, you can’t ignore politics. Period.
What’s your advice to young people, especially PoC, who may be worried about the direction the country is going under Trump?
Get engaged. There is no point in fear without action. Prayer is necessary, but not enough. In Islam, we have a Prophetic saying that “Trust God, but tie your camel.” I’m asking everyone in America right now to tie their camel and step up.
Get involved in your local community and stand up for the rights of others. I’ve been so heartened by the acts of solidarity I’ve seen around the country since Trump’s election. Let’s keep the momentum going and make real change together.
Note: The Tempest CEO Laila Alawa is an advisor to Poligon. This interview was edited for length and clarity.