Return to the Nation’s Mosque: A Personal Return to Innocence – Part 2

Washington, D.C. CWSC Executive Director Mukhtar Muhammad traveled to the nation’s capital and to its national mosque and shared the following reflections on a journey and lessons learned to help remake the world. Part 1 of this article can be read here.

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L-R: Khafi McDowell, Darlene Muhammad, Debbie Shankman, Mukhtar Muhammad, Imam Dr. Talib Shareef, Maya Muhammad, and Fitrah Muhammad at Masjid Muhammad.

Soon we were in the company of Imam Talib and we warmly embraced as he greeted us with his trademark smile and a southern hospitality I remember from when he was an imam in Georgia, but I would learn that Imam Talib was actually a native Washingtonian. More introductions followed including meeting the Imam’s chief of staff. Now I might be assigning her that title, but I’ve seen chiefs of staff at some of the highest levels of government and believe me this sister moved with an equal professionalism and confidence—her name was Fitrah Muhammad. I had heard the name before and it was a great honor to finally meet her in person. Even though it may not be official, I think the title I mentioned fits though, because I saw Sister Fitrah in action during my time in various meetings and I thought to myself, every imam should have a Ftirah Muhammad.

I then had a chance to meet more staff and meet many other believers before departing for Capitol Hill. In fact, each day I arrived at the masjid, I was greeted by worshippers seemingly from every corner of the globe coming for prayer as to be expected, but I also saw believers meeting for breakfast and lunch. I learned the masjid offered a community-based nutritional meals program for seniors among many community outreach services sponsored by the masjid and there was also a drive, no pun intended, underway to secure multi-passenger transportion for the seniors.

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Saisaa Neel

One of the days during my visit, I was blessed to see another CWSC volunteer, Sister Saisa Neel who along with her husband Shuaib, helped launch CWSC’s first national townhall in St. Louis; and it was great seeing her again. Then we were blessed to see another pioneer and old friend I knew and had the privilege to work with on the former Islamic Affairs Council many years ago, when one of Masjid Muhammad’s former imams, Yusuf Saleem (and Mrs. Saleem) stopped by for a visit. We embraced and shared lots of laughs over a meal as I learned they’d soon be celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary! I didn’t let the opportunity pass me by to get some free sage matrimonial advice before we had to depart as I invited them both to visit with us in the Sunshine State.

 

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Imam & Mrs. Saleem

On the big day though, our Congressional Delegation made its way briskly to vehicles waiting outside to whisk us through what looked like a daily labyrinth of organized chaos on the streets surrounding the Capitol area and its historic neighborhoods. We rode the short distance to the Hart Senate Building while conversing on the ever present discussion of helping all our communities progress while discussing some of Masjid Muhammad’s activities that were underway including the Nation’s Mosque major multi-million dollar renovation project for the now 58-year old complex. I was even blessed to sit in on a planning meeting with Imam Talib and members of the masjid’s administration along with architects, contractors and engineers.

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Masjid Muhammad Architectural Renovation Planning Team

As we arrived at the Hart Building, I learned Imam Talib had an advance liaison already on Capitol Hill ready to accompany us into the congressional offices. That’s when I had a chance to meet another local leader, Brother Mongi Dhaouadi, Senior Program Officer for Tunisia & North Africa for The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. Mongi like Imam Talib was “at home” on Capitol Hill and well qualified to represent and help articulate our interests.

To apply sustained solutions to chronic social issues, we’re going to have to expand our definition of group intellect, and simultaneously expand appreciation and respect for the group intellect.—M. Muhammad, CWSC Exec. Dir.

I very much enjoyed his company and hearing his insights on the current political climate, as well as the role American Muslims must play in our democracy. It was indeed a great blessing to have him present in our discussions with congressional staffer Jonathan Levi, Legislative Correspondent for Maryland’s

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Hon. Eleanor Holmes Norton representing the District of Columbia welcomes (L-R) Mongi Dhaouadi, Debbie Shankman, Imam Talib Shareef, and Mukhtar Muhammad to her Rayburn Offices on Capitol Hill.

Senator Chris Van Hollen. Mongi was also at the table in our meeting with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Representative Norton and her staff graciously welcomed us and allowed liberal discussion. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by all the time we were granted by all welcoming us to Capitol Hill. We would later congratulate Congresswoman Norton on her campaign victory and the start of her fourteenth term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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CAIR National Exec. Dir. Nihad Awad welcomes (L-R) Debbie Shankman, Imam Talib Shareef, and Mukhtar Muhammad at CAIR Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Another highlight of my journey included a visit to the national headquarters of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the leading civil rights and social justice institution for the American Muslim Community. It was an honor to meet National Executive Director Nihad Awad and to receive a personal briefing and tour of the national operations. As one of our leaders, Brother Nihad is leading an inspired and committed team of advocates at a critical time in our nation’s and American Muslim Community’s history. We pledged to have further dialogue and opportunities for CWSC and CAIR collaboration.

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CAIR’s Nat’l Exec. Dir. Nihad Awad receives gift of CWSC organizational pen.

One of the important takeaways for the CWSC journey to Washington is that there are many good works being performed by individuals and institutions in Washington and around the nation from faith-based non-profits to business to government institutions and others—much of which we don’t hear about. The news cycle has a tendency to be dominated by a few stories and so an informed citizen has to work a little harder to search out more information sources to have a more well-rounded view of the nation and the world. My perspective was certainly expanded in many ways during my visit and because of special opportunities arranged by Imam Talib; one such opportunity occurred right on the grounds of the Capitol.

Imam Talib invited me to accompany him to an annual event I had not previously heard of and it happened to be taking place during the same time as my visit to Washington; I don’t know how it got past my radar in the past, but I’m thankful to the Imam and have since recommended to the CWSC that we place June 20th on the CWSC National Calendar of Events and seek to invite persons to share their experiences on American Muslim 360 on World Refugee Day.

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Imam Talib waits to address the World Refugee Press Conference as Diane Randall, Executive Secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers) introduces Rep. Ted W. Lieu (D-CA). Newly elected Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is pictured left of Rep. Lieu.

Against the backdrop of the Trump Administration’s immigration policies including what many say is apparent deliberate forced separation of children from their parents and the infamous “Muslim Ban,” along with what many view as a general tepid response to the current unprecedented global refugee crisis, I witnessed ordinary citizens, national and local lawmakers, faith-based and other community leaders gathered on the grounds of the nation’s Capitol which represented just one of over 150 events held that day in the U.S. alone to support some of the most disenfranchised and often persecuted persons on the planet.

If you’re not engaged in working for positive change other than just for you and your family, then you have to seriously ask, “Am I part of the solution or the problem?

To commemorate the official U.N. observance of World Refugee Day, U.S. Rep. Ted W. Lieu (D) of Los Angeles County joined other Congressional members, local legislators, refugees, and faith leaders to address the nation’s historic commitment to welcome refugees. According to the UN, while there are over 25 million refugees globally, only .06% have been accepted into the U.S. as of May 2018. Reps. Lieu and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida have introduced a resolution commemorating World Refugee Day, acknowledging the courage, strength, and determination of those forced to flee their homes due to conflict, violence and persecution.

At a press conference and demonstration, I was spellbound by the personal stories of three former refugees told in their own words, now naturalized U.S. citizens, and from different corners of the world—each with her own harrowing tale of unimaginable hardship and survival experiences the like of which most reading this will never have to endure. I was there to witness their testimony with the Imam along with others like Diane Randall, Executive Secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers) and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation who all gave remarks on the importance of diversity to our nation morally and economically; they all cautioned the audience that America must retain her leadership role in speaking up globally for the least among us.

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Imam Talib gives remarks at World Refugee Day event.

While stressing as of 2018, the unprecedented 70 million dislocated persons including more than 25 million in a refugee status needing aid and with less than one percent of them settled, Imam Talib eloquently shared the commonality of all the Abrahamic Faiths and other traditions in recognizing the duty to help the orphan and the wayfarer and declared that we shouldn’t allow racism, prejudice, classism or other unfair discrimination to deny the most basic of human rights to our fellow human beings. Indeed the Islamic Calendar itself begins with an immigration event involving dispossessed citizens under threat leaving for better circumstance. And there is the Exodus of the Children of Israel leaving the tyranny of Egypt’s Pharaoh. It was a message well received by the diverse audience in attendance, many of whom held signs protesting the Trump Administration’s Muslim Ban, or forced separation of children from their families, or other social justice concerns.

…Each of us is Ansar and Muhajirrun in one way or another because we all have something to contribute and we all need each other.

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Former Ugandan refugee Deborah Jane shares her story.

The three former refugees who spoke were Deborah Jane, a former Ugandan refugee who was resettled in Columbus, Ohio after surviving an acid attack in retaliation for her work to counter domestic violence. Deborah left all behind fleeing to Kenya and finally resettling in the U.S. in 2016 and is now realizing entrepreneurial dreams. Next was Uyen Nguyen who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam when she was just 11 years old and after surviving on the open ocean in a damaged boat with no food and water, but not before she and her brother had to witness the deaths of her mother and baby sister aboard that vessel. Today Nguyen is a non-profit leader helping children; she’s also an entrepreneur and recruiter and trainer of women desiring to run for public office.

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Former MN State Rep. Hon. Ilhan Omar, now elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, shares her family’s refugee story.

Finally there was Minnesota State Representative Honorable Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American Muslim legislator elected to office, who with her family spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing the bloodshed of a civil war in Somalia before finally being settled in the U.S. in 1995.

Because of the help that all three women received from communities and organizations and the protections afforded under fair immigration policy, they are all now successful and giving back to society. I was truly inspired by these women and others gathered that day who came to speak out and do something to affect change.

The refugees I saw on World Refugee Day caused me to question my own personal contribution to the freedom struggle for common human dignity and social justice. I believe each of us should question ourselves. We have to ask, “What am I doing and what am I prepared to do to help the group interest and work with the group intellect?” What am I doing, not what is President Trump or another political or famous person or infamous person doing. Again, we should ask ourselves, “what are we doing.” If you’re not engaged in volunteering at least a few hours a week or month working for positive change other than just for you and your family, then you have to seriously ask, “Am I part of the solution or a part of the problem?” These questions permeated the discussion with another elected servant of the people, the Honorable Andre Carson from Indiana, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of two Muslims that were serving in the U.S. Congress. Of course, we can now add Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan to the distinguished roster praise be to Allah (SWT).

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Former Vietnamese refugee Uyen Nguyen shares her harrowing tale of survival and immigration to the U.S.

We were privileged to meet with and discuss the gun violence issue and more with Congressman Carson of Indianapolis. The Congressman underscored the importance of mutual appreciation and collaboration between concerned groups that may be working for slightly different goals, but very much related agendas or with the same principal objectives and constituent focus. Now I’m paraphrasing, but I believe that was the gist of one of his many poignant remarks shared with us. I agree with Congressman Carson.

From my own viewpoint, each of us is Ansar and Muhajirrun in one way or another because we all have something to contribute and we all need each other. But if we allow elements to forge a divide like racism, xenophobia, hurt feelings or left over ghosts from the pasts, turf mentality and the like, then we will never see the full victory we seek. To replicate the City of Light of—Madinah Munawarah, we’ve got to look more closely at the model of the Prophet’s (S) leadership and how he brought people together from various backgrounds, nationalities, ethnicities, and stations in life and found a common point of faith and citizenship.

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Indiana’s Representative Hon. Andre Carson welcomes some of the members of the CWSC Delegation to Capitol Hill.

If we want to find and apply sustained solutions to chronic social issues, then we’re going to have to expand our definition of group intellect, and simultaneously expand appreciation and respect for the group intellect.

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Imam Talib shares an “interfaith huddle” with intra & interfaith collaborators Mohamed Salih Abubakr of The African Middle Eastern Leadership Project and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation.

Well as I compile my notes to prepare for the next leg of my journey, my Washington, D.C. visit has come to an end. I hope to share observations on my visit to the new Smithsonian African American History Museum at a later time. As I depart the City for Trenton, New Jersey, I am sadly aware that another mass shooting has just occurred there and I make du’a for the victims and their families, and for our nation. Far too soon, the New jersey shootings are a difficult reminder of the work that lies ahead for all of us in helping to remake our world.

From New Jersey, I’ll travel to South Carolina for a brief visit before returning to Florida, I’m full of the experiences and new friendships made and old ones renewed. At the same time as my interfaith journey winds down, the Eid Days of Celebration were ending and CWSC was simultaneously concluding the national Return to Innocence Campaign to help us all create new friendships, rekindle and make closer existing relationships or help bridge divides among Muslim communities throughout America, I felt I and CWSC had done our part in Returning to Innocence.

My journey was also an opportunity to re-create, to return to the office of Executive Director with new ideas and a bigger vision to contribute with our team.

I thank Allah (SWT) for His Mercy and I thank Imam Talib Shareef and staff and all the wonderful believers of Masjid Muhammad present and past for carrying forth the mission. I thank Sister Debbie and Brother Mongi, CAIR National Executive Director Brother Nihad and his steller team, and every institution that signed the Never Again Interfaith Letter and all the Capitol Hill elected leaders and staffers that welcomed us. I also thank all my extended family who whether by blood relation or marriage along the way from Virginia and Washington to New Jersey and South Carolina who facilitated our visit, and especially my sister Sondra in Virginia who temporarily cared for my mom affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. I very much appreciated a few weeks respite from my primary caregiver role.

My Washington journey fulfilled many intrafaith and interfaith victories and allowed a measure of uninterrupted time on the road with my family.  My faith journey was also an opportunity to re-create, to return reinvigorated to the office of the Executive Director for Community Wide Shuraa Conference with new ideas and a bigger vision to contribute with our team in service to communities nationwide.

Given the full circle I’ve come and the lessons learned, my only hope now is that perhaps my daughter will someday return to Washington with her family to visit Masjid Muhammad and the historic monuments and institutions that make Washington such a special city for the nation and the world.


“Education is the greatest tool for advancing the society.” We do want to advance our society, don’t we? Are you a part of a society or are you just a part of a Masjid?”―Imam W. Deen Mohammed (RA)