You can find Hadeel Abdallah holed up in any coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky. Surrounded by a group of friends, all busily working on their laptops and sipping on an espresso, she looks like any other Muslim college student, albeit one with pretty amazing eyebrows, when in actuality, she’s so much more. She’s a Rhodes scholar, Gaines fellow, Truman scholar, University of Kentucky senior, outspoken Muslim woman, and a leader in one of the most important American-Muslim movements in the West: the involvement of Muslims in local and national civics.
For two years, Hadeel has worked tirelessly on creating the Bilal ibn Rabah scholarship, an opportunity for lower and middle-income kids to get a full ride to the University of Kentucky. When asked why, she says, “students don’t want prettier dorms, they want to be fed and taken care of. They want an education with no strings attached. I want to give Muslims representation in this space” But her involvement speaks of a deeper message, one of genuine love for her community, saying, “I wanted to get involved in my community, and I saw that the Muslim community — specifically the Muslim immigrant community — wasn’t all that involved in local politics.”
“Students don’t want prettier dorms, they want to be fed and taken care of. They want an education with no strings attached. I want to give Muslims representation in this space”
Whereas most faith groups have civic engagement and political leadership, there’s been a void in the American-Muslim community. Take the Christian population, for instance, which, according to a Pew research study, makes up up 70.6% of the American population, but about 95% of Congress. In contrast, Muslims make up 1% of the American population, but only .5% of Congress. When it came to social justice, there were few prominent activists. Cash-strapped nonprofits like the Council of American Islamic Relations, which do important legal and civic work, were desperately begging for funding from glassy-eyed, middle-aged Muslims who couldn’t see the value of having lawyers and politicians defending American-Muslim affairs.
The apathy was dire until Donald Trump got elected. His anti-Muslim rhetoric and Muslim ban spurred Muslims into action, and not just in the social justice sphere. This new Congress will have the first Muslim woman in hijab and a record number of Muslims serving. Muslims turned out in record-shattering numbers during the 2018 election. Linda Sarsour, the outspoken Palestinian advocate and co-chair of the Women’s March; Dalia Mogahed, the Egyptian director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; and Tawakkol Karman, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Yemeni journalist and human rights activist, have all become common household names among those with a finger on global activism’s pulse.
These steps in the right direction, though important, are just that: steps. There’s still work to be done in involving Muslims at every level of society. We need more Muslims on school boards, as journalists, as researchers, as activists, as local politicians, and most importantly, as engaged American citizens. As our younger generation emerges into adulthood during this tense and sensationalized climate, it’s up to the older generation of Muslims to show us how to be active members of this society while also being champions of our faith, which is something that people like Hadeel are already doing a marvelous job of.