Muslim Americans flex muscle in Olympia, press for minority rights

More than 500 Muslim Americans gathered at the state capitol on Monday to lobby the State Legislature. (Photo by Atia Musazay)

Hundreds of Muslims from around Washington gathered at the state capitol Monday with clear messages for their legislators.

For Amira Al-Salami, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more than just a day to remember the civil rights champion. It’s also an opportunity to participate in the political process and advocate for her own rights.

Al-Salami was one of more than 500 Muslim Americans who rallied on the steps of the Washington’s capitol building on Monday. On their legislative agenda for the day: drone technology, low-income housing and state financial aid for undocumented college students.

“I think I am a good advocate for people, not only because I am Muslim, but because I was a refugee and a citizen now,” said Al-Salami who fled the War in Iraq about five years ago. She travelled to Olympia from the Tri-Cities, where she said she lives alongside many refugees from several different countries.

Representing at least 37 of Washington’s 49 districts, participants of the fifth annual Muslim Lobby Day came from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, professions and ages.

The event was hosted by the Washington chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-WA), a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. Attendees participated in a legislative meeting training, a march to the Capitol building, and a rally at the steps.

Participants also met with their legislators to discuss issues relevant to them, including a proposed bill that would allow undocumented students to apply for the State Need Grant program.

Dubbed the “Washington State Dream Act,” the bill has passed the state House of Representatives, but has yet to be granted a hearing in the Senate Higher Education Committee.

“We can provide that push that is needed to get laws passed, which shows our allies the value of the Muslim community in our state,” said Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of CAIR-WA.

A significant supporter they had on their side was Governor Jay Inslee. Before the march, Inslee addressed an enthusiastic crowd and spoke in support of the DREAM Act.

“I can’t think of a better day to have the Muslim American community in our state’s capitol,” said Gov. Inslee. “This is the best day to talk about the DREAM Act.”

“One of the first things I did when I was running for governor of Washington was to sign a pledge that your community asked me to sign to make sure that I always stand against bigotry and prejudice against Muslims. I’m happy to say I’m fulfilling that pledge.”

Gov. Jay Inslee posed for photos with advocates prior to their march and rally. (Photo by Atia Musazay)Gov. Jay Inslee posed for photos with advocates prior to their march and rally. (Photo by Atia Musazay)

Many attendees were personally impacted by the issues they were lobbying. One example was Tariq Yusuf, a University of Washington senior who said he could never had been able to attend college had it not been for low-income housing availability.

Participants encouraged lawmakers to invest $100 million, or 4 percent of the total capital budget, in the Washington Housing Trust Fund to back low-income housing in the state.

Another hot button issue CAIR-WA was promoting was the establishment of rules around government use of drones in the state.

Currently, several bills are moving through committee that attempt to protect privacy and personal information. CAIR is pushing for passage of Senate Bill 6172 and House Bill 1771, which would limit the most intrusive uses of drones and require agencies to obtain a warrant if they want to use them.

Yusuf, who works in the computer security field, said he believes there needs to be strict regulations concerning drones “to ensure that citizens feel safe and not threatened by these laws.”

“The big issue is that it’s very easy to gather surveillance without people knowing, especially with recent technology that some drones have X-ray panels,” he said. “I can see a lot of good uses for it but also a lot of risks.”

Last year, CAIR-WA celebrated its efforts in passing Medicaid expansion and a religious freedom resolution.

In previous years, the agenda has been mainly to defend the Muslim community against Islamophobia and laws that prohibited religious freedom. But the focus this year has shifted to actively pursuing specific legislation that affects all minority groups.

“I’m not necessarily someone who is involved in law and public policy, but I’ll do anything to help spread the message that we’re an engaged group of people who are wanting to become active members of the community,” said CAIR-WA volunteer and UW business student Nora Marouf.

CAIR-WA director Arsalan Bukhari agreed.

“Lawmakers need to see now that the Muslim community is getting more powerful, more engaged and more organized,” he said.