Texas has one of the largest Muslim populations in the country, but not one of the state’s more than 180 state lawmakers identifies as Muslim.
That’s motivated organizations like EMGAGE Texas, to make sure Muslim voices are heard all levels of state government.
Nabila Mansoor lives in Fort Bend County, near Houston. She is the executive director of EMGAGE Texas.
“EMGAGE is a civic engagement organization that is primarily dealing with ensuring that the Muslim American community is civically engaged in such a way that they know about elections and they know how important elections are,” Mansoor said.
Capturing lawmakers’ attention at a hearing during the Senate Special Committee on Redistricting, Mansoor testified via Zoom in Urdu — one of the top 10 languages other than English that’s spoken in Texas households.
EMGAGE is a national organization. In Texas, they’re working with state and local lawmakers to make sure Muslims in the state don’t feel left out in the policymaking process.
Imad Ahmed, Mansoor’s colleague, works with Texas lawmakers to pass legislation in line with Islamic values.
“One of the central themes you see in Islam is this idea of helping out those who are marginalized, helping out those who are oppressed, helping out the poor,” Ahmed said.
This legislative session, the organization is working on items like making Eid an optional holiday, condemning human rights abuses and adding the term “Imams” to the list of individuals who can perform marriages, which is something that just passed in the House.
They don’t do it alone. EMGAGE’s Texas Legislative Director, Richard Evans, said they try to work with other organizations that share their priorities.
“I think that they all have a common theme to make sure that processes we have here in Texas are fair, for people of any race, creed, color, religion.”
The organization empowers young Muslims through their Emerging Leaders program. Ayesha Muzaffar learned the ins and outs of policy making through the program. During college at the University of Houston, Muzaffar interned at the U.S. Capitol and then at the Texas Capitol with Rep. Garnet Coleman, D- Houston.
Muzaffar said she felt like she was the only Muslim American working at the statehouse. She was the only person with a hijab in her office. She said the holy month of Ramadan was especially challenging.
“We had to fast during the legislative session last time, and people didn’t know what fasting was,” Muzaffar said. “There would be food out all the time, and it was during May and that’s when the lobbyists would really pick up the catering.”
Though Muzaffar wants to see herself represented in the legislature, she wonders if the way things work at the state Capitol is inherently unfriendly to Muslims.
She cited things like legislators getting into heavy debates that put one’s patience to the test. And lawmakers having to spend some time on the pageantry of politics as opposed to being able to focus solely on writing policy that would impact Texas Muslims and serve the community. Muzaffar said she thinks these are practices that a Muslim man or woman would struggle with if elected to the legislature.
“If you put yourself in this space, you’re going to have to ask questions like, ‘Am I doing things the way other people are doing it for a good reason?’” Muzaffar said.
Nevertheless, some Muslims are still trying to get elected to the legislature. EMGAGE said only one person identifying as Muslim ran for state office last year and the organization plans to change that.
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