Think Tank Seeks to Give Muslims a Chair at the Policy Making Table

Community News
Institute of Social Policy and Understanding Fellow Haroon Moghul addresses the group's first DC area fundraising banquet . Photo by Muslim Link.

Ever drive by Capitol Hill and wonder who represents me? Who gives recommendations to politicians making laws  that affect us? Which leads to the question, who are we? A meaningful policy dialogue cannot take place about or even with American Muslims without knowing who they are and what they think.

Think tanks develop and promote policies to politicians that shape the lives of ordinary Americans: unemployment, public health issue, regulation of everything from banks to the Internet. They provide experts to testify at congressional hearings, write articles for the op-ed pages of newspapers, and comment on television. There is just one Muslim think tank in the U.S.

Think tanks are normally funded by large businesses and leading foundations. The Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) is unique; it  focuses on research, not advocacy. It is a grassroots organization, funded by 800 individual donors as well some institutes.

Recently they offered a grant for coalition building against anti-Muslim bigotry,  ISPU has produced agenda-setting papers and briefs on topics such a bullying of America's Muslim children to the legality of drone attacks in Pakistan. Newly released and future reports include a 3 year study of American Muslim physicians and a look the aging American Muslim population, Islam in Prison, Shariah and Diversity, African American Religiosity, & countering radicalization in Pakistan.

ISPU hosted its first annual D.C. fundraising banquet at the Cherry Blossom Banquet hall in Sterling, VA, a year after celebrating its tenth anniversary, on November 18, 2012.

"It no longer is 'nice' to include diverse voices in policy conversation, it is a necessity. It is essential [for] effective policy making to be talking to organizations that can give them the correct information," Shireen Zaman, the Executive Director at ISPU addressed the audience. "We can continue to trust think tanks of the last generation or we can invest in institutes like ISPU."

ISPU hosts 70 scholars offering research in 40 disciplines from Anthropology to Political science. Academics from Professor John Esposito, Dr. Altaf Husain to Professor Sherman Jackson, many of whom were in attendance at the dinner. The only local board member, Hena Khan welcomed the packed hall of supporters.

The audience was an eclectic  mix of young professionals, old supporters, government employees, activists and staff.

Reza Zarafshan owns an IT company in Mclean, VA; he booked an entire table to show his support. "I heard about ISPU through its email list and at ISNA. The work is worthwhile. They have figured out how to find a place at the table, exactly what this phase of the Muslim American story needs," he said.

It is the role of think tanks such as the ISPU to relay academic research to politicians in short, non-jargonized briefings so solid policy can be formed."We give them exact nuance on the Muslim community," said Fareed Senzai, "through policy analysis  and recommendations."

"We do not sugar- coat or defend the Muslim community; we study it," said Fareed Senzai, who flew in from California, is the Director of Research at ISPU, "people in Washington see us as a credible source of information."

"What think tanks do well is present ideas or synthesized research relevant to current policy in attractive, accessible ways that are non-technical and timely. What they do best however is network, in particular with key people in government and use the media effectively," writes Judy Sebba, a Professor of Education and Director of Research in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sussex.

Haroon Moghul is a Fellow at ISPU and a Fellow at the New America Foundation, was the keynote speakers. He is also the Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches and Senior Editor at Islamic Monthly. "ISPU creates opportunities for scholars like me to appear in major media outlets and have our voices heard. They arranged for me to appear on CNN Newsroom to talk about these issues and try to present some nuanced analysis. I was grateful for the platform and proud to represent ISPU," says Moghul.

Using wit and common sense, Moghul engaged the audience, asking them to be themselves and get out there. "We need you to teach the Islamic history class," he told the university student who relayed her story of her misinformed professor.

He urged the audience not to worry about anti-Muslim bigotry as bigots are usually bigoted against other minorities too, usually anti-Semitic, anti-black and misogynistic and they will fall.  "We should be waiting in the wings," he said.

Muslim communities and organizations need this research as well as planning made on assumptions is poor planning. " Our work is informed and made stronger by the work that ISPU does. I see the deficit of information in government and in civil society about American Muslims, which is filled by the work of ISPU, leading to stronger advocacy by us and stronger justice," said Haris Tarin of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

"We need to plan, we can not advance as a community if we do not know what our strengths are or what our weaknesses are, our economic trends and political trends; we need to know who we are. No Muslim organization can survive unless we know what is going on in the Muslim community. Instead of influencing events we just react to events, that is the value of ISPU so we can plan."

To learn more about the work of ISPU, please visit