“What issue matters the most to you?”

This was a question I asked because it was what I was supposed to say. At the time, I didn’t realize how significant the answer I received truly was.

It was March 4th, 2019 and a gathering of individuals from the Muslim community were at the Oklahoma Capitol building in Oklahoma City. This group was there for ‘Muslim Day at the Capitol’, an event sponsored by CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Oklahoma. As an intern for CAIR, I was helping with the day’s events. During the afternoon’s activities, I was supposed to help a small group locate their local legislators’ offices so they could advocate for whatever issue they were most passionate about. I was told to start this process by first asking the question, “What issue matters the most to you?”

Only one member of my group, a 14-year-old girl, answered. “Discrimination” she said. I asked her to expand upon that, and she did. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote, came out of her. The stories involved bullying by her peers at school as well as Islamophobic comments coming from her teachers and the school’s faculty. She told a story about how she answered a history question correctly and her teacher said, “She’s not even American and she got the question right!” She, in fact, is very much American—born and raised. After she told me these stories, we talked about how those situations made her feel and why it’s so important that she and her friends involve themselves in civic engagement so that as they grow, they can run for office, advocate for legislation, and ultimately change the existing narrative surrounding the Muslim community.

My group seemed to feel invigorated by this discussion and I left the capitol that day feeling accomplished. I felt that the youth present at the event understood the importance of civic engagement and that they really would advocate for their community’s well-being and vote when they came of age. However, I soon realized that we cannot simply wait for the next generation to bring about this change, because these instances of discrimination, this culture of Islamophobia and ignorance, is an issue of immeasurable importance. It is an issue that can potentially be life or death.

On March 15th, in New Zealand, 50 people died as a result of mass shootings at two Christchurch mosques. It was an attack unprecedented in New Zealand and around the world. The perpetrator held strong anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views. It was an attack influenced by hate. About a week later, multiple mosques were attacked in London with perpetrators smashing windows with sledgehammers. Less than a week after that, an individual attempted to set fire to a mosque in San Diego, California. Around this same time, a mosque here, in Norman, Oklahoma experienced vandalism. These events are not singular in nature; they are indicative of rising prejudice that seriously needs to be addressed.

All of these attacks were influenced by hate and ignorance.

There is an existing culture of Islamophobia, not only in America, but around the globe. It is seen in these instances on the international scale and it is seen in that 14-year-old girl’s classroom. The importance of civic engagement and advocacy within the Muslim community and amongst its allies is absolutely vital. Muslim Day at the Capitol taught me that the younger generations have a fervor for combating these issues. That fact is uplifting; however, the world has shown that we cannot simply wait for them to grow older to take on these battles. Talking and working with politicians on both local and national scales is more important now than ever. It is through that level of engagement that we can all be better equipped to work to eliminate Islamophobia while opening a positive dialogue with the world.

Every instance of discrimination matters—no matter how small it may be perceived by others. Getting local legislators involved in these issues, advocating for change, and working with allied communities is not just something that can help stop the bullying faced by a young girl—it is something that can potentially save lives.