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“We’re All in This Together”
Spotlight on Sami H. Elmansoury
By Afsha Bawany, CAMP-National
In “All American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim,” Sami H. Elmansoury writes of his hero – his maternal grandfather, Mohamed, who moved his family from Egypt to Cocoa Beach, Florida in the 1960s after living through two regional wars.
Upon his arrival, Mohamed served as a project engineer with NASA’s Apollo 11 – the spaceflight that got Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. It’s a story of a major U.S. accomplishment, and a story of an American-Muslim accomplishment that holds a place in U.S. history – a tale Elmansoury had to share.
“While I consider myself to be a strong patriot to my country, my patriotism long predates our nation’s tragedy on Sept. 11,” Elmansoury said. “I sought to tell the story of where that patriotism comes from, in order to help inspire and inform others that there are several narratives from within the American-Muslim legacy that have gone untold.”
This is a message Elmansoury brings home to generations old and young, Muslim and non-Muslim: being an American and Muslim are not antithetical to one another.
“While I am honored to work with various faith-based initiatives, I have never defined myself as strictly representative of any one community, and until now, the majority of my work is not faith community-specific. I have always had a faith, an ethnicity, an age demographic, a neighborhood, a hometown, a home state, and a home country – the United States,” Elmansoury said. “All of these are part of the whole of my identity, and while I work hard to do justice to them all, I ultimately represent what I personally stand for as just one American.”
Through his work in local government, with volunteer groups, and in his speeches and writings, Elmansoury works to bring Americans of all faiths, races, and social standings together to solve issues of common interest to the country. Among his many roles, he’s an entrepreneur with Precision Learning, Mayor Designee of the Planning Board of Marlboro Township in New Jersey and a Founding Member of the Generation Change initiative at the U.S. Department of State.
He says that while the events of Sept. 11 motivated him to become more involved in faith-based initiatives, and to speak out against extremism, intolerance, and injustice in or against any community, his faith ultimately provides him with the “directive to be a positive influence on one’s greater society.”
“We are all in this together, on good days and on more difficult ones,” Elmansoury said. “I often take time to reflect on whether in my present actions, activities, and visions. I am pragmatic enough to deem myself a mover of solutions to various global issues, or merely a subtle perpetuation of the problems that we collectively face. Those are my checkpoints. That’s a good thing for any of us to pause and to practice.”
He says younger generations must start taking an active role in civic engagement and in becoming part of the diverse American fabric. He refers back to a seventh-grade election that helped him combat his shyness. While Elmansoury lost the election, it became a defining moment in his life. He’d made up his mind to break out of his shell, do a better job of speaking out, and the next year he won. The rest is history.
He has a message for parents too: encourage your children to enter the social sciences, politics and government – and to become entrepreneurs. Elmansoury recognizes that there are many communities, particularly those with more recent immigrants, who distrust the idea of taking a role in government or are wary of how one individual can make a difference.
“This is a significant mistake that leads to missed opportunities to have a voice in affairs that impact all of our lives, as well as a subtle dismissal of the responsibilities that are inherent in citizenship,” Elmansoury said. “How can those who choose to recuse themselves from such involvement complain that their most vital concerns – domestic and international – are not being properly addressed? I sincerely believe that recognizing that one is a critical, welcome, and inseparable part of one’s society is the first step toward a more rooted, faithful, and productive citizenship.”
His tips for today’s high school and college students?
“Engage with those with whom you differ, even when those differences seem strong. This goes for social, political, ethnic, religious, or any other barrier. Be prepared to be uncomfortable or even offended – that’s life. Sincerity is the key to conviction and change – be who you are behind closed doors as you would be in front of those individuals,” Elmansoury said. “Be rational and realistic in your approach to issues, and respect others as you wish to be respected. Reject extremism and place your energies into working to shape our national and global mainstream for the better – in it you stand at the most powerful part of the spectrum, and you represent the backbone that has in fact allowed humanity to stand and to endure.”
And every once in a while, look back on the ancestors and elders who founded the path to get you where you are, Elmansoury said.
“Despite what my grandfather experienced in a war-torn region, he has never taught my family disrespect, hatred, or intolerance. Instead he opted for understanding and dialogue,” Elmansoury said. “He has always taught me to have foresight – to look to a more positive global future through a mature prism – and to treat others with the moderation and dignity that I expect for myself.”