Every few weeks or so, I receive a request from a young Muslim early in his or her career seeking advice on how best to break into the policy community, specifically at the intersection of foreign policy and Islam (my focus in this post). It’s an understandable ask, and so I often find myself obliging. The fact is that our community still yet lacks social and intellectual capital in this line of work, and its shadowy enough as it is without a few guideposts along away. I myself can only be considered mid-career at best.
This will be a brief and unstructured post, and I hope to continue to add to it as my learnings get sharper. Consider it a perpetual work-in-progress.
If you don’t know one already, learn Arabic or another Islamicate language during or immediately after school. I recommend Arabic because it allows you to engage with our faith’s canonical source-texts. Most American college programs focus on Modern Standard Arabic, which isn’t exactly classical and Qur’anic. But for what it lacks in depth, it generally makes up for in terms of breadth. If you really aren’t into Arabic, my personal recommendation in this time is Turkish, especially if your focus is the Middle East. There is a case to be made for Farsi as well, especially if you desire full access to the Muslim literary tradition. In terms of Arabic intensives, I can recommend Darul Qasim’s Shaykh al-Hind program in the Chicagoland area, of which I am an alumnus. But there are many such programs like this popping up. If you have the time and money, go and spend a year or two or three after graduating and pursue dedicated study of Arabic and the dīn (this itself could be the topic of another blog post!). You (hopefully) won’t regret it, and the knowledge you gain is policy-relevant in more ways than you realize.
Get a clean and appealing resume and LinkedIn. This is honestly a no-brainer, and should be a priority. There are many guides online that teach you how to clean up your resume. Be short and to the point, highlight any and all achievements, especially thiose that can be quantified. Lose the buzzwords. Be engaging. Consult those around you whom you consider to be decent writers to edit your materials. Buy one of your photographer friends lunch in exchange for a decent profile pic.
Conduct as many informational interviews as possible. People always love talking about themselves, and so avail yourself of this very human proclivity by indulging those egos around you who you think can teach you a thing or two. If you can’t chat in person, do so over the phone (phone calls are increasingly difficult for younger folks I’ve found. This is very silly. In the coming age of social anxiety, he who can get over this hangup and connect with random connections over the phone will go far). Come prepared with good questions, look into their background beforehand to show that you cared enough to look into it. When you’re done, always remember to ask whether they know anyone else you can chat with given your interests. If you do it right, you should never not have someone to network with. Do this for long enough, and you’ll have yourself a decent network in no time. It’s from this network that you’ll hear of jobs, and who may be in a place to flag your resume when a position opens up at their company. Twitter is one of the best places to connect with policy professionals, even from far away. I’ve made friends, gotten jobs, writing gigs, remote internships, etc – all from slidin’ into DMs.
Contribute incisively to online debates and conversations to get noticed. Think: who are the top names in the policy niche I am trying to break into? Follow them, contribute to their discussions, etc. If you feel especially confident, consider messaging them privately for a more intense conversation, which you can then volley into a request for an informational interview. Be careful not to come off as annoying or overbearing. And don’t engage anonymously. No one wants to be friends with an egg on Twitter.
Write. I encourage young people to write policy/op-ed articles in order to get noticed, and not to do so on Facebook or HuffPo or Medium or your own personal blog. When you’re just starting out, consider pitching articles to smaller publications that are serious, but may not be very well known. From here, you can move on up to higher level publications, and hopefully by that time, your writing skills have improved in proportion to the increased exposure you’ll be receiving. Get a good editor who isn’t afraid to critique you to look over your work. Done enough time, you’ll build up a portfolio of articles that will set you apart from the pack when you begin to apply for jobs.
Manage your general presence on social media. Be incisive. Don’t overpost or overshare. You’ll notice that the most powerful and influential folks post little about their personal lives and are focused on making concrete change within institutions, rather than getting high off retweets and snark and dank memes. This is not a prescription to be frigid and unapproachable, but rather to err on the side of being cool and thoughtful.
Manage your religious presence on social media. This is a bigger deal than it may seem, especially if you have a tendency to speak about your commitment to Islam on Twitter, Facebook, etc. You don’t need me to tell you that Muslims are very misunderstood these days. One study found that candidates with Muslim names were 3x more likely to be passed up for jobs. For those of who are unapologetic and for whom faith burns deep within, you may scare away a potential employer or connection. I’m not advocating crazy moves, like trimming your beard or unveiling, of course not. But there is a way to signal your deep commitment to your faith in a way that doesn’t seem domineering. It is a thin line to walk. A line of Arabic poetry goes “kitmān al-hawā’ ta’āh”, that to conceal one’s passion for God is a sign of true obedience. Find that happy medium.
Get internship experience. In the policy field, internships are meaningful, especially in organizations of repute, like mainstream think tanks, government agencies, private consultancies, and other non-profit orgs. They are essentially a form of slave labor, but if you’re entering policy in order to make big bucks, you probably should turn back now. You need not move to DC for a random policy internship. In many cases, you can propose a virtual research internship, which is a lot easier to manage, especially for when you’re in school. Employers won’t know the difference, so long as you don’t mention it.
Stay connected with other committed Muslims in policy work. Having gone to policy school and worked/interned in a number of organizations, I can say with confidence that the policy field, in fact, suffers from no shortage of Muslims. What it suffers from is a shortage of committed and religious Muslims. For whatever reason (and I have my theories…), it’s been my experience that the policy field attracts Muslims that are more culturally liberal and secular-leaning, and not so much the type to stop and pray five times a day, for example. As the zebras in the horse stable, so to speak, it behooves (get it??) such folks to stay in touch. Of course, external religiosity is no guarantor that someone’s heart is clean, nor should you think that those who are less-practicing for whatever reason have nothing to teach you. Be a light and keep your heart open to all, as is the way of the beloved Messenger, ﷺ.