President Obama’s election has engaged the Muslim American community in politics like never before, according to Capitol Hill lawmakers and staffers.
J. Saleh Williams, outreach coordinator for the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association (CMSA), has seen Muslim Americans’ interest in Capitol Hill increase threefold since Obama was declared the presidential winner.
“Since November, I’m getting constant e-mails coming from people in law school or [college] saying, ‘I want to come work on the Hill, how do I do this?’ ” said Williams, a legislative aide to Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).
“It’s to the point where I had to distribute them out [to other CMSA members] because I just can’t handle them all myself.”
Obama’s middle name, Hussein, makes him a different kind of president to Muslims in the United States and around the world.
“It’s his name,” said Williams. “I mean, come on — his name is Barack Hussein Obama. His first two names are straight Arabic derivatives. So this next generation of Muslim Americans sees that and it makes the whole world possible for them. It’s opened a lot of doors as far as what can be overcome.
Obama also made an effort during his campaign to reach out to Muslims, promising to visit a Muslim country in his first 100 days in office.
After an Inaugural speech in which Obama offered an open hand and his desire for supportive relations with Muslims throughout the world, he granted his first television interview to Dubai-based al Arabiya news channel.
“My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy,” Obama said in the interview. “The same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslim lawmakers on Capitol Hill, on Inauguration eve told nearly 100 Muslims at the Thurgood Marshall Center that their job had just begun.
“When President Obama made his remarks in his Inaugural speech, the Muslim world was pretty encouraged by that, and then … he gave an interview to al Arabiya. These are very important developments,” Ellison said in an interview a week later.
“But Muslim Americans can really help advance that effort by offering their views. And that means having a greater voice in statehouses and on Capitol Hill. That means showing up around here and knocking on doors, offering views on a range of topics, from everything from Gaza to SCHIP [the State Children’s Health Insurance Program].”
For some Muslim Americans, Obama also offers a ray of hope after the Bush administration. Many Muslims felt they were targeted in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Wars with two predominantly Muslim countries and the controversy over the Patriot Act, which some felt was targeted toward Muslims, added to the negative feelings.
Williams seemed as thrilled with the end of the Bush years as the beginning of Obama’s.
“The Muslim community is finally coming of age,” he said. “There’s this first generation of Muslim Americans, who were born and raised to immigrants and whose home is America, just now getting out of college. And it’s coinciding with an end of eight years of George Bush.”
“We’re beginning to see a new generation [of Muslim Americans] coming up,” said Dr. Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Christian-Muslim Relations at Georgetown University. “And I think that’s probably in every generation, but what’s different is that [Muslim Americans] have gone through a tough eight years of George Bush and the fear that was instilled in them that their homes can be gone into, their e-mail is being watched, they could be put in jail.”
Not everyone believes the Bush years were bad for Muslims.
“In the past eight years I personally don’t think that Muslim Americans had any different kind of treatment than any other Americans in the U.S.,” said Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, a civil rights group focused on creating dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.
“As a Muslim American, I don’t share that feeling that we had been excluded before, so right now I think it’s a continuation but it’s a new format and I think there is certainly an effort to improve some misconception that people might have among the American Muslim community.”
Muslim lawmakers still see much work to be done.
“We have great Muslim scientists, businessmen and -women, engineers, attorneys, judges,” said Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), a Muslim congressman. “But where are our Muslim politicians? Where are our Muslim mayors, senators, governors?”
Carson previously worked at the Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s Intelligence Fusion Center, supervising an anti-terrorism unit. As a Muslim working in the department, he saw it furthering the bond between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans.
“It was a great benefit to humanizing Muslims and showing that we care just as much about the great USA as anybody else,” he said.
But while jobs at the Department of Homeland Security and within the State Department are instrumental in creating a dialogue between faiths, it is when Muslim Americans are routinely hired in non-security and non-foreign policy-related jobs that Williams will believe change is happening.
With Obama becoming president, that shift on the ground level is beginning to occur, Williams said. And it’s evident within Obama’s administration as well. Rashad Hussain became the first Muslim in Obama’s workforce, being appointed deputy associate counsel.
The opening of possibilities within the Muslim American community is also due in part to the nature of Obama’s name.
Along with the opening of doors for Muslim Americans is the attempt by the community to dispel common misperceptions.
“Many think that we’re only concerned with the Palestine conflict,” said Ellison, who was recently appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee. “From the foreign policy standpoint, Muslim Americans are concerned about Venezuela, global warming, world poverty, everything.”
Filmmakers are also trying to expand the non-Muslim understanding of followers of Islam. Taran Davies recently produced the IMAX film “Journey to Mecca,” which follows Ibn Battuta — the famous 14th-century Moroccan explorer — on his hajj, or pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. The film premiered in D.C. last week and is making its way around the world.
“The goal of this film is to promote a dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims, but the process of making it was about that too, in ways we didn’t expect,” Davies said, adding that as a non-Muslim he was not allowed into Mecca, so he had to rely on more than 75 Muslims to shoot the footage.
“This film is a product of collaboration between people from all different nations and faiths and cultures,” he added.
As many different players in the political, academic, civic and entertainment professions attempt to bridge the divide between faiths in America, it comes down to one simple truth for Williams.
“The bedrock of what it means to be an American is the bedrock of what it means to be Muslim,” he said.