Only a year ago, some Muslim Americans seriously wondered if they were considered a part of the American fabric. Presidential candidates (mainly on the Republican side) regularly alluded to Islam and/or Muslims as an existential threat to America. Muslims felt unwelcome in (or worse, under attack by) Republican circles, and had the distinct impression of being a liability among some Democrats. Those of us working to help elect Barack Obama kept ourselves focused on the larger goal, despite the humiliating position some felt we were being placed in.
But as one of many Muslims participating in the inaugural ceremonies this week, I felt what I can only describe as a healing embrace. We heard the name “Hussein” – a name Muslims have worn with pride for centuries – go from being a near-slur to being engraved in American history. We heard words of reconciliation and inclusion offered by President Obama in his inaugural address to the Muslim world and Muslim Americans respectively. And last night at the Midwest Inaugural Ball, Sheryl Crow warmed up Inaugural Ball attendees waiting for the First Couple to arrive by offering to sing a Yusuf Islam song (adding, “though you might know him better as Cat Stevens”). I felt a sense of belonging, of feeling not only that your presence was merely tolerated but valued as an integral part of our larger society.
I and many of my friends do not believe that these gestures are simply lip service. Many of us who have been seeking a role in helping to rebuild America through the new administration are finding receptive ears. After the swearing-in, I had lunch with many of my Muslim Democrat friends who worked tirelessly in getting out the vote for Obama, and assessing our chances at being able to pass on our campaign energy into meaningful involvement in federal civic service. It’s safe to say that the hope that filled the National Mall a few hours early filled that room as well.
As a founding board member of the Muslim Public Service Network
, I’ve worked for over a decade to encourage Muslim Americans to seek careers in public service, seeing it as the best way to further our inclusion into American society. While we have had many successes along the way – talented Muslim Americans can now be found in public service positions at all levels – reports of how difficult the ladder has been to climb have given us pause. But the events of the last few months have energized this growing base.
My cynicism hasn’t completely gone away, but for now I’m letting the optimistic tone of the inaugural celebrations this week take over. Our desire for full participation in rebuilding America is limited only by our will to do so. Yes we can, indeed.