What do American Muslims expect from President-elect Barack Obama? What can they do to help redefine their role in U.S. society? Those questions topped the agenda at the recent annual meeting of the private Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR, in Washington D.C., attended by more than 700 Muslim-American activists from across the country.
In his opening remarks at the annual fund-raising banquet, CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad called on Obama to pursue a less-militaristic policy in the Muslim world and to open his administration to the ideas and talents of Muslim-Americans.
"We are asking President-elect Barack Obama to deliver [on] his promise and end the illegal war in Iraq, and also we ask him not to escalate the war in Afghanistan and to seek consultation and counsel from American Muslims, who care both about America and the world," Awad said. "Finally, we are asking Barack Obama to be inclusive in his administration, because so far he has been accommodating to many minorities.
"American Muslims have been left out so far. We hope that he will hire qualified American Muslims to serve in his administration, and there are plenty of talents."
The CAIR director also urged Obama to "restore the rule of law" that Awad said has been eroded over the past eight years by the Bush administration. Awad expressed the hope Obama's administration will be, as he put it, more respectful of the rights of people of all faiths.
"American Muslims feel left out. American Muslims feel [they are] being selectively targeted by certain agencies, and American Muslims should not be deprived from giving legitimate charitable work for needy people, and also American Muslims have to be part of the decision-making process when it comes to domestic policies and foreign policies, especially when it is pertaining to the Muslim world."
Awad said the "politics of fear" had failed to distract American voters from the real issues during the November national elections. He noted how a controversial documentary film linking Islam with terrorism was widely distributed across the United States by some conservative American political groups, just weeks prior to the November presidential election. But the tactic failed to excite much public interest, and it did not discourage American Muslim voters from going to the polls in record numbers.
Keith Ellison, a Minnesota representative who in 2006 became the first American Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress, took the podium to urge the largely Muslim audience to get more involved in politics. He said the election of Barack Obama should be seen as an opportunity for Muslim-Americans, in particular, to redefine themselves as active American citizens and to make their voices heard.
"The only way to define yourself is to work in a purposeful way for your own best interest," Ellison said. "We have to stop allowing other people to demonize the Muslim community, and these people are using their freedom of speech in a negative way, and we have, therefore, to use our freedom of speech in a positive way.
"And so the Muslim community has to lift its own voice and be heard. We should remember that we are not starting from zero. There is a lot of goodwill out there. Every time a Muslim physician takes care of a patient, there is goodwill out there. Every time a Muslim community activist does a good deed for somebody, that creates a goodwill out there."
Ellison said qualified American Muslims should apply for some of the 8,000 jobs he said are available now in the incoming Obama administration. He says that today - with a new U.S. president sporting "Hussein" as his middle name - there is no excuse for shying away from work because of an accent or a foreign name.
CAIR also took time during their annual meeting to honor several young Muslim leaders with civil rights and community service awards. Isha Mehmoud, a master's student in American University's Justice, Law and Society program, received the 2008 civil rights award.
She expressed optimism about the status of the American Muslim community under an Obama administration, but she said she had hoped for more explicit statements of support from the president-elect, especially after 95 percent of registered Muslim voters cast their ballots for Obama.
"I definitely think under the Obama administration there is a lot of hope, potential for change, for sure," she said. "I was extremely disappointed, actually, when I have heard about the two women who were wearing the [Hijab] and his campaign did not want them behind him in the video.
"And I think some of that is part of running for a campaign, and they were trying to make sure he would win. And then maybe, hopefully, now that he has won, he will come out and say something or make a statement committing to civil rights of Muslim-Americans."
That's a hope echoed by Ellison. But the two-term congressman urged American Muslims to take the initiative regardless of whether Obama speaks out in support of the Muslim-American community.
"I think that American Muslims can rise to the full measures of our talent," Ellison said. "I think the one thing that is in the way of American Muslims doing well under President Obama is the belief that we need him to say positive things about us in order for us to do well."
Ellison said the greatest service American Muslims can provide to Obama and their country is to serve as a cultural bridge as America seeks to mend its troubled relations with the Muslim world.