WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraqi Americans Wasan Alqaisi and Sumer Majid made a Fourth of July family picnic of kebab -- served on hamburger buns with slices of American cheese.
Celebrating Independence Day in the U.S. capital, the two Muslim women were doing what generations of Americans have done before them: blending their faith and lifestyle with a U.S. national identity.
Eight years after Middle East militants carried out the September 11 attacks, Muslim Americans are raising their profile, encouraged by the election of Barack Obama, a U.S. president proud of his Kenyan father’s Muslim heritage.
The president, who is a Christian, used his middle name, Hussein, at his inauguration. He called for new dialogue with Islamic nations and named a special envoy for the Middle East on his second full day in office.
“We are more optimistic about the future for us here,” said Alqaisi, an accountant. “They changed the way they communicate with the Muslim countries. We feel like we have more value here now. We hope that will continue in the future.”
Like other immigrant groups in a country of immigrants, Muslims were drawn to the United States seeking opportunity and relief from poverty in their home countries. Arabs went to industrial centers, south Asian Muslims to the West Coast. Some arrived to study in universities; some arrived as slaves.
A 2007 Pew Research Center study says 21 percent of Muslim Americans arrived from abroad during the 1990s.
The September 11 attacks put a magnifying glass on what until then had been a largely invisible Muslim American community, prompting many to organize. The Patriot Act limited civil liberties. Many felt they were being profiled. The Council of American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group, said more than 60,000 people were subject to new government actions such as interrogations, detentions, raids and the closure of charities.
CAIR reported a 64 percent increase in the number of civil rights complaints in the year after September 11, 2001.
The greater scrutiny prompted Muslims to engage more with one another and politically, said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim member of Congress.
“The Muslim community has learned the lesson that if you want things to change for you in America, you have to be involved in the process,” he said. “Political engagement of the Muslim community is higher than I have ever seen it.”
In the last two years, two Muslims have been elected to Congress, five have won seats in state legislatures and many more have been elected on more local levels, Ellison said.
The Islamic Society of North America Convention took place in Washington over the July 4 weekend and had a large number of sessions with a political focus. Some 35,000 people attended.
Obama, who took office on January 20, enjoys wide support from the newly active community.
After his first 100 days in office, Obama’s approval rating among Muslims was at 85 percent, a level of popularity rivaled only by a 79 percent approval rating among Jews, according to a Gallup poll released in May.
During the U.S. presidential campaign, some Muslim leaders did not think it best for Obama to be associated with Islam because of the negative reception the faith received under President George W. Bush. They advocated quiet, measured support.
Zeba Khan disagreed and decided to actively support Obama’s candidacy. “It didn’t sit well with my understanding of what it means to be a Muslim and what it means to be an American,” said Khan, the daughter of South Asian Muslim immigrants.
She started Muslim Americans for Barack Obama a few months before the November 2008 election.
“I felt that it was my duty both as an American and a Muslim to vote but also to organize and mobilize because that’s better for my community and the country,” she said.
Obama extended an open hand to the Muslim world in a first interview after his inauguration with Al Arabiya television and gave weight to his readiness for warm diplomacy in speeches in Turkey and Egypt.
On January 22, Obama named George Mitchell special envoy for the Middle East, giving the region priority.
“He moved very fast in transforming U.S. policy toward the Muslim world into a more favorable orientation,” said U.S. academic and political commentator Ali Mazrui.
American Muslims worry nonetheless.
“There’s still anxiety to whether he is doing enough to improve their position. His domestic policies leave a lot to be desired because they seem to be a continuation of the Bush administration,” said Mazrui, who leads global cultural studies at the State University of New York, Binghamton.
Mazrui referred to the continued enforcement of the Patriot Act, border detentions, immigration issues, scrutiny of charitable giving and the FBI’s use of informants in mosques.
Opinion polls and anecdotal evidence suggest economic opportunities and a commitment to democratic inclusion may encourage greater civic engagement among Muslims in the United States than those in other countries.
Three percent of Muslim Americans say they are struggling compared with two out of three Muslims in France and 69 percent in Britain.
The most notable division within the U.S. Muslim community is between the largest group of African Americans, who make up 35 percent, and immigrant Muslims from varied origins.
“They are brought together by religion but they are separated by other aspects of culture,” Mazrui said.
Obama appeals to both sets.
“He is definitely a point of convergence,” said Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. “It’s his inclusive point of view of what it means to be an American.”
It is this inclusion and participation in society that Muslim Americans say they are starting to embrace as a means of improving their lot.
“Until Muslims demand their seat at the political table, they are going to continue to be defined by extremists abroad and political ‘nut jobs’ at home,” Khan said.
Editing by Howard Goller and Doina Chiacu