Kenny Cather stood out at the Muslim Inaugural Celebration on Monday night. Tall and blond-haired, he was the first to admit he looked a little out of the ordinary at such a gathering. But that didn't matter to him. This wasn't the first time he had been a minority.
Cather spent several months last year in Youngstown, Ohio, canvassing for Barack Obama's campaign. The Rust Belt city has a large black population and is plagued by high crime and unemployment, he said, and people didn't welcome him with open arms when he first knocked on their doors. Once they found out he was stumping for Obama, though, it was a different story.
"I got hugged. I got invited to dinner," he said. "One woman said to me, ‘I never thought I'd see a day when a white man was campaigning for a black man to be president,' and she had tears in her eyes when she said it."
The Obama love was flowing so freely in Youngstown that local gang members even escorted Cather door to door to make sure he was safe, once they found out why he was in the area.
But his dedication to Obama's candidacy wasn't the only thing Cather brought to urban Ohio. After converting to Islam from Christianity in 2004, Cather said he became "more aware of the prejudices against Muslims." In Youngstown, he broke through stereotypes by showing people he was a white man who not only supported a black candidate for president, but was Muslim as well.
"I would be talking to people and it's like, ‘Oh, those crazy Muslims live over there,'" he said. "Well, no, they live here, too. You just never see them, never talk to them."
So it was doubly sweet for Cather to be gathered Monday at the Thurgood Marshall Center on 12th Street Northwest for the Muslim Inauguration Celebration. For Cather, it was an opportunity to welcome Obama's impending inauguration as well as what many see as the dawning of a new era for the Muslim community.
Obama's election has "opened the dialogue a lot already," Cather said. "It's humanizing Muslims."
Cather wasn't the only one struck by the moment. The campaign volunteers, imams and even Congressmen gathered at the celebration spoke of the hope Obama's victory had given them, that rather than being a marginalized group, they would be equal in American politics and society.
"Let tomorrow be the change that includes our community in the greatest of ways, inshallah," said Imam James Yee, a former U.S. Army Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo Bay, during opening program remarks.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) — who was introduced by fellow Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) as "the pride of Islam and the pride of the United States Congress" — paid tribute to the historic nature of the event but also encouraged people to act for peace on their own accord, not to "look to a president to inspire you to make change in the world."
He'd likely be making a similar statement even if Obama had not been elected.
"I hope there would be this event regardless of who is president," he said in an interview before the celebration. "The idea is that no matter who is in the White House, all communities need to be active and engaged in this government."
Holding events such as this one and being involved politically "is just consistent with the American idea that we should have active citizenry," Ellison said.
Guests mingled throughout the Thurgood Marshall Center, chatting over a buffet dinner that included chicken, rice and pasta, and listening to live music and poetry between guest speakers such as Imam Dawud Walid and Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America.
The party was hosted by the Muslim Social Network, the Washington Academic Leadership Institute and the Congressional Muslim Staff Association.
"People have a feeling that there's something more to this presidency. People really want to believe in this president," CMSA President Assad Akhter said. "It has a lot to do with who he is and the campaign he ran. He involved different groups, and they feel they had a part in this."
Several attendants spoke about the increasing level of involvement of Muslims in public service.
"This is our country. We are very proud of this country," said Sarwat Husain, who co-founded the American Muslim Democratic Caucus with Tariq Jaffery earlier this year. "Obama created more opportunities for us. He has Muslim heritage. Look how many people he has brought together in one person."
Although much has been made of Obama's election being a watershed moment for the black community, Muslims feel it is a great opportunity for them as well.
Despite the positive wishes expressed by most, some revelers did reflect on what they see as the failed policies of the Bush administration toward Muslims, particularly after 9/11.
Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, head of the Muslim Democrats political action committee, said the Bush administration's attitudes toward Muslims was "very harmful" and "very unproductive," damaging relationships within the country and outside. Obama has a chance to reverse this, he said.
"Obama is coming with a strength," he said. "People are taking him as an intelligent person who sees all sides of the issue before making a decision."
But, he cautioned, "the Muslim world, they do not care for words. They hear words all the time. They will respect action."
"The Muslim community in 2008 really came into its own," says Khurrum Wahid, a criminal defense attorney and chairman of the Center for Voter Advocacy.
"This is an opportunity to tell folks that we can have a voice. This community has felt extremely marginalized in the last decade, and now we have a chance to harness that optimism."
Mattson echoed Akhter, saying Obama's election is an example to all who feel held back by racism and intolerance. "Prejudice can be overcome," she said. "It's a testament to the power of human beings to change."
This message should be especially inspiring to Muslim Americans who feel marginalized because of their religion.
"We can take heart in this achievement," Mattson said. "As difficult as it is for us now, it's surely no more difficult than it has been for black people in America."
At the same time, it is important that young Muslims engage in government, becoming part of the conversation, which is becoming an increasing trend, according to Mattson.
The first priority of immigrant and first-generation Muslims is education and professional success, she said. But a "new stage" of maturity is beginning as second-generation Muslims develop a "desire to contribute, a commitment to this country, to do something good," Mattson noted.
Such public service may also help break down misconceptions about Islam and its followers, and foster more dialogue between Muslims and other groups, especially among people involved in government and policy.
"There's no better way to overcome stereotypes and prejudice than to be present," she said.
And now, it seems they are doing just that.
Haris Tarin, director of community affairs for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said after organizing election forums at mosques throughout the country, he realized how many people really wanted to be involved with their local governments and become part of the political process.
"After 9/11, Muslims felt they were very under-represented," he said. "On 9/11, a group of 19 foreigners defined them. They want to define themselves."
Akhter also acknowledged a growing interest in politics and policy among young Muslims and said Obama's election can serve as an example to them.
"If Barack Hussein Obama can get elected president, there's no reason why a kid whose parents are immigrants can't be elected to city council or the state legislature or even national office," Akhter said. "Previously people in our community thought it was too hard, they couldn't do it. Obama's election showed you can do this, you have to go out there and go after it."