CHICAGO (AP) – Dana Jabri believes the only way for young Muslim Americans to move forward is by jumping into politics.
The 16-year-old child of Syrian immigrants has phone banked for political candidates, served as a primary election judge and encouraged other suburban Chicago high-schoolers to pay attention to state politics.
“We care just as much as anyone else about America’s problems,” said Jabri, who wears hijab, a Muslim woman’s head scarf. “I aspire to be the first hijabi senator.”
Jabri is part of a younger generation of Muslim activists in the U.S. whose role has shifted in the last decade from combating post 9/11 backlash and educating those with little exposure to Islam to becoming politically involved and delving into universal issues, like human rights and environmentalism.
“They are the catalytic generation,” said Eboo Patel, the executive director of Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core and member of a White House faith-based advisory board. “The earlier generations built the private institutions: mosques, schools, places to get married, have funerals. This generation will have a huge focus on public institutions.”
The young activists’ work appears to be gaining traction, particularly in the Chicago area, which experts estimate has nearly half a million Muslims, one of the largest concentrations in the country.
Activists have launched “Illinois Muslim Action Day,” where Muslims, mostly youth, act as legislative pages and meet with lawmakers at the State Capitol in Springfield.
“The overlying mantra is that we belong here, this is our country, too,” said Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations “That’s something you do not through assertive statement, but assertive action.”
Kiran Ansari, a director at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, which plans the event, said younger generations don’t hesitate to get involved.
“They see this as their country,” she said. “They feel there is absolutely nothing stopping them.”
Reema Ahmad, 23, who works at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, will participate on Thursday. She said Muslim youth activists want their own American identity.
“They’re going to take their identity into their own hands and pave a path for themselves,” she said. “When that responsibility falls on your shoulders, you have to become more educated yourself and outspoken.”
Jabri, who will go to Springfield for the second time, doesn’t remember the details of 9/11; she was only in second grade. But she vividly recalls specific words and a feeling.
“I just remember all these news headlines, ‘terrorists, terrorists,’ negative stuff,” she said.
She said the effect is undeniable, especially as it’s discussed in school each year and she occasionally hears 9/11-related insults from strangers. That motivates her to continue.
“We have American pride,” she said.
Gihad Ali, the 27-year-old daughter of Palestinian immigrants, works for the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network that helped organize the Springfield event.
She said her activism and participation on Thursday is purely about being represented, as any other group would.
“There’s power in numbers. We’re the constituents; we’re a visible constituency,” she said.
“Policies are not just being made in a vacuum. We can influence, we can sway.”
Copyright 2010 Associated Press