My Turn: A Muslim-American on Obama's Outreach

Last month, as I was watching the news coverage of President Obama's visit to Turkey, I thought back to an awkward experience I had as an undergraduate student applying for a job at my university. When I handed the receptionist at the student union my Social Security card, a required form of identification, she told me she needed my passport as well.

Surprised, I questioned the need for it. She brought over her supervisor, who glanced at my hijab—a headscarf worn by many Muslim women—and asked, "Aren't you an international student?" "No," I said. "I'm an American citizen. I was born in New Jersey." Her mouth dropped open and she stammered, "Oh, you're not a foreigner?"

It was not a new experience for me, as a Muslim growing up in this country. Before people learned my name, saw me run at a track meet or heard me debate an argument, they assumed they knew who I am.

That's why Obama's decision to visit a Muslim country within the first 100 days of his presidency was such a significant moment for me. Hearing his unwavering, unapologetic message to the Turkish Parliament filled me with pride: yes, he told the world, Muslim Americans exist, and our existence has enriched—not impoverished—American culture. His words mirrored what I have long sought to convey to other Americans: that you can be both a devout Muslim and a patriotic American.

I can only hope my fellow citizens get the message. When many Americans see Muslims like me, they tend to define us as something non-American, which forces us to choose between our religion and nationality. As long as Islam is equated with a foreign culture, as opposed to a faith like any other practiced here, then our mosques and our schools and our headscarves will continue to be perceived as a rejection of "American culture." This idea of Muslims as "other" surfaces every time someone like my friend Kathy, a veil-wearing Muslim American, is told to "go back home" when she and her daughter eat at Subway, or when a man plows his truck into a Tallahassee, Fla., mosque to remind Muslims they're not safe in this country.

Obama's public words in Turkey—as well as his January appearance on the Arab television network Al Arabiya—were welcome changes from the behavior of Obama the candidate during the 2008 campaign. Back then, I watched with disappointment as he failed to address the anti-Muslim bigotry underlying rumors that he was a "closet" Muslim who went to an Islamic school. Certainly, I understood that in a post-9/11 America, where one third of the population believes that Muslim citizens are sympathetic to terrorists, the mere hint that Obama practiced Islam was the surest way for him to lose. Still, it hurt me when he didn't fight back.

But things have changed. Obama is president now, and he has taken important steps to reorient America's political culture. It was refreshing to hear him speak candidly about his appreciation for Muslims' contributions to American life—whether we do it as physicians, educators or athletes—and it is was even nicer to see him appoint a Muslim to the White House Advisory Council last week. By insisting that America's relationship to Muslims across the globe "will not just be based upon opposition to terrorism," Obama has made me feel that there is a place for my identity within America's.

Of course, Obama is just one man, and one man can't erase years of hard-wired prejudice. But just as African-Americans never thought a black man would be elected president, just as Jews once struggled with the same paradoxes of assimilation as I have, Muslim Americans must realize that acceptance will require patience, optimism and, yes, even a little effort on our part.

I have learned to go out of my way to confront the stereotypes brought to the surface by my headscarf. At times, that has meant speaking out in public forums. At other times, it has meant striking up a conversation with anyone who passes by as I walk my baby through our neighborhood. I have learned through personal experience that interaction and kindness can go a long way toward knocking down barriers.

Obama's gestures make me feel empowered to do more. His words and deeds have given me cause to believe that someday soon, people will look at me and, instead of seeing a woman with a headscarf, they'll see another American, just like them.