CHICAGO — 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.
Most are the children of immigrants — one study estimates more than half of Muslims in the U.S. are foreign-born — and from a young age have felt scrutiny because of their faith.
"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."
'We belong here'
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.
In its first year, the event drew just under 500 Muslims. Organizers have registered more than double that number for this year's event, planned for Thursday. More than two dozen buses will depart from area schools and mosques.
"The overlying mantra is that we belong here, this is our country, too," said Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations "That's something you do not through assertive statement, but assertive action."
Estimates of the U.S. Muslim population vary widely, from 2 million to 8 million. A 2007 Pew survey found about 65 percent are foreign-born.
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.
For one, their first language is generally English and they how to navigate the system better than their parents.
"They see this as their country," she said. "They feel there is absolutely nothing stopping them."
Combating 'negative stuff'
Reema Ahmad, 23, who works at the Council of 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."
To apply for participation in the page program, high school students had to attend training and write essays about what it means to be Muslim in America.
"They're loaded with these young people's struggles and dreams and reflections on what it is to grow up in a post 9/11 world," said Amal Ali, a CIOGC youth director. "I didn't expect that it would come up. They're living through its aftermath."
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."
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