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Muslim Inaugural Fete Looks to a New Era

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.

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