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Every Friday afternoon during his lunch break, J. Saleh Williams grabs a box of white linen fabric from the Rayburn House Office Building where he works and rides the Capitol subway to the domed buildings basement.
There, in a carpeted room, he lays the linen on the floor and, along with about 70 fellow Muslims who work in the area, he prays.
You wont see this in France, Williams says. Its an amazing testament to freedom in this country that we can hold a prayer service in the nations Capitol.
The Capitol has hosted this Jummah, or Friday prayer, for 12 years. In a recent Jummah, Esam Omeish, a Northern Virginia surgeon who ran for the state Assemblys 35th district seat last year (and came in third), serves as Khateeb, the person who delivers the sermon. He exalts Allah and speaks of a post-integration Muslim community We are already integrated, he says.
Let us move from being Muslims who happen to live in America, he urges in a preachers cadence tinged with a slight Libyan accent that three decades of American life hasnt erased. We are Muslim-Americans ... who recognize this country to be our own.
Thats the experience of Muslims who work on the Hill, Williams says. But though hes as American as anyone else here, he says he still occasionally suffers from a feeling of otherness a byproduct of his deep and often stigmatized faith.
Williams, whose real name is Jihad he abbreviates it to J. for obvious reasons, he says grew up in Los Angeles in a Christian home. Half black and half Mexican, he slicks his straight dark mane back into a long ponytail revealing two beaded earrings, one in each ear. His silver ring bears the emblematic crescent moon, and as he talks, he sometimes thumbs the 99 red Dhikr beads draped around his neck each bead represents one of Allahs attributes, as outlined in the Quran.
When people ask me how I found out about Islam, I tell them two things: Malcolm X and hip-hop, he says.
Growing up in L.A., he was profoundly affected by Malcolm Xs pop-culture resurgence in the late 1980s and early 90s coupled with the Rodney King riots and the inequity they highlighted. May marked a special anniversary for the 35-year-old: He had officially lived most of his life as a Muslim.
At age 17, I actually got up on the top of the table in the middle of my friends in the schoolyard and I was like, I declare that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger and Im Muslim today, Williams says. That was May 6, 1992. It was kind of like this counterculture. Like, I see how the system is, Im just going to reject the system as it is right now and be a progressive community organizer. And part of that was being Muslim.
He worked for Amnesty International and taught at inner-city schools, but eventually he went back to college and came to the Hill to work in education policy.