Feb. 8, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Muslim Staffers Have Faith in a Tolerant Hill

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 building’s 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 won’t see this in France,” Williams says. “It’s an amazing testament to freedom in this country that we can hold a prayer service in the nation’s 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 Assembly’s 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 preacher’s cadence tinged with a slight Libyan accent that three decades of American life hasn’t erased. “We are Muslim-Americans ... who recognize this country to be our own.”

That’s the experience of Muslims who work on the Hill, Williams says. But though he’s 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 Allah’s 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 X’s 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 I’m Muslim today,’” Williams says. “That was May 6, 1992. It was kind of like this counterculture. Like, ‘I see how the system is, I’m 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.

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