July 14, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
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Muslim Staffers Have Faith in a Tolerant Hill

Here, he was recruited into the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association and became its program coordinator. It’s a role that suits him; he’s gregarious and articulate about his faith. He says the religion’s mores mesh with being a Hill staffer.

“Being Muslim, there’s a certain level of discipline about it, you know. The praying, the fasting,” he says. “Muslims are about being positive. You got some controversial issues, but they’re about being clean-cut, responsible, don’t drink, don’t fornicate, be pillars of the community.”

It annoys him when he hears that Muslims in some offices are automatically asked about foreign policy, as if they are experts.

“Islam is not a post-9/11 community. I don’t know about Afghanistan. I’ve never been there. I work in education policy,” he says, sitting on the patio at Cosi on Pennsylvania Avenue. There, he can buy a vegetarian burrito that conforms to Muslim dietary restrictions: halal, or “legal” in Arabic.

In fact, Williams can find a good halal meal if he looks hard enough: Outback Steakhouse’s lamb, for instance, is halal, he says. And a few meat markets in the area — the best is in Virginia — serve dhabiha meat, which means the animal has been ritually slaughtered. But his schedule keeps him close to the Hill, so he rarely goes grocery shopping.

A veiled woman and her two veiled daughters walk by the Cosi patio. Williams strikes up a conversation (“As-Salamu Alaykum,” he says). He invites them to Jummah. The woman’s older daughter will attend the University of the District of Columbia soon.

“Most people, they don’t even know about our Jummah,” he says. “But once they see that we’re here, they say, ‘OK, I can come here.’”

The staff association encourages young Muslims to work as interns in Congressional offices and organizes networking events for them. In recent years, Williams says, they’ve had moderate success. The association had just a handful of Muslim staffers in the mid-90s; Williams now knows about 40. Still, out of 12,000 employees, it’s a modest feat, he says.

There actually might be more Muslims, Williams says. But events like those of last October, when members of the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus accused the Council on American-Islamic Relations of trying to plant spies as interns in Congress, lead some to be reticent about their faith for fear of being viewed as outsiders.

Fatima Abushanab, 20, has no such fear. Majoring in government and international affairs at George Mason University, she has been wearing her hijab, the female head covering, since she was 11, growing up in Dallas. She started shortly after 9/11.

“It was my upbringing,” the Congressional intern says. “Religion and God have always been a part of my life since I was little.”

She’s no stranger to intolerance: Her mother is Merve Kavakci, the former Turkish parliamentarian who was banned from civil service for wearing a hijab in secular Turkey. Kavakci eventually was stripped of her Turkish citizenship and moved to the U.S.

After 9/11, Abushanab switched schools because she was a victim of intolerance. She found her way at a new school in Wylie, Texas, where the kids were more curious than mean. She played on the basketball team — fully covered, of course.

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