A staff member directs visitors away from the already full overflow hearing room as Homeland Security Chairman Peter King conducts a hearing on Muslim radicalization Thursday.
A stream of people enter a room in the Capitol Crypt typically used for meetings, briefings and luncheons. Some silence their BlackBerrys or shrug off suit jackets. They slip off their shoes and kneel.
The room where Muslim American staffers and others gather for Jummah, or Friday prayers, is only a short walk from Room 311 of the Cannon House Office Building.
That’s the room where House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) held a hearing Thursday about radicalism in the Muslim American community.
Muslim staffers on Capitol Hill say they are watching the proceedings with a wary eye, worried that any anti-Muslim sentiments they might stir will make their already complicated roles just a bit thornier.
In addition to the rules of their faith, Muslim staffers are bound by another creed — that of the Hill aide. Those rules are simple: Don’t make news, never publicly question a Member of Congress on your own behalf, and don’t do or say anything that might reflect badly on the boss. Because of that, most did not want to be named publicly, and even when speaking on background tempered their criticism of King, expressing sadness rather than outrage over the tone and focus of the hearing.
Even privately, many describe Capitol Hill as a generally broad-minded place.
One staffer points with pride to the gathering every week, when Muslim staffers meet for ritual Friday prayers. For Muslim staffers, these rites are a symbol of religious tolerance. That men and women in suits and ties kneel and face Mecca under the Capitol Dome is a symbol of the religious freedoms Americans enjoy.
The State Department sometimes sends delegations to attend Jummah in the Capitol, the staffer notes, to show visitors from foreign countries just how different the U.S. is from countries such as France and Turkey, where Muslim women can’t even wear their traditional headscarves in government buildings.
“We should be proud of our level of multiculturalism and understanding and discourse,” he says.
The Congressional Muslim Staffers Association counts about 60 members hailing from all over the Hill, its leaders say, but they estimate there are more Muslims than that. Anecdotally, many more work for Democratic Members than Republicans, but they are a bipartisan community, bound more by shared tenets than politics.
“My experience on the Hill was very positive,” says Mouaz Moustafa, who worked for former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and now hopes to find another job on Capitol Hill. “I got to pray all five prayers a day in the office, and people were very accepting.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.