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.
Moustafa and other current and former staffers say the anti-Muslim narrative they encounter mostly comes from the angrier corners of the blogosphere — seldom from within the Capitol Hill community. “That’s what is so disappointing, to see that kind of rhetoric get translated into hearings,” he says. “It’s sad for us.”
For some, the hearings raise the specter of the controversy stirred in 2009 by the book “Muslim Mafia,” which alleged that Muslim radicals were infiltrating Capitol Hill and prompted some Members of Congress to call for a probe of Muslim interns acting as “spies.’”
To have the attacks come from inside the institution “caused a lot of heartburn for lots of staffers,” says Suhail Khan, who worked for former Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) and in the Bush administration.
“Regardless of politics, we want to have faith in our elected officials,” says Khan, who is now a senior fellow for the Institute for Global Engagement.
Some fret that anti-Muslim rhetoric emanating from Washington, D.C., could scare away young Muslims who might otherwise be interested in careers in government. After all, public-sector jobs aren’t known for their glamour and high salaries, so it takes little to dissuade potential public servants.
And, they say, it might discourage their hiring. “If you have someone named Mohammed or Fatima applying for a job in the government, what happens to them?” one Hill staffer wonders.
Still, they hope it actually has the opposite effect, spurring Muslim youth to engage and Members to diversify their staffs.
The hearings, too, have placed extra weight on the burden that Muslim staffers have long carried — that of dispelling myths and educating those who know little about their religion and those who practice it.
Many describe their role as a hybrid of teacher and diplomat. Colleagues might ask about customs such as fasting and the use of prayer rugs, questions Muslim staffers say usually are borne of genuine curiosity. Rather than feeling like novelty acts, the staffers say they embrace their part: Even many of the savviest, best-educated people on Capitol Hill have never known Muslims, and it’s a chance for them to represent their oft-beleaguered religion well.
“We have to be ambassadors for the faith,” one staffer says. “It’s up to us to be the picture of Muslim Americans that people on the Hill and everywhere else should see.”