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For Hill’s Muslims, Hearings Complicate Roles

Bill Clark/Roll Call
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.”

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.”

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