Muslim on Capitol Hill: Staffers Look to Rebuild
As rain pelted the capital, more than 200 Muslim Americans gathered in the Cannon House Office Building to break their daily fast.
They are in the midst of Ramadan, the annual monthlong period of fasting from sunup to sundown.
For the Muslim staffers and government employees gathered for a traditional dinner known as an iftar, the night was also a chance to connect with members of Congress and network with other D.C. professionals. “To have this iftar dinner and to do it here in the Capitol, where you belong, where we all belong, was a very smart thing to start,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told the crowd.
Although 200 participants was no small number for the July 10 celebration, the iftar in 2009 drew an estimated 1,000 people to the Hill, thanks in part to an active Congressional Muslim Staff Association. The group was formed in 2006 and regularly held networking events and briefings on the Muslim community.
A few years later, in the 113th Congress, the CMSA did not even list itself as an official association — due to a turnover in leadership, lack of participation and what some regarded as a backlash against Muslim staffers. While the organization is taking steps to re-register as an official association, it is definitely in rebuilding mode.
Former CMSA members are optimistic the staff association will make a comeback as younger staffers step into leadership roles, but there’s a broader problem: attracting young Muslims to Capitol Hill in the first place.
“From an outsider’s perspective, there is that perception Muslims aren’t accepted,” Omair Mirza, a 26-year-old staff assistant and legislative correspondent told CQ Roll Call. On Capitol Hill, the Islamic faith is “not an issue,” he said.
“[T]hat may be surprising to a lot of people on the outside, but people over here are very accepting. They’re very open to your background,” said Mirza, who works for Rep. André Carson of Indiana. (Carson is one of two Muslims in Congress; his fellow Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota was the first Muslim to serve.)
Carson said in an interview that even lawmakers who have made provocative statements about Islam in the media have been welcoming of his faith.
“I have found that a lot of people who have made some inflammatory remarks . . . have been pretty affable and pretty gregarious and warm,” Carson told CQ Roll Call.
The Democrat described an unlikely bond with New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King, who held contentious congressional hearings on Muslim radicalization in the U.S. in 2011 as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. Carson described King as “a decent person outside of the rhetoric” and someone with a “great sense of humor.”
Still, the 2011 hearings created a tense environment for Muslims on the Hill. Ellison even broke down in tears during testimony he offered at the time.
The hearings were fueled in part by a book, “Muslim Mafia,” which claimed radical Muslims were infiltrating Congress and also cited a number of staffers by name.
Jihad Saleh Williams, who previously worked for Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y., was named in the book. Years later, Williams is still emotional when recalling how members of Congress defended the staffers.
“They wrote a letter saying that it was not right and it was shameful that actual members of Congress promoted, in a Capitol briefing, this book . . . [They said] Muslims can serve their country like everyone else,” Williams said. He paused as his eyes filled with tears. “It’s just good to know you have people like that.”
But for the behind-the-scenes Hill staffers, being thrust into the limelight was a jarring experience.
“As a staffer, you don’t want the attention at all because it’s about your boss and their constituents,” said one Muslim staffer who asked not to be named.
The mood contributed to the decline of the CMSA, originally formed by staffers who saw a need for a better understanding of Islam. “We felt that our goal was to help educate members of Congress and our fellow staffers on what Islam actually is and what it is not,” said Jameel Johnson, a former chief of staff for Meeks and one of the founders of the CMSA.
But by 2010 and 2011, “something that was educational and informational turned out to be toxic,” according to one CMSA leader.
The leader said the negative rhetoric and accusations of terrorism caused many CMSA members to pull back from participating. “It just scared a lot of people,” he said.
The CMSA also declined because it lost some of its core leaders after the 2010 elections, and other staffers were not willing to take the reins.
“When the Democrats lost the majority, we lost a lot of good staffers and we lost a lot of momentum,” said Assad Akhter, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J.
Akhter is a former CMSA president, one of the group’s founding members and a current senior leader of the group. He also noted that since 2010, the number of Muslim staffers in GOP offices has become “almost nonexistent.”
“It disappoints me that I don’t see GOP offices with Muslim staffers,” Akhter said. “I do think that the tone on that side and the rhetoric on that side has made it less likely for Muslim staffers to apply to those offices and be hired by those offices.”
However, Suhail Khan, a former congressional staffer and member of the George W. Bush administration, said that while heated rhetoric can alienate Muslims, they should know, “This does not in any way represent the conservative movement or the Republican Party.”
Khan said he is encouraged by fewer contentious statements from his fellow Republicans over the past few years, particularly from potential presidential contenders who have a “much more inclusive message.”
He was the only Muslim staffer when he first arrived on Capitol Hill in 1995. As more Muslims came to the Hill, they began to gather each Friday for Jummah prayer. When even more staffers and D.C. professionals joined them, they realized they needed a consistent location.
So, in 1998, Khan approached then-Speaker Newt Gingrich about securing a space for the group to pray.
“I went to the speaker and he was just — the conversation was an amazing one,” Khan said. The Georgia Republican helped Khan land a large room on the House side of the Capitol and told him, “As long as I’m speaker, I guarantee that you’ll have this space.”
The weekly prayer continues today in an open room in the House basement. Dozens of Hill staffers and D.C. professionals enter the room each Friday afternoon, take off their shoes and pray on white cloths, facing Mecca (in the direction of the Supreme Court).
“In America, we have Jummah prayer under the Capitol Dome,” Ellison said at a Ramadan event in June. “There are a lot of Muslim-majority countries where you can’t do that.”
Khan said the weekly prayer proves “the Capitol is not just a symbol of democracy and religious liberty but is in fact a living, breathing example.”
“I don’t think that’s lost on people,” said Khan, “particularly on younger Muslim staffers who are just dipping their toes into the political waters and trying to determine if there is a place for them on Capitol Hill.”
And as they do, they sometimes find themselves up against stereotypes, such as the notion that Muslim staffers only focus on a few policy areas.
“When I come into a room, someone will ask me something about foreign policy,” said one female staffer who did not want to be identified, “and I’m like, ‘I don’t cover foreign policy. I can’t answer that question.’”
She also mentioned people are surprised to learn that she works for the federal government, given that, as a covered woman, she is outwardly Muslim.
“I do networking events within the Muslim community a lot and everyone’s like, ‘Well, it’s not possible [that you work on the Hill]. You wear a headscarf,’” the staffer said. Her response? “I’ve had a job for the past five years in politics. . . . You put your time in or you work just as hard as everyone else, you have a fair shot.”
Along with serving as an example to younger Muslim Americans, the woman hopes to revitalize the CMSA.
“I feel like with an association, year after year it will grow and folks that come for summer internships or just hear about it might want to come into politics,” she said.
And this young staffer is not alone. CMSA leaders on July 18 wrote to the House Administration Committee to signal their intention to re-register as an official staff association for the remainder of this Congress. One leader said a number of younger staffers have approached him with interest in leadership roles.
Those young staffers may want to rebuild the CMSA, but it’s not to have their religious identity define their work on the Hill.
“I’m not a Muslim staffer on the Hill,” said Mirza. “I’m a staffer who happens to be Muslim.”