June 3, 2006
Religion Journal, New York Times
Muslim Staff Members on Mission to Educate Congress
By NEELA BANERJEE
WASHINGTON – The moment Nayyera Haq decided that she could no longer stay quiet as a Muslim on Capitol Hill came last summer when Representative Tom Tancredo talked about bombing Mecca.
Asked during a radio interview what should be done if Muslim terrorists attacked the United States, Mr. Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, suggested bombing Islam’s holy sites, including Mecca.
“That’s when I realized there was something really wrong,” said Ms. Haq, spokeswoman for Representative John Salazar, Democrat of Colorado. “Not just with members of Congress, but as Americans and our approach to dealing with ‘others.’ ” By last fall, Ms. Haq had joined with 22 other Muslims on Capitol Hill to form the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association. Ever since Muslim staff members began meeting for Friday prayer on the Hill in 1998, they had talked about organizing a staff members’ association, one of the many groups in Congress based on ethnicity, religion or shared interests.
While many such organizations look inward, offering members support and opportunities to network, the Muslim group hopes to teach other staff members and members of Congress about Islam, as Congress adopts policies that affect relations with Islamic countries and that shape the lives of Muslims in the United States.
“Being a Muslim staffer on the Hill is unique,” said Ms. Haq, 24. “In our offices, there’s such a desire for knowledge about Islam. And there’s the broader lack of understanding between our government and others. It’s almost a responsibility to speak up and not be silent as a progressive Muslim.”
The group is overwhelmingly Democratic, with just one Republican staff member whose presence permits the association to call itself nonpartisan. Its mix of African-Americans, whites, South Asians and Arab-Americans reflects the broader Muslim population in the United States. Some Muslims who work in Congress are not members, and non-Muslims are welcome to join, Ms. Haq said, though none have. There are slightly more men than women.
In April, the association held a lunchtime seminar about the life of Muhammad and what he means to Muslims, after the violence touched off by caricatures of him in a Danish newspaper. The event drew more than 50 people, besides the association’s members. Since then, representatives of the association have been invited by the Brookings Institution to take part in a panel on the European Union and Muslims.
The group hopes to have another lunch at which the topic will be how the American government’s repetition of certain words that terrorist groups use inadvertently legitimizes narrow, and often misleading, definitions of those words.
For example, American officials often use the word “jihad” to refer to Al Qaeda’s terrorist activities, although the word carries the much broader meaning of an inner spiritual struggle. Ms. Haq said that the group hoped to get the authors of a paper on the subject to meet with Congressional staff members who work on military and foreign policy issues.
Like Muslims around the country, those on Capitol Hill have been compelled by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to take their rather private understanding of faith and explain and defend it in public.
Umair Khan, 25, an aide to Representative Bob Filner, Democrat of California, was a junior at Cornell University at the time of the attacks, and he began to write in the university newspaper and speak at meetings of high school students after death threats were made against Muslim students in a high school in Ithaca, N.Y.
Assad Akhter, 25, who works for Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, talked of how the religiously motivated killing of a Muslim family friend in Dallas had helped lead to his activism in the staff members’ association.
“This may be the greatest country in the world, and things may be better than elsewhere,” Mr. Akhter said, “but we’re not seen as full Americans like everyone else.”
The president of the association, Jameel Aalim-Johnson, who is chief of staff for Representative Gregory W. Meeks, Democrat of New York, said he relished the chance to teach people about Islam.
The lack of knowledge about even the most basic aspects of Islam is widespread on Capitol Hill, Muslim staff members said. Many people do not know, for example, that Islam is an Abrahamic religion that shares roots with Christianity and Judaism.
“People say, ‘So you worship a different God?’ ” Mr. Aalim-Johnson said.
“And I tell them, ‘Well, it’s a lot like the difference between Judaism and Christianity. Christians give to Jesus more than we do. We say he is a messiah, but we don’t give him divinity, but you do. That’s where we part ways.’ ” If members of Congress and their aides had a fuller understanding of Islam, Mr. Aalim-Johnson said, then perhaps the furor over the Dubai ports deal might not have occurred. But others like Mr. Khan and Mr. Akhter concede that it is politically expedient these days to vilify Muslims, and that educating members of Congress about Islam would do little to end that.
Muslims on Capitol Hill draw some hope instead from other ethnic and religious groups that faced discrimination a generation or two ago, most notably Jews and Japanese-Americans, and who have since become more accepted by American society.
“There are a lot of moments when it feels very dark,” Mr. Akhter said.
“You aim high but have realistic expectations of what will happen. It’s a whole world unto itself here in Congress, and people are very mobile.
You plant a seed here and hope they take it with them where they go.”
June 3, 2006