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Islam Muslims On Capitol Hill Find Hearings Dispiriting


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004

One otherwise innocuous day of his childhood, Suhail A. Khan clicked the family television onto an episode of “Schoolhouse Rock.” The screen filled with a drawing of the Capitol in Washington, the American flag flapping above the portico. On the steps hunched a rolled-up piece of paper that, in cartoon style, had limbs, a face and a voice.

“I’m just a bill,” sang the paper, which represented an item of proposed legislation. “Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it’s a long, long journey to the capital city.”

Mr. Khan thought back to that unlikely presentiment in 1995, as he completed his own journey to the Capitol, entering as a staff member for Tom Campbell, a Republican elected to the House of Representatives from Northern California. The child of Indian immigrants, the grandchild of uneducated strivers, Mr. Khan marveled that he — “someone with a funny name and no connections or money” — could be doing something so important.

As he set about helping Representative Campbell push forward the Contract With America, a conservative agenda that Mr. Khan heartily endorsed, he also came to realize he just might be the only Muslim on the Hill. Eventually, he met a Muslim aide to a Texas congressman, and the two of them would regularly pray in a Capitol stairwell.

Word of mouth did its work and by 1997, Mr. Khan and a dozen other Muslim staff members were holding the Friday juma service in a nearby Congressional office building. Then, around 1998, Newt Gingrich as speaker assigned the Muslim worshipers their own conference room for services. And even as Mr. Khan moved on to the White House to serve President George W. Bush, he regularly attended juma in the Capitol.

“When we work in a building that represents democracy for the world,” Mr. Khan, 41, and now a fellow at a policy organization, said in a telephone interview this week, “we want to show it’s about religious freedom, including for me, personally.”

So this week, despite his political affinity for conservatives and Republicans, Mr. Khan has found himself indignant and appalled. Representative Peter T. King, a conservative Republican from Long Island, has convened hearings into what he says is the radicalization of American Muslims and the supposed refusal to cooperate with law enforcement officials.

If these hearings are meant to draw some bright line between “good” and “bad” Muslims, between “moderates” and “radicals,” then that point has been lost on Mr. Khan and many of the Muslims who work on Capitol Hill. Republican and Democrat, Sunni and Shia, convert and born Muslim, they echo a common revulsion.

“It’s saddening that faith has become a partisan issue,” Mr. Khan said. “It’s disappointing that some people have attempted to exploit fears and real threats to demonize a whole faith community.”

While the King hearings are raising the specter of American Muslims as an enemy within, the proof of American Muslim patriotism exists literally beneath the Capitol dome. Two Muslims, Representatives Keith Ellison of Minnesota and André D. Carson of Indiana, serve in Congress. About 100 Muslims work for Congress in capacities like information technology, policing and legislative research.

Five years ago, some of them formed an association of Muslim Congressional staff members, which is now led by Assad R. Akhter, 30, deputy chief of staff to Representative William J. Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey. The association’s annual iftar dinner, when the daily fast of Ramadan is broken, has drawn as many as 1,000 participants, many of them not Muslim.

Last March, almost exactly a year before the start of the King hearings, the Muslim chaplain of Duke University delivered the prayer opening the day’s House session, making him only the third Muslim clergyman ever accorded that honor.

“I cannot express the kind of joy I felt,” recalled Abdullah T. Antepli, 38, the chaplain. “I was dancing in the clouds for a couple of weeks.”

The events of the last year have brought him rudely back to earth. In Mr. Antepli’s view, the vitriolic opposition to a Muslim community center near ground zero in Lower Manhattan and the widely publicized threat by an obscure Florida minister to burn Korans built up an outcry against American Muslims that the King hearings have raised to a level of official, governmental legitimacy.

“It shows the ugliness will not go away with one prayer, one gesture,” Mr. Antepli said. “This year has been the most difficult of my life, and I think my pain and grief is representative of six to eight million solid citizens and taxpayers.”

Those emotions strike especially acutely at Muslims on the Hill. While they represent a minuscule portion of the Congressional work force, which numbers roughly 15,000, most saw their positions there as proof of American tolerance and meritocracy.

“For the most part, you’re talking about young people who were born and raised here,” said Jameel Aalim-Johnson, 47, who was chief of staff to Representative Gregory W. Meeks of Queens from 1998 through 2008. “Their identity as Americans is as much as their identity as Muslims. They see this as their home.”

As a veteran of countless Congressional hearings, Mr. Johnson sought to distinguish between a necessary inquiry into homegrown terrorism and the broad-based suspicion of an entire religious community. “When we address crime and drugs, we address it as the problem itself,” he said, “not as an ethnic or racial or religious group of people responsible for that problem.”

Suhail Khan, meanwhile, has not entirely lost the idealistic vision of Washington that “Schoolhouse Rock” entranced him with all those years ago.

“I am hopeful this is a short-term phenomenon,” he said of the climate stirred by the King hearings. “When we look at the history of our country, and how groups like Catholics, Jews, Mormons and Japanese-Americans were the subject of demonization, our country ultimately rose above that.”




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