x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Muslims on Capitol Hill proud to be American

About 100 staffers in the US Senate and House of Representatives hold iftar meals, weekly prayers and briefings on community outreach.

Mouaz Moustafa, centre, an aide to a senator, takes part in Friday prayers in a basement room in the US Capitol building.
Mouaz Moustafa, centre, an aide to a senator, takes part in Friday prayers in a basement room in the US Capitol building.

WASHINGTON // Mouaz Moustafa's pride is evident as he guides visitors through the marble and frieze-clad hallways of the US Capitol building, where Congress meets. Mr Moustafa, a Muslim-American originally from Syria, has worked as an aide to a US senator for the past couple of years.

Each Friday, he makes his way to a large basement room in the building, which contains the US Senate and House of Representatives, to join up to 100 fellow Muslims for jummah, the special weekly prayers. The faithful represent all races, from African-Americans to Latinos, and levels of Capitol workers, from janitors to chiefs of staff. The jummah and the iftar meals that mark the end of daily fasting during Ramadan are the most visible activities organised by the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association (CMSA), which has about 200 members. It also holds briefings on issues related to domestic and international Muslim affairs and conducts community outreach, including encouraging young Muslim-Americans to intern for members of Congress.

Mr Moustafa, 25, started as an intern before getting a staff job and is also the group's communications director. He did not want to talk publicly about which senator he works for, for fear his position could be used as ammunition by political opponents. Congressional elections are due in November and the Democrats risk losing their majority to the Republicans. Nonetheless, Mr Moustafa said he loves working in Congress, where he said the vast majority of people accepted or even embraced his religion. "People are very open-minded in my office and I've never faced any discrimination. Some right-wing bloggers have tried to question our loyalty, criticising us and trying to make out we're jihadis, but here on the Hill it's a very pluralistic environment."

He said the association escaped unscathed from a nasty controversy in October when four House Republicans accused the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) of trying to plant spies as interns in Congress. CAIR dismissed the allegations as an attempt to drum up publicity for a new anti-Islam book, while few US media outlets bothered to report the allegations apart from Fox News and some other right-wing voices.

"The whole affair was ridiculous and bothered us not in any way," Mr Moustafa said. "We kept on saying what we always say: that we are Americans and we love our country, and it all passed by." Moon Sulfab, who works for a congressman and is vice president of the Muslim staffers' association, said he has been heartened to watch the number of American Muslims working in Congress rise steadily in the decade he has worked there.

"I'm 36 and the younger generation of American Muslims are much more engaged than their parents. They say it's good there are so many opportunities in the US for them to pursue," he said. "It was harder for the older generation, who thought you should either be an engineer or a doctor and never thought about public policy as a career. We try to encourage youth to think outside the box - although there are still lots of engineers and doctors," he said with a laugh.

The CMSA is one of many organisations formed by congressional staffers, who number about 2,400 in total. Their jobs involve helping members of Congress on tasks ranging from policy research to office administration. Others groups represent, for example, Black Republicans, Hispanics, Catholics and Asian-Pacific and Jewish staffers. Mr Sulfab said the CMSA had reached out to the Jewish staffers' association and wanted to work with them but mostly worked with black groups because most Muslims in the United States are African-American.

"We simply try to let people know who we are as Muslims," said Mr Sulfab, who was born in Sudan and lived in Kuwait before moving to the United States with his family. "We do informal briefings on all things related to Muslims for academics and officials at the state department, justice, homeland security, everyone." Mr Moustafa said media interest in American Muslims still often peaks and falls around terrorist incidents, with the failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square this month being the latest example.

But he said US knowledge of Islam had increased since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that discrimination overall had decreased. "Incidents like Times Square certainly do provide leverage for anti-Islam groups, but they more isolated and things are getting better." He also noted that attendance at the group's Iftars, which the UAE Embassy in Washington has co-sponsored, grew to 1,000 people last year, including 12 members of Congress and 17 ambassadors, from about 300 people in 2006. "The best way for Americans to learn about Islam is to have a Muslim in their office," he said. "As long as we are there to help to show the true face of Islam, things are getting better." sdevi@thenational.ae