A Muslim Community, Tarred Again

By Guest Contributor Zahir Janmohamed

Huma Abedin. Via New York Magazine
In 1995, I was a student delegate at the United Nation’s 50th Anniversary conference on religious harmony held in San Francisco. We began by reciting verses from each of the world’s major faiths, including an Islamic prayer that was listed as the “Mohamedan Prayer.”

Seventeen years later, it is hard to imagine someone—let alone a major organization like the UN—using this archaic, Orientalist term to describe Islam. Americans know so much about Islam these days that I am frequently asked by strangers if I am Shia or Sunni.

But every once in a while—and particularly more often in an election year—there are reminders that the rise in awareness has not corresponded to the rise in sympathy towards Islam and Muslims. The recent comment by Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) that long time aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Huma Abedin is a mole for the Muslim Brotherhood is just the latest example of this hysteria.

I do not worry about Abedin. A person of her intelligence and clout can withstand these attacks. I worry about Muslim high school and college students who wonder why they should even enter politics if they will, like Abedin, be constantly scrutinized because of their faith.

In 1999, I was an intern in Washington, DC, when I heard Abedin and Suhail Khan, a Muslim Republican himself accused of being an extremist, speak to the Muslim Public Service Network. It was Abedin and Khan who convinced me that there was—and is—space for Muslims in politics.

I remember Abedin spoke about traveling with then First Lady Hillary Clinton to the funeral for the King of Morocco. Abedin said her background as a Muslim helped inform Clinton of the Islamic etiquette at funerals. I was star-struck—and admittedly a bit love-struck—as she spoke about hanging out with the First Family. After her presentation, she handed out packets of M&Ms with the logo from Air Force One. I kept that packet for years, until a build-up of mold forced me to toss it out.

Three years later, I moved to Washington, DC, to start my policy career. I worked for a State Department grantee, was one of the youngest directors at Amnesty International, and most recently served as a foreign-policy aide in the US House of Representatives.

But even as I rose through the ranks of Washington, DC, I continued to face constant scrutiny over my faith. When I interviewed at a human-rights organization, I was asked more than once if I am willing to condemn suicide bombing and if I am comfortable supporting gay marriage. I told the interviewer that no self-respecting human rights advocate supports suicide bombing and opposes gay marriage. The answer did not suffice. To get the job, I had to spell it out: I am against suicide bombing; I am for gay marriage.

This happened in government agencies as well. In an interview for a research position on South Asian affairs at a US bureau, I was asked to state my views on Israel. And I have, sadly, taken it as a given that in interviews I will be asked what kind of Arab I am. When I say that I am the “Indian kind of Arab,” few understand—or appreciate—the joke.

In my most recent job interview, the head of an NGO asked how devout I am in my Islamic faith. Later that night, I pulled out of the interview process, packed up the rest of my belongings, and moved across the country to Oakland.

Muslims have internalized this discrimination, too—when I worked for Amnesty International, Muslim groups called me to have a rep speak at their event. When I suggested that I speak, Muslim groups often insisted that I invite a non-Muslim instead. “We want someone who can connect with more people,” they said.

I have learned not to talk about this. There are costs of sharing these anecdotes, and to succeed in DC is to remember its code: DC is small; everyone knows each other; be grateful for what you have achieved; people will talk.

But our silence is eroding careers. Because in this outrage over Bachman’s comments, we miss an important fact: the smearing of Abedin and other Muslim policy professionals is working to raise a level of suspicion of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians that echoes far outside the Republican right. When I showed up with a Pakistani-American woman to the Obama campaign office in Virginia in 2008, we were told that it was not a “good idea” for the two of us to go door-to-door for Obama. They suggested we stay back and work the phones instead.

I am not sure what advice to give young Muslims anymore. In 2009, I was working on the Hill when a few members of Congress called for a House investigation into whether Muslim interns on Capitol Hill were acting as spies for Muslim civil liberty groups. Names of Muslim interns and staff members were printed on blogs, often with doctored quotes and facts.

I remember sitting with a 20-year-old Pakistan American Muslim Congressional intern, Ali, in the Rayburn House Office Building café on a Friday afternoon. We had just returned from the Juma congregational prayers where we prayed in a basement room under the US Capitol dome—a remarkable testament to this country’s religious freedom.

“Is it worth it?” he asked. “Is it possible?”

“Of course,” I said. I echoed the advice given to me by Abedin and Khan. “Yes, it is worth it.”

And I still believe that. But, on some days, I no longer do.

**
Zahir Janmohamed is a fellow at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto writing a book about the largest ghetto of Muslims in India, Juhapura. He previously served as the Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International and as a Senior Legislative Assistant in the House of Representatives.

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  • anonymous

    thanks zahir for saying what so many of us have felt!

  • Anonymous

    White supremacy in this country has always relied on demonizing most americans as being somehow foreign and “unamerican”. Its a scare tactic to reduce diversity in government and we can’t stand for it.

  • anyc

    thoughtful remarks and intriguing bio.

  • Shaheda shahab

    Thanks Zahir for your bold article. Those who have not gone through these sufferings never understand the pain.

  • Magic Muhammad

    I’m an American Muslim intelligence officer in a big three letter agency and I’d like to commend Zahir on this article. I’ll add my voice and note that I’ve actually received more hurtful comments from my supposed liberal colleagues than from older conservatives. This may be due to generational differences, but it bothers me to no end that self-described Obama fans have no problem calling me a terrorist jokingly (despite my work in decimating terrorist groups). The point is that even while someone like Bachmann is openly trying to thwart any advancement by Muslims into the policy world, there remains a latent undercurrent of racism among those who are supposed to be above it all.

  • Zahir

    Many thanks to you all for your comments. As the author of this piece, I would like to change one small line. In the line that reads “to raise a level of suspicion of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians,” I should have also included Iranians. My apologies for the omission and thanks to those who pointed out my mistake.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad that the news coverage I’ve seen on this calls it out as a smear campaign to bolster the career of Bachman et al. They have pointed out that this connection is not really a connection at all. However, I really wish they would take the extra step and call it out for being a disgusting ploy that relies on people’s racist fears. Racism goes against American ideals. The problem isn’t with Muslims in politics, health care, education or any other part of American life. The problem is with people who use racism for their own gain.
    Thank you for this article and for speaking out when you can. We need more people like you. Please don’t give in.

  • Anonymous

    I’m glad that the news coverage I’ve seen on this calls it out as a smear campaign to bolster the career of Bachman et al. They have pointed out that this connection is not really a connection at all. However, I really wish they would take the extra step and call it out for being a disgusting ploy that relies on people’s racist fears. Racism goes against American ideals. The problem isn’t with Muslims in politics, health care, education or any other part of American life. The problem is with people who use racism for their own gain.
    Thank you for this article and for speaking out when you can. We need more people like you. Please don’t give in.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Donnasoccer Donna Sib

    As a white Muslim convert mother of two Arab American daughters, one with a Poli Sci degree currently working for a non-profit agency serving refugees, and another who is a junior co-majoring in Poli Sci and International Relations, hoping to work for the State Dept., this article gives me pause. It saddens me that anyone would face these challenges in organizations that one would think should be more open minded and educated about these issues. No one should have to compromise by downplaying their conviction in their personal belief system.

  • Meghan Ward

    Wonderful essay, Zahir. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

  • Oscar

    The struggle for equality is not an easy one; but it can not be abandoned. We must all press on

  • http://sulayman.hadithuna.com Sulayman

    What a well-written article. I think you brought up an important point; Bachmann’s smear campaign will have some long-lasting effects on the community.

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  • k.eli

    Sometimes I sit back and wonder what the hell has happened to this country. The hypocrisy of it all is astounding. Why should any Muslim person (or any minority for that matter) be held personally responsible for all the wrongs committed by others? We don’t make those demands of Christians and certainly not white people. The KKK, for all its murders, lynchings, and terrorist actions, still gets dismissed as not adhering to “true Christianity” by fellow Christians; however, when Muslims the world over say that groups like Al-Qaeda likewise don’t adhere to “true Islam” they’re immediately shouted down. But sadly this is what’s considered effective to many in government – appease the bigotries of the masses and thereby keep them in the dark about the real problems this country faces (like the economy and the increasingly oligarchical role of corporations in our government).

    • Srivkalevy

      .my dad was also a doctor – raised in a Jewish orphanage. He hid his religious identity ,changed the family name,and i sensed something was terribly wrong. I converted to Judaism in 1974. Im now age 74. I am so sorry a Semetic sister or brother experienced thee same secrets borne from bigotry and shame. We can continue to make change. Salaam.

  • Lamia Kadir

    I have to remind myself often, as in this case, to remember advice from an intelligent guy I know (HY). Essentially, to never lose hope, no matter how bad things get. Thanks Zahir, heres to our idealistic days at Cal. In hopes I still have some, Lamia Kadir (Austin, TX)

  • Lamia Kadir

    I have to remind myself often, as in this case, to remember advice from an intelligent guy I know (HY). Essentially, to never lose hope, no matter how bad things get. Thanks Zahir, heres to our idealistic days at Cal. In hopes I still have some, Lamia Kadir (Austin, TX)