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Muslim Staffers Have Faith in a Tolerant Hill

Every Friday afternoon during his lunch break, J. Saleh Williams grabs a box of white linen fabric from the Rayburn House Office Building where he works and rides the Capitol subway to the domed building’s basement.

There, in a carpeted room, he lays the linen on the floor and, along with about 70 fellow Muslims who work in the area, he prays.

“You won’t see this in France,” Williams says. “It’s an amazing testament to freedom in this country that we can hold a prayer service in the nation’s Capitol.”

The Capitol has hosted this Jummah, or Friday prayer, for 12 years. In a recent Jummah, Esam Omeish, a Northern Virginia surgeon who ran for the state Assembly’s 35th district seat last year (and came in third), serves as Khateeb, the person who delivers the sermon. He exalts Allah and speaks of a post-integration Muslim community — “We are already integrated,” he says.

“Let us move from being Muslims who happen to live in America,” he urges in a preacher’s cadence tinged with a slight Libyan accent that three decades of American life hasn’t erased. “We are Muslim-Americans … who recognize this country to be our own.”

That’s the experience of Muslims who work on the Hill, Williams says. But though he’s as American as anyone else here, he says he still occasionally suffers from a feeling of otherness — a byproduct of his deep and often stigmatized faith.

Williams, whose real name is Jihad — he abbreviates it to J. for obvious reasons, he says — grew up in Los Angeles in a Christian home. Half black and half Mexican, he slicks his straight dark mane back into a long ponytail revealing two beaded earrings, one in each ear. His silver ring bears the emblematic crescent moon, and as he talks, he sometimes thumbs the 99 red Dhikr beads draped around his neck — each bead represents one of Allah’s attributes, as outlined in the Quran.

“When people ask me how I found out about Islam, I tell them two things: Malcolm X and hip-hop,” he says.

Growing up in L.A., he was profoundly affected by Malcolm X’s pop-culture resurgence in the late 1980s and early ’90s coupled with the Rodney King riots and the inequity they highlighted. May marked a special anniversary for the 35-year-old: He had officially lived most of his life as a Muslim.

At age 17, “I actually got up on the top of the table in the middle of my friends in the schoolyard and I was like, ‘I declare that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger and I’m Muslim today,'” Williams says. “That was May 6, 1992. It was kind of like this counterculture. Like, ‘I see how the system is, I’m just going to reject the system as it is right now and be a progressive community organizer.’ And part of that was being Muslim.”

He worked for Amnesty International and taught at inner-city schools, but eventually he went back to college and came to the Hill to work in education policy.

Here, he was recruited into the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association and became its program coordinator. It’s a role that suits him; he’s gregarious and articulate about his faith. He says the religion’s mores mesh with being a Hill staffer.

“Being Muslim, there’s a certain level of discipline about it, you know. The praying, the fasting,” he says. “Muslims are about being positive. You got some controversial issues, but they’re about being clean-cut, responsible, don’t drink, don’t fornicate, be pillars of the community.”

It annoys him when he hears that Muslims in some offices are automatically asked about foreign policy, as if they are experts.

“Islam is not a post-9/11 community. I don’t know about Afghanistan. I’ve never been there. I work in education policy,” he says, sitting on the patio at Cosi on Pennsylvania Avenue. There, he can buy a vegetarian burrito that conforms to Muslim dietary restrictions: halal, or “legal” in Arabic.

In fact, Williams can find a good halal meal if he looks hard enough: Outback Steakhouse’s lamb, for instance, is halal, he says. And a few meat markets in the area — the best is in Virginia — serve dhabiha meat, which means the animal has been ritually slaughtered. But his schedule keeps him close to the Hill, so he rarely goes grocery shopping.

A veiled woman and her two veiled daughters walk by the Cosi patio. Williams strikes up a conversation (“As-Salamu Alaykum,” he says). He invites them to Jummah. The woman’s older daughter will attend the University of the District of Columbia soon.

“Most people, they don’t even know about our Jummah,” he says. “But once they see that we’re here, they say, ‘OK, I can come here.'”

The staff association encourages young Muslims to work as interns in Congressional offices and organizes networking events for them. In recent years, Williams says, they’ve had moderate success. The association had just a handful of Muslim staffers in the mid-90s; Williams now knows about 40. Still, out of 12,000 employees, it’s a modest feat, he says.

There actually might be more Muslims, Williams says. But events like those of last October, when members of the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus accused the Council on American-Islamic Relations of trying to plant spies as interns in Congress, lead some to be reticent about their faith for fear of being viewed as outsiders.

Fatima Abushanab, 20, has no such fear. Majoring in government and international affairs at George Mason University, she has been wearing her hijab, the female head covering, since she was 11, growing up in Dallas. She started shortly after 9/11.

“It was my upbringing,” the Congressional intern says. “Religion and God have always been a part of my life since I was little.”

She’s no stranger to intolerance: Her mother is Merve Kavakci, the former Turkish parliamentarian who was banned from civil service for wearing a hijab in secular Turkey. Kavakci eventually was stripped of her Turkish citizenship and moved to the U.S.

After 9/11, Abushanab switched schools because she was a victim of intolerance. She found her way at a new school in Wylie, Texas, where the kids were more curious than mean. She played on the basketball team — fully covered, of course.

“In Islam, women’s beauty is considered sacred, so we have to cover everything except our face, hands and feet,” she says.

For her, it has served as a sort of coat of armor, too, protecting her from temptation. If she’s at a party, for instance, people don’t encourage her to drink alcohol because they see she’s Muslim and know it’s not allowed in the religion, she says.

Abushanab wears a loose-fitting black pantsuit to cover her athletic frame. Her olive skin and dark, straight hair peek out from behind her plain white hijab. She has an ornate Salvatore Ferragamo designer scarf for special occasions. She talks about senioritis and Green Day and has political aspirations.

“I pray that God leads me in the right direction,” she says. “He kind of did that with the Hill. I met the right people.”

As she walks, the veil slides down slightly onto her forehead. She pushes it back with a flick of the hand. And to her, she says, incorporating religion into her everyday life is as casual as that hand motion — others may notice and view it as an inconvenience, but for her, it’s natural.

“It’s part of you. You don’t feel that it’s foreign,” she says. “It’s something I can do without affecting any of my work.”

She and Williams, who work in the same office, often pray together there behind the desks. Muslims must pray five times a day — once in the morning, twice in the afternoon and twice in the evening. Along with her wallet, day planner and Metro card, Abushanab packs a prayer mat adorned with meandering pink thread and an embroidered mosque.

“Everybody takes off 10 minutes during the day to talk to their friends or get a snack. I pray,” she says. “It kind of re-energizes you, in a way, gets you back in focus.”

Her one regret is that between work and school, she doesn’t have enough time to participate in the Muslim community.

Abushanab didn’t make it to the recent Jummah, but the three women Williams met at Cosi showed up, joining the 70 or so congregants, including Suhail Khan, a fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement and once a senior political appointee in President George W. Bush’s administration.

Williams calls Khan an “O.G.” (“original gangsta,” in hip-hop vernacular). But if he’s a gangster, he’s more Al Capone than Ice-T, with a sharp, dark gray suit and tie and slicked-back black hair.

Khan, who started his career working for ex-Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) in the ’90s, says he can remember feeling like the only Muslim on the Hill — until he met Asim Ghafoor, then a legislative aide to Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas).

“We started praying together in each others’ offices,” Khan says. “Then we started praying once a month in the Veterans’ Affairs Committee room.”

As the service grew, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) gave them permission to use the basement room on Fridays. What started as a humble prayer service is now a vibrant Jummah that sometimes draws more than 100 devotees.

“I’m just proud,” he says, surveying the room. “There’s really a sense of community now. This is a perfect embodiment of our American ideals.”

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