By Kimberlee Hauss
Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) It's a long way from the Syrian refugee camp where Mouaz Moustafa started his life to the Capitol Hill office building where he spends his days handling reams of correspondence for a U.S. senator.
Within the span of just 10 years, Moustafa says he's now living the American dream at the age of 25.
"I really wanted to get into politics," Moustafa said, "because I saw a place where we can actually ... have a voice."
He's one of a growing number of Muslims who work on Capitol Hill even as their faith continues to generate suspicion in the minds of many Americans. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks forever changed America's interaction with the Muslim world, the jobs can be challenging, but also, Moustafa says, an opportunity.
Muslims staffers have their own group, the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association, and host Friday prayers in the Capitol building. Yet some, including Moustafa, decline to say publicly which senator they work for, citing the heightened tensions of an election year.
Assad R. Akhter, president of the Muslim staff association and legislative director for a member of Congress who he also asked to remain unnamed, said Muslims can use questions about their religion to their advantage.
"Because there is a spotlight on Muslims and because people want to know more and have concerns, people take an interest," said Akhter, 29. "We take that as an opportunity."
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., became the first Muslim congressman when he was elected in 2006; Indiana Democrat Andre Carson followed two years later. Both men sponsor the Muslim staff group, which boasts more than 100 members ranging from chiefs of staff to research associates.
The members work across Capitol Hill, from the House and Senate to the Library of Congress, the Congressional Budget Office and Capitol Police Department.
Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the office for interfaith and community alliances of the Islamic Society of North America, said the Muslim staffers have a special responsibility, both to their country and their religion, to combat skewed images of Islam.
"There are far more vocal voices coming from the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan," Syeed said, "and whatever they say, that gets the front-page coverage."
Routine religious observances, such as daily prayer or ritual fasting, offer staffers an opportunity to demonstrate their faith. They also present obstacles.
Akhter, noting the difficulty of finding space for his daily prayers, said "I pray in the congressman's office when he's not there when I have a chance."
He said others find different ways to incorporate prayer into the day, although it's not always easy, but it does give Muslim staffers a chance to explain their faith.
Moustafa said praying five times a day can be "tricky" but he never misses "jummah" prayers at noon on Fridays. Jummah prayers are typically held in a mosque; on the Hill, congressional staffers gather in a room in the Capitol building to pray together.
Attendance varies based on the seasons, with summer typically drawing more interns. In the spring, however, around 50 people attend.
A quiet air of reverence settles over the room as worshippers slip off their shoes and silence their BlackBerrys. Women in long skirts with their heads covered in colored headscarves join men in suits in prayer from the back of the room.
They also host guest preachers, such as Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University who recently became only the third Muslim to deliver the opening prayer for the House.
Antepli said the opportunity to lead the opening prayer "really lifted the heavy burden that was on the hearts of Muslims ... created by post-9/11 realities."
Despite the more visible place of Islam in public life, Americans' opinion of Muslims has worsened since the 9/11 attacks. A 2006 Gallup poll reported that 4 in 10 Americans admitted feeling prejudice against Muslims. Last year, another Gallup poll found that 4 in 10 Americans said they hold unfavorable views of Muslim countries.
Rather than become discouraged, Muslim staffers say they embrace the behind-the-scenes platform they have been given to give Islam a different face than what so often shows up on the front page of a newspaper.
"It's important to be able to show people the true side of everyday American Muslims that is just like any other faith or any other American. They love this country, they believe in its institutions," Moustafa said. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be working here."