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Nafees Syed Headshot

Muslim on the Hill

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I felt like I was in a fishbowl last Thursday. The halls of the House of Representatives office buildings were teeming with visitors for the King hearings. With my headscarf, I was obviously Muslim, and with my Blackberry and fast walk, a Congressional staffer. When someone asked me, as many others had done, if I had attended the King hearings, I shrugged and answered, "I had more important things to do," and we laughed.

But my real answer was that I didn't want to give King or his witnesses, known Islamophobes, the attention that they undoubtedly wanted and didn't deserve. The only real expert witness was the one who was brought in by the Democrats -- law enforcement expert Sheriff Lee Baca.

To me, Rep. Peter King had lost his credibility far before he began saying anything about Muslims. That a chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee was and is a staunch supporter of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a terrorist organization that has killed hundreds of civilians, astounds me. So when Peter King announced these bigoted hearings for homeland security, after years of voicing outlandish comments about Muslims, I wasn't surprised.

Prejudice by any other name -- even national security -- smells just as awful.

It wasn't until I realized it was impossible to work on the Hill without watching the King hearing that I reluctantly saw it. And I was moved. Even people who saw the hearings to try to confirm their own biases could not leave without seeing the absurdities exposed, one by one.

Rep. Keith Ellison's heart-wrenching testimony of a Muslim-American who died rescuing others during the 9/11 terror attacks, assumed to be a radical because of his faith until proven innocent by his remains, moved him, me and many others to tears. It was as if every tear represented a spiteful comment, a nasty look, things we Muslims in America have grown to expect.

The unwarranted suspicion that hurt Hamdani's family epitomizes the accusations that cloak us even today, something that underlies the foundations of this hearing.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee highlighted this when she upheld the right of Muslims to practice their faith in America -- opposed to King's offensive remarks about mosques and the recent anti-Islamic laws circulating in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas legislatures.

With prosecutorial grace, she left Rep. King floundering: "I am overwhelmed by this hearing and the lack of factual basis for it," she said after deftly proving how Muslims were cooperative with law enforcement using the very witnesses who were called in to prove otherwise. More importantly, she showed how the hearings dangerously ignored important issues in homeland security in its obsession with Muslims.

All of the Democratic members of the House Homeland Security Committee played a role in undermining the McCarthyesque hearing, which highlights one of the most positive consequences of the hearings: it has led to a unified Democratic stance against this witch-hunt of Muslim-Americans.

Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer stated about the hearing: "We all need to work together to keep our nation and Americans safe, and we need everyone's cooperation to do so. Targeting one segment of our population is not helpful to that objective."

I remember a few years ago feeling like the nerd at the dodgeball game. Neither team wanted anything to do with the Muslim voters, and one team was actively bullying us. Now, as Michael Cohen of the American Security Project argues, "as the U.S. grows more diverse, the King hearings and GOP attacks on Muslims look not only like bad policy but even worse politics."

In complete contrast, elements of our society are engaging Muslims. Earlier this month, the State Department invited me and other contributors to a book of essays by Muslim women, I Speak for Myself, to Farah Pandith's wisdom session, giving a platform to a group of people often talked about but rarely heard from. White Cloud Press, the publisher of the book, is offering discounts on its Islam-related books to help Americans better understand Muslims, Islam and the Quran. People are taking action even by saying, "Hey, it's not OK to say that," when someone cracks an anti-Muslim joke.

Their actions recognize something that we upheld as a country 224 years ago. Our founding fathers appreciated the fact that the first country to recognize America's independence was a Muslim country, Morocco. A few years later, we signed a treaty with Tripoli, again during the holy month of Ramadan, asserting, "The government of the United States of America has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims."

With Rep. King's hearings, we found forces trying to move us centuries backwards. But although cliché, a simple phone call or a letter to your Congressman really can make sure that the House Homeland Security Committee, which exists to protect us, actually does its job.

That such a hearing is occurring in the halls of a democratic U.S. Congress is both a tragedy and a farce. Let's make sure that such a drama doesn't occur again.

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