At midday on Fridays, Muslims gather to pray in a basement room of the U.S. Capitol. Kneeling on sheets they’ve spread over the floor and facing east toward Mecca, they are members of the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association, about two dozen congressional aides who are part of a small but growing minority in America and in the halls of government.

At first just a prayer group, later a Muslim support group, the association is now looking outward to change what many see as woeful ignorance about Islam on Capitol Hill and beyond, said Jameel Aalim-Johnson, a black Muslim and chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York.

Some 100 non-Muslim congressional colleagues attended an association luncheon and the showing of part of a documentary on Islam in America. Visiting Imams from the Middle East recently met with association members.

The congressional chaplain’s office consulted them about offering classes on Islam on Capitol Hill, said association member Nayyera Haq, daughter of Pakistani immigrants and spokeswoman for Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo.

“We’re excited and hopeful,” Haq said of the group’s new mission. “It’s nice to be Muslim and feel hopeful about the future.”

That’s not always easy to do.

Though there’s no official count, the association says the number of congressional staffers who identify themselves as Muslim is little more than 20 out of some 10,000 employees at the Capitol complex.

There also is a smattering of Muslims at other Washington agencies, and some departments have consulted American Muslims for help with the counterterror war. Muslims have served as state legislators, but there is no member of Congress who identifies himself as a Muslim, said Corey Saylor, government affairs director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Understanding of Islam _ and acceptance of American Muslims _ has sometimes seemed as lacking among national leaders as it has elsewhere in the land.

One lawmaker suggested bombing Muslim holy sites. Another equated an Arab country with the devil. Others have been given to lumping Muslims and Arabs together as terrorists.

Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado suggested in a radio interview last summer that the U.S. “could take out” Islamic holy sites such as Mecca as retribution if there ever is a terrorist nuclear attack on America. He later said his comments were taken out of context, but refused to apologize.

And New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg opposed the controversial deal that would have allowed Dubai Ports World to buy commercial port operations in several American cities. “Don’t let them tell you that it’s just a transfer of title,” Lautenberg told a rally in his state. “We wouldn’t transfer the title to the devil and we’re not going to transfer it to Dubai.”

At times like that, says Haq, “You wonder: What am I doing here, working for an institution that insists on viewing me as an outsider?”

In fact, getting Americans to think of Islam as a U.S. rather than foreign religion is a big part of the challenge, said John Voll, a Georgetown University professor of Islamic history and expert on Muslim-Christian relations.

The number of American Muslims is usually estimated at 6 million to 7 million, some 2 percent of the population.

It’s believed roughly 40 percent are black, mostly descendants of slaves, and 60 percent immigrants and offspring from dozens of nations, said Voll.

Aalim-Johnson said the majority of the congressional group is Indo-Pakistani, with others whose backgrounds are Turkish, Iranian and African American.

“For a lot of Muslims who are first generation such as myself, when our parents immigrated here, they were working hard at trying to make a better life for their kids,” not focused on politics, said Amina Masood, of Pakistani descent and legislative assistant to Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.

“Now our generation is grown and realizing we are American … part of this community and we need to be more active,” she said. “I’m a staffer, but I’m also a Muslim and I care about Muslim issues … things that affect us and that we have to take notice of and be a part of it.”

Gaining political foothold “doesn’t happen overnight,” said Assad R. Akhter, legislative assistant to Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.

In that, Muslims aren’t so different from other groups “who suffered discrimination, isolation and difficulties moving into American politics,” said Voll. “You have to be here and pay your dues.”

Of a dozen congressional staff organizations, the Muslim group is the only one at the moment that centers on religion. But other religious groups use Capitol meeting space with sponsorship of a member of Congress.


On the Net:

Council on American-Islamic Relations

American Muslim Alliance

© 2006 The Associated Press