The Truth? Few Muslims in Government

Huma Abedin Smear Spotlights Paucity of Officials

Huma’s World: Conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann raised hackles by claiming State Department aide Huma Abedin has links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
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Huma’s World: Conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann raised hackles by claiming State Department aide Huma Abedin has links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 03, 2012, issue of August 10, 2012.
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After the most recent episode, the Congress members who signed the letters to the inspectors general — particularly Bachmann, a former presidential candidate — were widely condemned by faith groups and politicians, including some leading Republicans. Arizona Senator John McCain called the accusations directed at Muslim American administration officials “sinister” and said they “need to stop now.” But other Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, refused to criticize Bachmann and her colleagues.

Activists in the Muslim-American community said that the letters and the public questioning of Muslim federal employees’ loyalty could further discourage young members of the community who are considering a government career. “If this kind of McCarthyism continues, there is a real fear that people who are very smart and can make a lot of money elsewhere will stay outside of public service,” Tarin said.

Still, Muslim community leaders broadly agreed that anti-Muslim sentiments are not the sole factor driving Muslims away from senior government positions. Another obstacle facing Muslim Americans, as well as Arab Americans who are Christians, is climbing the ranks in government offices dealing with Middle East policy.

“The one area that remains problematic for Arab Americans is anything that has to do with Middle East policy,” said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. “It is easier for a Dennis Ross to get a job than it is for an Arab American,” he added, referring to President Obama’s former top aide on Middle East issues, who is Jewish and has served as chairman of a Jerusalem-based think tank sponsored by the Jewish Agency. Zogby’s son, Joseph Zogby, was among the few Arab Americans who served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. During his time there, the young Zogby constantly came under attack from some pro-Israel activists.

But the main reason so few Muslims are represented in top government positions stems from internal forces. Muslim Americans are mostly newcomers to America. Up until the 1970s, most Muslims leaving their countries went to the Persian Gulf states, which were rich in employment opportunities. Immigration to America picked up only later on, and has increased significantly in the past decade.

“Muslim Americans are still in the infancy stages when it comes to civic and political engagement,” Tarin said. First-generation Muslim immigrants, Arabs and non-Arabs, encouraged their children to study medicine, law and engineering, he explained. Public service is only now beginning to be considered as a suitable option for young Muslims.

The most visible sign of this shift can be seen in recent years on Capitol Hill, which is emerging as a valuable first stop for young Muslim Americans wishing to enter public service. In the mid 1990s, Muslim congressional staffers were hardly heard of and a weekly Friday prayer service, organized in a Capitol Hill meeting room, drew only a few Muslims from the Hill and from adjacent government offices. Now, participants say, some 150 Muslim staff members and other government employees show up each Friday, proving that change may well be on its way.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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