The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks turned all eyes on Muslims in America. Those who worked for the federal government were attacked in the blogosphere and worried about being scapegoated or simply misunderstood. But they also saw an opportunity.
Suhail Khan now heads the external relations team at a technology company. But when terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, he went from being a little known bureaucrat to a target of anti-Muslim rhetoric throughout the blogosphere. He was accused of bringing the Muslim Brotherhood into the Bush White House and tainting the Republican party.
President George W. Bush had appointed Khan to the Office of the Public Liaison to serve as an outreach coordinator with minorities, including Muslims.
On Sept. 11, Khan was working in the White House. Even there, he said, it took awhile to realize the country was under attack.
“I heard of the first plane going into the World Trade Center on Howard Stern, of all places,” Khan said. He thought it was a small commuter plane that had crashed by accident, he said. Even when the alarms went off at the White House, he assumed it was a practice drill.
“It wasn’t until a Secret Service officer said a plane was coming into the White House that we began evacuating dramatically,” Khan said.
The plane that was thought to be headed to the White House was United Airlines flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. Khan said the following days were a blur. He introduced officials to Muslim leaders and arranged for the president to give a speech against discrimination at a mosque.
Khan said he never meant to grab the spotlight himself.
But bloggers accused Khan of befriending Islamic extremists and supporting jihad. Even today, websites are devoted to outing Khan as an extremist.
Khan said none of that was true.
“I became a point of attack because I was a Muslim American serving in the White House,” he said. “I was seen as someone in a sensitive position at the time.”
‘You understand people much better …’
Muslims elsewhere also felt targeted, but saw opportunity.
Behar Godani was a teenager when terrorists attacked. She had just started high school at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Va.
“It put the entire school in the spotlight. We became spokespeople for Islam whether we were ready to be or not,” Godani said. “Before that, I saw myself as a native New Yorker, born in Queens.”
Rather than feeling like a victim, Godani said that “odd” feeling galvanized her. When a State Department recruiter visited her school a year later, she realized her career path.The recruiter emphasized the agency’s need for a diverse workforce, she said, so she began preparing herself to be a competitive candidate.
“I’m not a native Arabic speaker but after 9/11 I wanted to learn more about my religion and language so I could be the best civil servant that I could be when I applied at State,” Godani said. “I began to expect more from myself so I could give a better image of what Muslim Americans, and Muslim-American civil servants, look like.” Today Godani is a State Department program analyst who works on declassifying manuscripts.
The agency has more than tripled the number of positions in which Arabic, Persian, Urdu and other languages spoken in predominantly Muslim countries are required.
“The reason you need those languages is the same reason you need cultural diversity and familiarity,” said Linda Cheatham, who leads the agency’s recruitment and outreach efforts. “You understand people much better, you find out things that are useful to national security and other interests that you wouldn’t otherwise find out, and you project a real sense of who we are as Americans in another language in an era that is driven in many ways by public diplomacy.”
Some federal employees said their Muslim faith and culture has helped them even on domestic issues. Assad Akhter is the deputy chief of staff to New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.).
“I’ve been lucky enough to work for people who not only were able to defend me being Muslim but considered it an asset to engage with communities and to be seen out there,” said Akhter, whose current role requires that he engage with constituents in New Jersey.
While Akhter said a college classmate and a family friend were both beaten in anti-Muslim attacks shortly after Sept. 11, he said he has felt curiosity rather than discrimination.
Sense of unity
After a controversy over a Danish cartoonist’s portrayal of the Muslim prophet Mohammad led to riots throughout the Muslim world, Khan and other Hill staffers started the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association. The group continues to maintain Friday prayer services in the Capitol, which have been a mainstay since Newt Gingrich’s term as House speaker, with a short break immediately after Sept. 11.
On a recent Friday, early arrivals draped white sheets on the green carpet and settled in as about 50 others wandered in. They turned off their mobile phones in the hall, and left their shoes in the lobby. Jameel Aalim-Johnson, a lobbyist who was the chief of staff to Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) until recently, delivered the 25-minute khutbah, or sermon, about facing adversity before receiving rewards.
Afterwards, Aalim-Johnson said that the days following 9/11 were characterized by solidarity. The rare politician who criticized Muslims was ostracized, he said, recalling an incident in which Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.) said people who wore “diapers” or “fan belts” on their heads should be “pulled over and checked.”
A member of Cooksey’s staff called Aalim-Johnson to apologize shortly after the congressman made the remark. Aalim-Johnson said the staff member made it clear that he did not agree with his boss, and he quit soon afterwards.
But that level of outrage at politicians who criticize Islam or Muslims doesn’t exist today, Aalim-Johnson said.
“They don’t say extremists, terrorists, and so forth. They go directly after the religion and they’re getting elected,” he said. In recent years, members of Congress have accused Muslim staffers of being spies, and at least one presidential candidate has said that he would think twice about having a Muslim in the White House.
“It just means, though, that we as Muslims have to be more enduring in our faith,” Aalim-Johnson said. “We’re going to be tested and when you pass through one test, Allah is going to give you another test.”
Nowadays, former Bush appointee Khan still inspires protests and vitriol on the Web. Nonetheless, he said he encourages Muslim Americans to follow in his footsteps.
“Politics is very rough and tumble and there can be sharp elbows,” he said. “People need to be prepared for that. They need to make a decision about whether they want to experience harsh attacks, and those attacks are often unfair. I think in the end that is a small price to pay.”
Khan said he would consider rejoining the government someday. He said he hopes the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 can reunite Americans and restore focus on security threats, from wherever they may come.
(Hear more from other Muslim federal employees in our audio gallery.)