The recent call of Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann and a group of her colleagues for an investigation into “security concerns” over the employment of Muslims in senior government positions may have stirred emotions on both sides of the political aisle, but it also revealed a little known truth – the under-representation of Muslim-Americans in the civil service, says The Jewish Forward in a report.
“Most Muslims in government are at the more junior levels,” said Haris Tarin, Washington office director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “There is no one in Cabinet level, no one at the deputy secretary level.”’
America’s Muslim population has almost tripled over the past decade. The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies found in a study released in May that 2.6 million Muslims were living in America in 2010. A Pew Research Center study released last year projected that the American Muslim population will reach 6.2 million by 2030. It found that 63 percent of American Muslims were first-generation Americans.
Yet, Muslims in senior federal positions are still a rarity. Currently, the most noted ones in the Obama administration include Huma Abedin, deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (and wife of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner); Rashad Hussain, who is America’s special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Farah Pandith, the State Department’s special representative to Muslim communities. Two out of 535 members of Congress are also Muslim, both Democrats: Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and Indiana’s André Carson. Several other Muslims serve on federal advisory boards, including Dalia Mogahed, who advised the White House office of faith-based and neighborhood initiatives, and Mohamed Elibiary, who has consulted for the Department of Homeland Security.
On the state level, high-level Muslim appointments can also be a controversial issue. Last year, New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, appointed Sohail Mohammed to be the state’s first Muslim Superior Court judge, but only after facing down a hail of charges from conservatives in his own base that Mohammed would bring Sharia, or Islamic religious law, into American courts.
Bachmann’s call for a probe of federal officials has received no official response. According to CNN, the inspector generals at the State Department and Homeland Security have turned down her request on the grounds that it was outside their mandate.
Shail Khan, a former political appointee in the George W. Bush White House, had a similar experience while working in government. Khan served in the Office of Public Liaison from Bush’s first day in office and until the end of his term. During this time, he was attacked by Frank J. Gaffney, who heads the conservative Center for Security Policy, for his “family’s Islamist connections.”
“They tried to question my loyalty,” Khan said in an interview, “but people like Huma Abedin and like me, who passed serious security clearance, are not a threat.”
Khan now tries to encourage young Muslim-Americans, in the administration and on Capitol Hill, not to give up on public service. “These things discourage patriotic Americans from serving in government,” Khan said, adding that in recent years he succeeded in convincing several Muslim staffers to remain in government.
Some in the Muslim-American community believe the Bachmann episode will discourage younger members of their community from 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.
According to The Forward, anti-Muslim sentiment is not the only issue discouraging Muslims from senior government positions.
Another obstacle facing Muslim-Americans, as well as Arab-Americans who are Christians, is climbing the ranks in government offices that deal 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.
The report says that the main reason for under-representation of Muslims in senior government positions is that they are newcomers. Muslim immigration to America picked in the 1980s and has visibly increased 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.