By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
March 29, 2009
Reporting from Chicago — In a bid to get more Muslim Americans working in the Obama administration, a book with the resumes of 45 of the nation’s most qualified — Ivy League grads, Fortune 500 executives and public servants, all carefully vetted — has been submitted to the White House.
The effort, driven by community leaders and others, including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), was bumped up two weeks ahead of schedule because White House officials heard about the venture, said J. Saleh Williams, program coordinator for the Congressional Muslim Staffers Assn., who sifted through more than 300 names.
“It was mostly under the radar,” Williams said. “We thought it would put [President Obama] in a precarious position. We didn’t know how closely he wanted to appear to be working with the Muslim American community.”
The effort aims to get the administration focused on Muslim Americans, who have at times felt like pariahs. During the campaign, Obama’s staff prevented Muslim women wearing head scarves from being photographed behind him in one of many incidents that left Muslim Americans feeling slighted.
Now, Muslim Americans, who according to a recent study overwhelmingly voted for Obama in November, have been carefully watching the administration’s every step.
Most expressed disappointment with Obama’s initial silence during Israel’s offensive in Gaza, before he assumed office. They’ve been encouraged by the video message the president issued recently to the Iranian people on the eve of the Persian New Year and want more diplomacy with nations such as Syria and Iran.
They’ve been troubled by FBI admissions of sending what activists call “agent provocateurs” into mosques, and the bureau’s break in ties with Muslim American organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Community leaders hope the White House will consider Muslim Americans for posts in the administration. They say that this is not just a chance for Muslim Americans to show their patriotism, but also a chance for the country to engage the community and recognize its importance. There are an estimated 7 million to 8 million Muslims in America, but no Muslims have been appointed to key positions.
A White House aide confirmed that the administration had received the resumes, noting that it was not unusual for the White House to consider lists of job candidates suggested by constituent groups.
“We’re still very much in the middle of the [hiring] process, even when it comes to very senior government employees. These things take time, and they’re all based on finding the right fit,” said the aide, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly for the administration.
“Muslims are not looking for handouts,” said Abdul Malik Mujahid of the Muslim Democrats, who points to Zalmay Khalilzad, tapped by former President George W. Bush for many key roles. “We’re just looking for equal opportunity and inclusiveness.
“That will give a far better message to the Muslim world than speeches.”
Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, said Muslims needed to ask themselves what they can do for their country.
“While that question would have made many feel squeamish in the Bush administration, asking that question in the Obama administration should elevate us,” said Patel, who was recently appointed to the president’s advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships. “During the era of Obama, it feels right to ask and answer that question.”
Many Muslims, such as Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, are ready to serve.
He said he wants the administration to listen to activists like him on domestic issues such as housing or helping former jail inmates reenter communities. Muslim Americans have a lot more to offer than just feedback on foreign policy or national security issues, Nashashibi said.
Obama is off to a good start, said Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress — the second is Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.).
“He’s done a lot, and I believe he will do more,” Ellison said, adding: “I identify with the impatience. I want to see things happen faster.”
Some hope Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. will reverse Bush administration actions such as the FBI’s decision to break formal ties with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, because it was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the terrorism-financing case against the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation.
“We’re hoping that once Eric Holder puts the department in order and places people in different positions, we can reestablish what were very positive relations [with the FBI] in our 15-year history,” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.
Many Muslim American leaders are telling members of their community to remain realistic.
Obama is “not going to be a magic maker,” said Imad Hamad, Midwest director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
“The chilling effects that this community has endured over the last eight years with the erosion of civil liberties will not end within the first six months of this administration,” Hamad said. “People are not going to witness a major switch in certain policies.”
Mike Dorning contributed to this report from Washington.