WASHINGTON -- 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.