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Hijab In The White House

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Last month, Sameera Fazili, Deputy Director of the US National Economic Council (NEC), spoke at a White House press briefing about an executive order from President Biden aimed at alleviating supply chain shortages. The subject of Ms. Fazili’s address may seem obscure, but it caught the eye of many because she wore a hijab. 

The symbol of a senior White House official in hijab is meaningful for several reasons. Most obviously, it is a visual reminder to many Muslims that the office of the president is no longer held by a man who scapegoated Muslims as a political strategy. But on reflection, it also reminds us of the extraordinarily difficult position of Muslims who seek to live out their religious commitments in the public square.

Ms. Fazili, a married mother of three and the daughter of Kashmiri immigrants, is clearly eminently qualified for her position. She is a graduate of Yale Law School and Harvard College. In the Obama administration, she served as a senior policy advisor at the NEC and as a senior advisor at the US Treasury Department. Before her current appointment, Ms. Fazili worked as director of engagement for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Community and Economic Development department.

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But adding depth to this impressive resume is Ms. Fazili’s work exploring and advocating for religion in public life. From 2000 to 2001, she served as the first executive director of Karamah, a nonprofit organization “committed to promoting human rights globally, especially gender equity, religious freedom and civil rights in the United States.” In that capacity, Ms. Fazili established the organization’s full-time programs, including its conflict resolution program. She organized a panel discussion on Capitol Hill “to examine the increasing visibility and role of Muslims in the American political process.” And she testified before the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights at a hearing on religious discrimination in Western Europe.

In her Congressional testimony, Ms. Fazili focused on the harsh laws in much of Europe that punish Muslim women for wearing the hijab. She observed that under French law, Muslim students who wish to wear hijab are made to “suffer for their religious choices.” In Germany, she lamented, government officials banned teachers from wearing hijab and in doing so had conflated religious conservatism with extremism: “the modest religious woman,” she said, “is now revealed as a dangerous political activist that must be removed from interaction with impressionable children, lest they decide to become modest as well.” Where a German court had held that the hijab violates a standard that teachers remain “neutral,” Ms. Fazili argued that “religious freedom becomes empty when conditioned on a litmus test of ‘neutrality’ by a basically homogeneous majority.” And under Kemalist Turkey’s version of secularism, she testified, Muslim women who wished to wear hijab were “forced to choose between their economic needs and their faith and dignity.”

Along with striving for religious freedom for Muslims overseas, Ms. Fazili has been an active participant in America’s Islamic community. While living in Georgia, she served on the advisory board of the Atlanta chapter of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), a Chicago-based community organization that “fosters health, wellness and healing in the inner-city by organizing for social change, cultivating the arts, and operating a holistic health center.” IMAN is one of the oldest and most successful Islamic faith-based social service organizations in America, and a paradigmatic example of the contributions of Islam, and religion generally, to the common good.

Ms. Fazili’s distinguished career demonstrates that she has thoughtfully and seriously, but without ostentation, taken Islam as a substantive foundation and guide in her public life. In that respect, she sits in tension between various competing trends in American culture bearing on religion. 

First, we must acknowledge that, in one important sense, Trump, through executive orders and judicial and executive branch appointments, did more than any president since Clinton to safeguard religious freedom. Muslims who are concerned about the aggressive push to codify liberal sexual norms into law benefitted from protections sought by socially conservative Christians and Jews. And administration officials like Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and Sam Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, fought as vigorously for the religious freedom of Muslims as they did for those of other faiths. 

These appointments and policies had the effect of protecting the religious rights of Muslims with traditional orthodox beliefs regarding the family and sexuality, and thus at least partially offset the harm of Trump’s Muslim-baiting. But Trump also embraced and amplified idealogues who bitterly oppose religious freedom for Muslims, and who indeed seek to drive faithful Muslims from public life entirely. Trump also opposed religious freedom when it conflicted with his other priorities, like cracking down on illegal immigration, or shielding government officials from lawsuits. The upshot: Trump’s unprincipled approach has tarnished the concept of religious freedom for a large segment of the population.

The approach of Trump and his Muslim-baiting allies had the inevitable effect of helping to drive many American Muslims to embrace the progressive left’s ahistorical, secular interpretation of American order. In this vision, religion is not the divinely rooted worldview that grounded the American founding and which guides the believer’s public and private moral choices, but merely an identity marker similar to ethnicity or even sexual orientation and gender identity. Significantly, this secular vision is parallel to those on the right for whom Christianity is merely a component of their racial or national identity. 

For its part, the progressive left has long been a silent partner of that segment of the right who would drive observant Muslims from the public square. It has done so by agreeing to admit American Muslims to their pantheon of aggrieved identity groups, but on the condition that Islam be reimagined as a mere “identity” rather than what it is: a way of life rooted in servitude to God, with ethical imperatives that transcend partisan politics and fashionable ideologies right or left. By creating astroturf organizations and promoting like-minded Muslim activists and academics, the progressive left seeks to fashion a new Islam for America that mirrors its ideology and priorities. Significantly, this strategy mirrors a neoconservative plan to re-engineer Islam into a sort of liberal Protestantism. And while some progressives have defended the rights of Muslims (including this author), others have sided with Trump to oppose Muslims’ religious freedom when it conflicts with their broader ideological agenda.

Under the arrangement the left has struck with American Muslims, they are free to engage in political activity, but only insofar as it corresponds to or supports the left’s ideology and causes. And the left is quick to punish its Muslim allies if they do not toe the line. For example, the Human Right Campaign (HRC), a pro-LGBT lobby group, has publicly praised the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) for supporting its pet legislation, but made an example out of the group with a series of blistering news releases and social media posts for daring to object when it tried to distribute literature at its convention. In its anti-ISNA campaign, HRC and its allies worked with far-right agitators like Andy Ngo, who gleefully decried ISNA’s “homophobia.” Similarly, the far left Service Employees International Union (SEIU) waged an expensive legal and public relations campaign against its ally, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), when the group’s management allegedly resisted its attempts to unionize staff, a battle eagerly joined by CAIR’s adversaries on the right. (I worked at CAIR on and off from 1994 to 2001.) Little wonder that the days are long gone when the major American Muslim advocacy organizations could stake out socially conservative, faith-inspired positions on issues like the family, abortion, and gambling.

In her 2001 testimony before Congress, Ms. Fazili stated that the hijab is not “the most pressing issue for Muslims in Europe who face discrimination,” but a symbol of the way they are seen and treated by the broader society. She also explained that she herself wears hijab as a matter of sincere personal belief, giving no indication that she views it as a secular marker of membership in an identity group. Twenty years after her testimony, the official repression of her veiled counterparts in Western Europe has only intensified. And she serves the public in an administration fighting to undermine key Clinton-era religious freedom legislation, and which is heavily influenced by an ideological movement which demands that American Muslims bleed Islam of its religious content as the price of a seat at their table. And she joins this administration on the heels of a president who took many actions to protect religious freedom, but who also undermined it by stoking anti-Muslim sentiment, and who never would have considered appointing her to a senior White House position. 

Both the Trump and Biden administrations represent, at least in part, and in different but parallel ways, increasingly influential ideological currents that would see Islam driven from the public square. In rising above the secularizing identity politics of the far left, and facing with courage the secularizing identity politics of the far right, Ms. Fazili serves as an example for Muslims who seek to hold onto their faith and contribute to the common good while navigating an increasingly polarized America.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Ismail Royer is Director of Islam and Religious Freedom at the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC. He converted to Islam in 1992.

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