Suhail Khan, a conservative Republican who served as a political appointee in the Bush administration and currently serves on the American Conservative Union board, calls the Fox News report asserting that the Congressional Muslim Staff Association poses a national security threat “anti-Muslim bigotry.”
As I reported on Friday, the American Center for Law and Justice has jumped on the Fox report, amping up hysteria by calling for a Department of Justice investigation.
Khan, who currently works as a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, an evangelical Christian religious freedom organization, worked as a Hill staffer in the 1990s, serving on the staff of Tom Campbell, a California Republican. In the mid-1990s, he said, he approached then-Speaker Newt Gingrich about obtaining a room for the small number of Muslim staffers to hold Friday prayers. Gingrinch granted that request, and the tradition continued through the tenures of Speakers Dennis Hastert, also a Republican, and Nancy Pelosi.
Over the years, the number of people attending grew, eventually leading to the creation of the CMSA around 2007, when Khan has already left Hill service and was working in the Bush administration. Like other Congressional staffer organizations, the CMSA does not receive any funding or support from the government; rather the status permits it to use space and provides a structure for leadership. Other groups include Christian and Jewish organizations that host prayer and study sessions. The CMSA, Khan said, engages in two main activities: hosting briefings on a variety of issues; and hosting a Congressional iftar each year that is widely attended, including by elected officials. Friday prayers are held by individual staffers, some of whom are also CMSA members, under the auspices of the House chaplain; they are not an official function of the CMSA.
Regarding the Fox piece, Khan said, “since 9/11 there have been a couple of individuals that have been spending a lot of money to cull through tapes and videos of conferences and TV programs and the Internet to look for information that is critical of Muslims and Muslim-Americans getting involved in public policy. They compile that into a guilt-by-association Powerpoint and then shop it to reporters.” These individuals include, said Khan, Frank Gaffney, who issues baseless warnings to members of Congress about “creeping shari’ah;” Paul Sperry, co-author of the book Muslim Mafia, which claimed that the Council on American Islamic Relations had infiltrated Capitol Hill by placing interns as spies; Kenneth Timmerman, a conservative writer and activist; Pamela Geller, the blogger who spurred much of the anti-Park51 fervor; and Robert Spencer, who runs the website Jihad Watch; and Steve Emerson, whose profits from a cottage industry of peddling fear of Islam were exposed last month by the Tennessean’s religion reporter Bob Smietana.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of honest reporters toss it into the garbage can,” said Khan. “They know a smear when they see it.”
He added, “I know the cast of characters and their highly dubious reputations and complete lack of expertise when it comes to Islam, Muslims, and national security.”
“What I would assert is really at play here is good old fashioned bigotry,” he continued, and “some are making a decent living on this,” referring to the Tennessean’s revelations about Emerson.
As to the particular assertions in the Fox piece, Khan noted that the CMSA didn’t exist when people with terrorist ties were alleged to have gone to the prayer sessions. As to the claim that Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen with al Qaeda links, attended a prayer session, Khan said: “if al-Awaki came, we would condemn that. If he came, it was years before anyone knew who he was and before he had an association with al Qaeda,” adding “it was not like he was invited after he went to Yemen and became an al Qaeda leader.”
The reason why video of the events exist, Khan said, is that as a community the staffers decided the prayer events should be open to the public. Reporters from all over the world have attended the prayer events, he said, and during both the Bush and Obama administrations, the State Department has regularly sent delegations of foreign visitors because “they want to showcase religious freedom and Muslim-Americans flourishing in every sector of American life.”
Khan called it “silly” to go after to go after people who attend the prayers, because the meetings are open to the public. “Thousands of people over the years have attended the prayers and events.” The sermons at the prayer events, he said, are “very pro-American, and tend to be about public service, and the honor of public service.”
He also said that the claim in the Fox piece that Council on American Islamic Relations plays a big role in choosing speakers “is not true. . . . they have absolutely no hand in choosing anybody.”*
The CMSA’s events, said Khan, are “something all Americans could be proud of. They are a shining example of freedom of religious expression.”
Khan also said he found it “very interesting that this piece is coming out just before the change in Congressional leadership,” and expressed concern that the new leadership might find it a reason to “derail” the prayer sessions.
He added, “I also find it interesting that the ACLJ is getting involved, given its association with Pat Robertson, who is notorious for anti-islamic comments.”
The Fox report, he said, “has nothing to do with national security but with anti-Muslim bigotry.”
UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this post erroneously said that the prayer sessions are an official function of the CMSA.
*This claim, originally attributed to Patrick Poole, was actually made by FoxNews.com “sources.”