THE FEMALE FACTOR Under Attack as Muslims in the U.S.

By SOUAD MEKHENNET International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON — Muslims in Western countries say they have gotten used to the fact that as elections get closer, politicians pump up the volume of accusations against them, whether they are Sunni, Shiite or of another sect.

In some European nations, it was the debate over women wearing the veil that set off the attacks. Now in the United States, where pivotal elections are looming, accusations against Muslims have reached a new level. It seems to some that the days of McCarthyism are back.

Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican and a member of the Tea Party movement, claimed in a recent letter that the Muslim Brotherhood had gained influence over the U.S. State Department. She cited Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin as the reason, questioning Ms. Abedin’s loyalty. One of the few Muslims in a prominent government position, Ms. Abedin is a trusted adviser who is known to the public; many have defended her against Mrs. Bachmann’s charge.

This accusation was a disturbing development for four Muslim women who work for the U.S. government and spoke on the condition that they not be identified because they were not authorized to make comments to the media.

“It is just to so sad to see,” one of the women said. “There is already a lack of Muslims in government positions, but now this debate just shows no matter how loyal you are, some people will always attack you because you are Muslim.”

It is not the first time that Muslim women involved in politics have been attacked because of their backgrounds.

In Tennessee, Samar Ali, a White House fellow, was accused by members of the Tea Party of financing Islamic terrorism. One of the main reasons for this allegation was Ms. Ali’s in-depth knowledge of Islamic banking practices.

She was born in the United States. Her father migrated at 17 from Ramallah, in the West Bank, and her mother came from Syria. Ms. Ali was one of the first in her area in Tennessee to speak out against the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Linda Sarsour, a community worker from Brooklyn, New York, has also been the focus of a recent debate after she was appointed to a neighborhood advisory panel. The main reason for the controversy: Members of her family had been arrested on accusations of supporting Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the Gaza Strip. One member of the Tea Party and other community workers asked that she be removed.

“Michele Bachmann and some people of the Tea Party movement — the fact that we are Muslim means we are disloyal to our country and have hidden agendas,” Ms. Sarsour said.

She denies having any contact with Hamas or other radical Muslim groups. Otherwise she never would have received a “Champion of Change” award from President Barack Obama some months ago, she said.

Ms. Sarsour, 32, sees the attacks against her and Ms. Abedin as a new stage of Islamophobia.

“Michele Bachmann, Peter King and their colleagues are trying to further marginalize Muslim Americans from civic engagement and political life,” she said. “I have news for them: It’s not working.”

The women interviewed for this column said it was time for those who are attacking them to look more closely at the reality on the ground in some Arab countries. Though rightly criticized for dealing harshly with protests, those governments may have more tolerance than the United States or European countries for members of religious minorities, they say.

“It is always easy to point with your fingers on Arab countries and remark that they aren’t democracies,” said another of the four women with government jobs. “But then you see how they got advisers and ambassadors of other religious backgrounds than the majority.”

The women mentioned Morocco, whose king has Jewish advisers, and Bahrain, which is still the site of conflict between the mainly Shiite-led opposition and the ruling family and government, but has a Jewish female ambassador in Washington, a Christian one in London and several Shiite ambassadors and ministers.

Alice Thomas Samaan, the Bahraini ambassador to Britain, said by telephone that she was saddened by the attacks on Muslim women like Huma Abedin, Linda Sarsour and Samar Ali. “I had hoped that there is a difference in the U.S. about Islam, and loyalty and disloyalty has nothing to do with the religion,” Ms. Samaan said.

She was born in Bahrain, though her mother came from Turkey and her father is of Iraqi background. She said she grew up in an area in Bahrain where she had been surrounded by all kinds of religions and never felt any difference from other Bahrainis.

“Religion was never an issue at all,” Ms. Samaan said.

The Muslim women interviewed for this column said they would not support the way Bahrain cracked down on protests last year. But, they said, in terms of dealing with religious minorities, some politicians in the West could learn something from other countries for a change.

“These two ambassadors,” Ms. Sarsour said, “are seen as Bahrainis first and foremost, their religion secondary, while in the U.S. instead of seeing people like Huma and myself as Americans, they see us as Muslims first.”

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