Muslim activists from Alabama see the Capitol’s sights, but not their delegation

The placard beside the door announced that this was the office of Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.) — exactly where they were supposed to be — but the group of Muslim lobbyists paused for a moment before walking in.

The Alabamians were new at this game. Led by an energetic 31-year-old named Khaula Hadeed, they included a NASA aerospace engineer and his two teenage sons, a human-rights lawyer, and a small-town imam, all of whom had traveled to Washington to join a few hundred others for an annual Muslim advocacy day on Monday.

A few minutes earlier, they had been packed into an ornate conference room with more than 300 other Muslims from around the country, as leaders of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the country’s largest Muslim advocacy groups, walked them through a crash course in lobbying.

Be polite and be clear, instructed Robert McCaw, CAIR’s government-affairs manager. Say thank you. Use real life experiences to illustrate points — it makes you more “relatable.” And take pictures with the members of Congress — always asking first if that’s okay to do — that you can post widely to social media.

The point of this year’s drive was to invite lawmakers to sign on to a House resolution condemning Islamophobia, advocate for broader criteria through which an individual can acquire good credit — a bill co-introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), one of two Muslims in Congress — and promote the construction of more grocery stores in “food deserts,” a bill introduced by the other Muslim member of Congress, Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.).

But more broadly, it was an effort to promote understanding of a religion that has been taking a rhetorical beating in the ongoing presidential campaign, and whose members have felt a growing hostility from some sections of the American public, particularly since the December mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., carried out by two Muslim extremists.

“We need to put a human face on the Muslim community,” said CAIR’s executive director, Nihad Awad; it’s harder to support anti-Muslim policies if you can put a face to the name.

Awad advised the group to use the hashtag #MuslimHillDay for its Twitter and Facebook posts. Then, he added, cautioning those with foreign accents about their pronunciation: “Not Muslim Hell Day.” The crowd laughed.

The Alabama six knew their charge would be more challenging than that of their California or New York counterparts, the latter of which had a delegation that was a few dozen strong. Theirs was a red state through and through, Hadeed said. Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley (R), has tried to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state; and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama is Donald Trump’s only Senate endorser.

None of Alabama’s nine representatives on Capitol Hill, including the two senators, agreed to meet with the Muslim lobbyists Monday, on the 10th annual Muslim Hill Day. But five allowed for meetings with their staffers.

At Aderholt’s office, the group had been granted a meeting with Megan Medley, the congressman’s deputy legislative director, who promptly ushered them into an office and closed the door. After a few minutes, they reemerged.

“She said they had no position on it,” Hadeed said, referring to the Islamophobia resolution. “And that she’s not in that department,” added David Gespass, a human-rights lawyer from Birmingham, who chairs the board of CAIR’s Alabama chapter.

Fifteen-year-old Abdallah and 14-year-old Assem, the sons of Said Belhadj, the aerospace engineer, looked dismayed. “There’s no precedent for this,” Hadeed assured them. Many of these lawmakers have never met Muslims before, she said.

The group agreed that the meeting in and of itself was a positive step. They snapped a group photo next to Aderholt’s placard — Medley declined to be photographed with them — and set off down the marble hallway to the next meeting.

According to Hadeed, who started CAIR’s Alabama chapter last year, there is no accurate count on the number of Muslims in the state, but there are at least 33 mosques. She estimates that at least 5,000 Muslims live in Birmingham, because that’s about how many turn out at the mosque for Eid al-Fitr, the day that marks the end of Ramadan, every year.

Hadeed, who grew up in Pakistan, got U.S. citizenship last month after having a green card for years. The need to become a citizen — and to be able to vote — began to feel suddenly urgent as a growing number of American politicians voiced suspicion and called for anti-Muslim policies in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attacks.

“I was worried — am I going to be able to have a say?” she said, her heels clicking across the sidewalk behind the Capitol in between meetings. She wore a long, fitted white coat and had her hair swept up on top of her head beneath a navy blue scarf.

Seventy-eight percent of Republican voters in Alabama said last month that they would support Trump’s proposal to ban non-American Muslims from entering the country, according to a Super Tuesday exit poll conducted by ABC News.

“That means my neighbors are thinking that,” Hadeed said. “I was like: I have a daughter. What if someone boots me out?”

Two of the five congressional offices that granted the Alabama group meetings assigned their national security advisers to the task, an event that the group found vexing.

(“That was not our guy,” Hadeed declared after exiting a meeting with Hanz Heinrichs, Sen. Richard C. Shelby’s national security adviser. “But anyway, he was one of the people who did reply to us — so yay!”)

At the office of Rep. Martha Roby, the group met with the Republican’s military legislative assistant, Andrew W. Ashley, who told the visitors that he deals with defense, foreign affairs and national security issues.

“We’re actually here for some legislative issues,” Hadeed said.

“Are y’all from Alabama?” Ashley asked.

Everyone nodded and offered halting introductions. Huntsville, Birmingham, a love of the South.

Muhammed Haq, the imam whose Pakistani upbringing left him with a thick accent, said he was from the Appalachian town of Anniston. Hadeed mentioned her Alabama college degree, and she joked with the others about the grueling days of law school as the two congressional aides sat stone-faced.

Hadeed told them about the resolution to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry, and about the credit initiative and about the food deserts.

Abdallah Belhadj, the 15-year-old, told them about an anti-Muslim group that wanted to have an armed protest outside their mosque.

Ashley said they would have to review the bills, including the Islamophobia bill with its 71 Democratic co-sponsors.

As they stood up, Hadeed asked if they could take a picture together.

“I generally don’t take pictures with groups,” Ashley said.

By lunchtime, the group had met with staffers from three congressional offices, including one who said they get “about 100 resolutions a day,” according to Abdallah. The Belhadj family, who had driven 11 hours to Washington the day before, had to hit the road again. The trip was “very positive,” the elder Belhadj said. “It would have been appreciated if the congressmen were actually there,” Abdallah added.

In the Rotunda, Hadeed and Haq ran into an acquaintance from the California team. “Wow, you met with an actual congressman,” Hadeed said, after hearing his cheerful account. The man replied that the representative is “really nice” — they meet all the time.

“Lucky them,” Hadeed sighed as the man walked away.

But the final meeting sparked a little hope.

Walking into Rep. Bradley Byrne’s office, Hadeed hoped she might see a former law school classmate. He wasn’t there, but the Republican’s legislative director, Chad Carlough, knew about the connection, and he welcomed Hadeed and Haq warmly.

Twenty minutes later, Hadeed emerged, grinning. “Now I know the difference between a good meeting and a great meeting,” she exclaimed. Carlough, who had lived in Bahrain, hadn’t signed on to any of the proposals, but he “understood what we were saying right off the bat.”

In Bahrain, a Muslim woman had given Carlough’s wife a special tour of the Grand Mosque, Hadeed said. He understands that regular Muslims “are not the September 11 people — that there’s a difference.” She was breathless.

Carlough, she said, even let them take a picture.