Opinion: We Prayed Where They Trampled

What the Capitol Insurrection means to a Muslim American

By Sayyid M. Syeed

March/April 2022

On January 6 last year, I watched in horror as rioters tore through the U.S. Capitol, claiming to exercise their First Amendment rights, when in reality they were desecrating and destroying both the building and any sense of security or stability we as Americans might have felt about such a sacred space. 

It’s the same space where, not so long ago, I had put my head to the floor in prayer for our country with my fellow Muslims and friends of other faiths. I pray now, as those who perpetuated this terror are brought to justice and as we mark the one-year anniversary, that we instead watch the restoration of the true democratic values that the building and those who work in it represent.

But we must also confront how this horrific day unfolded and what allowed it to happen, if for no other reason than to make it a historic marker of our zero-tolerance for such heinous acts. 

Over the past three decades, I’ve been connected to the Capitol Hill complex in ways that are deeply personal while bringing national and international leaders and activists to the building as part of my interfaith advocacy. I’ve worked closely with allies across multifaith communities, and often in a bipartisan fashion, to advocate for expanding health care, eradicating poverty, ending hunger, battling hate crimes, promoting religious freedom, asserting inclusion and other critical, people-centric policies for all Americans. Through this faithful work, I’ve established lasting friendships with members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle.

In 1998 I traveled from ISNA headquarters to give the inaugural sermon at the first regular Friday prayers held in the Capitol Hill complex. Until then, Washington’s Muslims would pray at existing mosques, community centers and even houses of worship of other faiths. Realizing the demand and importance of fulfilling this religious obligation for the growing number of young Muslim interns and staffers on the Hill, Friday prayers were started in the basement of the Capitol that year. In 1997, members were officially given a Capitol room in which to pray.

The Friday prayers have since been a part of the Washington scene for residents and visitors alike. Capitol staff and security are all familiar with the Friday prayer space; anyone can come to observe, listen and engage with worshippers who needed nothing but the cleared floor to pray on.

As I hosted foreign delegations and leaders, we would talk about the Muslim American experience as a unique one, with all of its complexities and diversity. At one event organized by the National Prayer Breakfast Committee, I met an imam who believed strongly that being Muslim and American were mutually incompatible. I invited him to give the sermon that day in the Capitol and saw how interacting with us impacted his thinking.

Similarly, other like-minded people came to the Capitol and left with a better understanding of the possibilities of a distinct Muslim American identity — the integration of this identity in a natural form within the political sphere.

There is a photograph from January 6 with someone brazenly carrying a huge Confederate flag through a hallway with a portrait of Senator Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) hanging in the background. I especially remember passing by that very spot and informing visitors of this senator being beaten inside the chambers in 1856 for his anti-slavery positions. 

I would say that this incident happened two or three years before the Civil War. One would think that when the prolonged and painful war ended, so did racism and injustice. But I always emphasized, while standing in front of that portrait, that the first civil rights law was passed only 100 years after the Civil War.

Walking the halls and remembering the portraits, the busts and the history, I am also acutely aware that representation matters. Muslims had a respectable room given to us for prayers and for breaking fast during Ramadan, but, more importantly, we now have more elected representation in the actual chambers than ever before.

Visiting leaders from around the world would remark that Muslim officials must have been voted in because of the larger Muslim populations in their districts, as if they were only allowed in because of this demographic concentration. But I have been proud and loud that our Muslim representatives at all levels of government have been elected by a diversity of constituents for their platforms, advocacy and commitment to bettering our country. Those lawmakers working in the Capitol represent all of us, and we represent the constituency that keeps them aligned with the ideals and promises of the U.S.

Although my actual former office, the ISNA Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances, was a block away, the Capitol was our place to think, dream and work alongside others answering the call to serve our communities.

This office, located at 110 Maryland Avenue, N.W., is right next door to the Supreme Court, the Senate and, of course, close to the Congress building, where we offered our Friday prayers.

It was painful to watch the insurrection and related vitriol spewed by those who would harm our institutions and democracy. But I feel more fervently now that even hours after storming the building, the nation will reassert itself, just as it started during the time of Senator Sumner, who, with his righteous stance, was honored by being buried in the Capitol Rotunda.

This reassertion comes from the forces opposed to what the insurrectionists stood for. The relentless and critical work of the anti-racist movement, especially Black Lives Matter, has given strength and vigor to quell the insurrection and has kept our country aligned with our ideals.

If the insurrectionists had succeeded, we could then say that our country has fallen into the hands of those who would assert the negative narrative, a hateful direction for our nation. And we still have challenges ahead, for the powerful and inevitable sweep toward inclusion, social justice, equity and democratic ideals isn’t going to be an easy one or without dissent and discord.

But the pendulum is swinging in that direction, and I’m glad to be witnessing this realignment, knowing that we are on the side of all that is good. As we celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month, and as our attention returns to rebuilding the Capitol and the White House from within, I am even more confident that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Sayyid M. Syeed, a former ISNA president, served as national director for the ISNA Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances in Washington, D.C. from 1994 to 2006.

[Editor’s note: Copyedited and published with the author’s permission. A version of this article was published by Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs’ Berkley Forum, Jan. 5, 2022. 



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