On a Friday evening in May, Zainab Al-Suwaij stood in front of her hotel mirror using jet-black Pakistani kohl to line her eyes. In an hour, she would represent the American Islamic Congress, one of the most progressive Muslim organizations in the United States, at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy conference on “Navigating the New ‘New Middle East.’ ” For Suwaij, this also means navigating the deeply divided Muslim groups in this country: The social and political tensions that have gripped the Middle East are also evident in this country.
Suwaij spritzed on Christian Dior perfume and a saffron-scented Arabic fragrance that she had mixed at a souk in Kuwait — an assertion, she said, of her Muslim-Western identity. A tall, raven-haired woman who favors designer head scarves, Suwaij, 41, is co-founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), a nonprofit civil rights group that is headquartered in Washington and has bureaus in Boston; Basra, Iraq; Baghdad; Tunis; and Cairo.
The organization has a mission that is inherently vexing: serving as a voice for moderate Muslims. There’s a diversity of sects, native languages and tribal histories from Serbia to South Africa that makes it nearly impossible for a unified Muslim voice to emerge.
“I think we should debate the issues,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a nonprofit group that focuses on the civil rights of American Muslims. “But instead we get into who is representative and who is not, especially on issues dealing with reform within the Muslim American community.”
As a Shiite Muslim, Suwaij is a minority voice: Many conservative Muslims in the United States and in the Middle East are Sunnis, which can ratchet up the distrust. “I don’t ever say that I or AIC speaks for all Muslims,” she said. “But I do want to promote certain American and human freedoms that I respect.”
Preparations concluded, Suwaij makes her way to the loud, dimly lighted conference center ballroom at Leesburg’s Lansdowne Resort, where she gets a rock star’s welcome. She moves slowly through the crowded room, air-kissing pro-Israel scholars and neoconservative policy wonks.
“Zainab!” said David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was working as an adviser for the State Department when he met Suwaij in Baghdad in 2003. The pair hug. “She’s important,” Pollock said later, “because the idea of moderate Islam is something that many Americans still can’t fathom. It’s a hard position to be in.”
To wit: The AIC has been criticized for having Arizona physician Zuhdi Jasser on its board. Jasser, the head of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, was subject to blistering criticism by many Muslim Americans after he supported a March 2011 congressional inquiry into the radicalization of Muslims. And Jasser’s defense of a controversial New York City police surveillance program that would target Muslim Americans did nothing to endear him to his fellow Muslims. Marayati also denounced Jasser, saying that despite MPAC’s respect for diverse opinions, the group would never support spying on the Muslim American community, an activity that seems counter to the very civil rights that AIC supports abroad.