Zainab Al-Suwaij is the head of the American Islamic Congress and the granddaughter of the ayatollah of Basra, Iraq. (Sarah L. Voisin/WASHINGTON POST)

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.

Suwaij dismissed Jasser’s role on the board as marginal.

From Iraq to the U.S.

Suwaij was only 3 days old when she was taken from her mother’s home to live nearby with her grandfather, the ayatollah of the Iraqi city of Basra. That’s where she came of age amid the heady political debates about living under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship that raged among the ayatollah’s followers. But when she reached puberty, she was “shooed away by relatives” and told to go sit with the women.

“I didn’t want to go to the kitchen,” Suwaij recalled recently at her home in Bethesda. “I wanted to be at the center of things.”

Eventually, without her grandfather’s consent, that’s exactly where she ended up. At 19, Suwaij was one of the few women to take up arms in a 1991 guerrilla uprising against Hussein. She was shot in the neck, spent two months in hiding with her family and fled across the Jordanian border, she said, eventually making her way to the United States.

Relief gave way to assimilation. She landed first in Houston, where she had relatives, then settled in New Haven, Conn., where she married an Iraqi American PhD candidate at Yale the following year. (The couple, who have two children, divorced several years ago.) She began studying for a certificate in the dentistry field, but she said she “didn’t want to spend my life looking at rotten teeth.” Instead, she taught Arabic at Yale and worked with Muslim refugees.

Her life was comfortably uneventful until Sept. 11, 2001, after which Muslims across the political spectrum came under suspicion. “After 9/11, the desire to speak out washed over my peaceful, very nice life,” Suwaij said. “I had a duty.” She co-founded the AIC with her then-husband and several other Muslim Americans at Yale in November of that year. “I wanted to represent those American Muslims who cherished the freedoms of the U.S. after living under repressive regimes,” said Suwaij, who became an American citizen in 1996.

The organization flourished. In 2004, Suwaij spoke at the Republican National Convention in New York City, praising the U.S. invasion of Iraq the previous year. For Shiites like her, she said, Iraq “was like one big jail under Saddam.”

By 2010, the AIC had a budget of $1.6 million, with a third of its funding coming from grants from the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, which offers funding to about 1,000 such groups. The remainder of the AIC’s budget comes from foundations — some of which also receive funding from the U.S. government — as well as groups such as the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and a host of anonymous American donors.

With prominence came criticism. Some American Muslim leaders accuse Suwaij of being an opportunist who capitalized on anti-Islamic sentiments after Sept. 11. “Zainab Al-Suwaij is obviously very popular with those that think there’s something fundamentally wrong with Islam,” said Muqtedar Khan, founding director of the Islamic studies program at the University of Delaware. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy, especially if they came to the fore in the [George W.] Bush era.”

Attracting allies, critics alike

Suwaij is aware that with the United States serving as a primary source of financial support, her organization may be perceived as a propaganda operation rather than a human rights group. “People love to come up with conspiracies,” she says. “But it doesn’t bother me. We want to stay focused on promoting freedoms that people on the ground in the Middle East desperately want.”

She’s known for taking positions outside the American Muslim mainstream: With her support of the Iraq invasion as the obvious exception, Suwaij’s politics are progressive even by U.S. standards. She’s registered as an independent voter. She has spoken in Washington and Iraq in favor of gay rights in the Muslim world, and she pushed for the new Iraqi constitution, which requires that a quarter of the members of parliament be women. She has been known to reach out to Jewish groups, holding interfaith programs to foster open conversation between Muslims and Jews.

If her critics are vocal, her supporters are equally so. They include feminists, human rights workers and, most important, the young Arab dissidents who call her “the bureaucratic bulldozer” for her ability to barrel through official obstacles. She is popular with young American Muslims for her campus outreach program, Project Nur, and is respected in Iraq for her efforts with Ambassadors for Peace, which works to ease urban violence in Iraq’s cities.

Her staff members in AIC offices across the Middle East, most of them younger than 40, gush about Suwaij’s ability to overcome the intimidation, death threats and endless paperwork of repressive regimes when she holds civil rights sessions in Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia.

The AIC is also well known for translating into Arabic a half-century-old American comic book about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent resistance and distributing it during protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Others see Suwaij as a role model. “Zainab makes it cool to be a Muslim woman because she’s in total contrast to this perception that young Muslims are sitting around plotting the demise of America,” said Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian Italian American comic who will perform at an AIC event in Washington this month.

Suwaij is credited by some Arab bloggers with being among the first to teach young Arab activists how to combine civil disobedience and social media skills such as blogging and uploading videos. Some of those she trained from 2006 to 2011 played roles in last year’s Arab Spring uprisings, says Nasser Weddady, who began working with the AIC in 2007, when he was a well-known activist in his own right. In a report published last year by New York-based social media tracker SocialFlow, Weddady ranked as one of the top four most-influential Twitter users during the Arab Spring revolts.

“What stands out about her is that she really grasped the importance of social media as a tool to train young reformers in the Middle East before anyone thought it was possible,” said Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

In 2007, Esfandiari made headlines when she was held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. “Within 24 hours of my arrest in Iran, Zainab had set up a ‘Free Haleh’ Web site,” Esfandiari said. “She had mobilized thousands of people,” clerics in Iraq as well as civil rights activists in Washington.

Suwaij scrambled to set up an AIC office in Tunisia’s capital as that country teetered on the precipice of a revolution in late 2010 that inspired similar uprisings throughout the Arab world. Suwaij acknowledges that, on some level, she still thinks of herself as a young revolutionary. “I felt that those young [Tunisian] dissidents were me back in ’91 — but back then, each one of us was working without direction, no text messages, no Facebook. I mean, there wasn’t even electricity, let alone blog posts,” she said. These days, those seeking to foster change in the region face very different challenges — but persistence and resolution are still the chief requirements.

“In the Middle East,” Suwaij says, “it’s better just to show up and ask permission later.”