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A Place at the Table
Comments () | Published January 23, 2012

The Mahmoods’ home is filled with photos of the couple alongside world leaders such as former British prime minister Tony Blair. Photograph by Melissa Golden.

The night that dozens of cars belonging to Republicans and Tea Party leaders park outside the Mahmoods’ home, they’re gathering for an “interfaith iftar.” The iftar is the meal to break the day’s fast during Ramadan—the holiest month of the year for Muslims, when they fast from sunup to sundown.

Ray and Shaista don’t always fast for Ramadan, and they rarely attend Friday prayers at the local mosques. “You don’t need to have the Koran memorized and pray five times a day in order to be a good Muslim,” Ray says. Still, he considers it important as a Pakistani-American to educate his friends about Islam.

The interfaith iftar is one of many events that represent a shift the Mahmoods made after September 11, when they decided to be more public about Muslim culture and traditions.

Susan Allen says 9/11 first brought her together with Shaista: The Allens had just moved to the neighborhood, and after the attacks they realized that not only were there four Muslim families in their enclave of 30 or so houses but one of their neighbors had been killed in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

“Some of the Muslims in the neighborhood told us they were worried about how they would be treated,” Susan Allen says. “So I immediately started talking to Shaista about what we could do.”

Then, five months after 9/11, the Mahmoods attended the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton. Shaista sat next to a small-town mayor who told her he’d never met a Muslim before.

“There are only 2 or 3 million Muslims in the US. But after I met him, it got me thinking: We need to make sure that people know we exist—moderate Muslims who love America.” 

“It isn’t Americans’ fault that they haven’t been exposed to us,” she says. “There are only 2 or 3 million Muslims in the US. But after I met him, it got me thinking: We need to make sure that people know we exist—moderate Muslims who love America.”

She and her husband are cohosting this year’s iftar with a couple of well-known conservatives—former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist.

The Chertoffs have been involved with the event since 2005, the year Michael Chertoff became Homeland Security Secretary. Ray Mahmood first met him at an event at the European Union ambassador’s house and took him aside to tell him he’d been upset by what he’d witnessed when he was selected for special screening at the Detroit airport. Although Mahmood wasn’t mishandled, he was taken aback by the harsh treatment he saw airport screeners doling out to other travelers.

“Chertoff took 20 minutes of his time to listen to me that night,” he says. “And when I was done, I was surprised to hear him agree that it was a problem and that his TSA guys need better sensitivity training.”

For this year’s iftar, Ray and Shaista decided to invite a group of “Washington neo-cons,” as Shaista puts it. The Chertoffs came up with a third of the 150 or so invitees, and Norquist—a Tea Party favorite whose own wife, Samah Alrayyes, is a Kuwaiti Muslim—helped come up with Christian conservatives to add to the list. The Mahmoods asked Imam Mohamed Magid, a prominent leader from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, to explain the significance of Ramadan, and a Christian evangelical leader would give a short speech about the importance of inter-religious dialogue, as would Chertoff’s rabbi.

At the iftar, only about 10 percent of the guests are Muslims observing Ramadan, but snacks aren’t offered until after sundown, and no alcohol is served. After the Muslim prayer to break the fast, the guests are escorted downstairs to the Mahmoods’ ballroom—a large lower floor decorated with gilded Doric columns, where more than a dozen round tables are laid with linen and silverware and a buffet of Afghan and Pakistani food awaits.

Once the guests dig into their lamb kebabs and rice, Ray stands to welcome them. He speaks so softly that his guests have to strain to hear, even though he’s using a microphone, and he stands partly behind one of the columns. He quickly turns the evening over to the Chertoffs so he can retreat behind a column at the front of the room to observe the rest of the evening.

Later on, Norquist moderates a discussion that includes questions about “how to deal with the crazy uncles among us,” meaning relatives and friends who believe that people of other religions are dangerous. Imam Magid says he recently spent two hours with then Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who has said in the past that American Muslims want to impose sharia, or Islamic law, in the United States and that he would require them to prove their loyalty to the country before they could work for his administration. Meeting with Cain, the imam says, made him realize how important it is to deal with those from his own religion who believe similar things about Christians. “We all have crazy uncles,” he says. “The question is how we deal with them.”

After the event, Shaista reports that one of the guests, a Tea Party founder, lingered at the end of the night to talk about Islam. “That’s payoff for opening our home to so many people we don’t know,” she says. “Hopefully, I was able to tell her something she didn’t know, open her mind a bit.”

Despite all the changes in their lives, Ray Mahmood and Jim Moran still get together almost weekly for impassioned discussions over meals. Both are upset at how few Pakistani-Americans work in influential positions in Washington at a time when Pakistan is probably the United States’ greatest foreign-policy concern. Mahmood can’t help but point out that there are dozens of Indian-Americans working in high-level positions in the Obama administration and next to no Pakistanis.

“There’s no secret here,” Moran says. “You’ve simply got to get more Muslims to contribute politically and financially to the political process.” He says he was frustrated when few of the Muslim-American invitees showed up at a recent fundraiser the Mahmoods held for Congressman Howard Berman. “I think it was more out of apathy than bias against Congressman Berman because he is Jewish,” Moran says. “But that’s what Ray and I are trying to fight—the apathy and sense of isolation in his community.”

When I ask Moran whether he thinks Ray Mahmood should take on a more official role in politics or diplomacy, he says he wanted to recommend him as US ambassador to Pakistan, and others did, too: “But Ray urged us not to do it. He’s always said he thought he could be more effective where he is.” Moran pauses. “Frankly, he’s probably right.”

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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Posted at 01:50 PM/ET, 01/23/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles