We Prayed Where They Trampled: What the Capitol Insurrection Means to an American Muslim

By: Sayyid M. Syeed

January 5, 2022

Faith and the American Insurrection

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 is 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 on the Capitol steps 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 but to make it a historic marker of our zero-tolerance for such heinous acts. 

Rioters scale U.S. Capitol wall on January 6, 2021. Photography courtesy of Flickr user Blink O'Fanaye.
Rioters scale U.S. Capitol wall on January 6, 2021. Photography courtesy of Flickr user Blink O'Fanaye.

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 was honored to give the inaugural sermon at the first regular Friday prayers held in the Capitol Hill complex. Until then, Muslims in DC 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.

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

The staff and security at the Capitol were all familiar with the Muslim Friday prayer space; anyone could 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 American Muslim experience as a unique one, with 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 diametrically opposed. I invited him to give the sermon that day in the Capitol and saw how interacting with us had an impact on his thinking.

Similarly, other like-minded people came to the Capitol and left with a better understanding of the possibilities of an American Muslim 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 very large Confederate flag through a hallway with a portrait of Charles Sumner in the background. I especially remember passing by that very spot and pointing out to visitors the story of the abolitionist being beaten inside the chambers for his anti-slavery positions in 1856. I would say that this incident with Sumner happened two or three years before the Civil War, and as we read history, we would think that when the prolonged and painful war ended, so did racism and injustice. But I emphasized, while standing in front of that portrait, that it was not until 100 years after the Civil War that any civil rights law was passed.

Walking the halls and remembering the portraits, the busts, the history, I am also acutely aware that representation matters. Muslims had a respectable hall 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.

Muslims had a respectable hall 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 elected officials must have been voted in because of larger Muslim populations in their districts—as if only because of this demographic concentration would the American system allow them in. But I have been proud and loud about the fact that our Muslim representatives up and down the levels of government have been elected by a diversity of constituents for their platforms, their advocacy, their commitment to the betterment of all of America. Those lawmakers working in the Capitol represent us all, and we represent the constituency that keeps them aligned with the ideals and promises of America.

Although my actual office at the Islamic Society of North America was a block away, the Capitol was our place to think, to dream, and to work alongside others answering the call to serve our communities.

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

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.

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 in the hands of those who would assert the negative narrative, a hateful direction for our nation. And we still have challenges ahead—the powerful and inevitable sweep toward inclusion, social justice, equity, and democratic ideals is not going to be an easy one or without dissent and discord.

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

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