What happens when a Muslim judge turns out to be a Methodist?

President Barack Obama nominated Maryland attorney Abid Riaz Qureshi, pictured, to the federal bench. If confirmed, he’d be the first Muslim American to serve as a federal judge. But that assertion renewed interest in another federal judge, Abdul Karim Kallon of Alabama, a Methodist who many assumed was a Muslim.
President Barack Obama nominated Maryland attorney Abid Riaz Qureshi, pictured, to the federal bench. If confirmed, he’d be the first Muslim American to serve as a federal judge. But that assertion renewed interest in another federal judge, Abdul Karim Kallon of Alabama, a Methodist who many assumed was a Muslim. AP

Interest this week in the first Muslim nominated to the federal bench has drawn attention to another judge facing a tough confirmation battle and whose background has prompted questions over Muslim identity.

No sooner had Muslim advocacy groups sent out news releases praising the nomination Tuesday of Washington lawyer Abid Riaz Qureshi than a question arose among U.S. Muslims on social media: What about Judge Abdul Karim Kallon?

Kallon left his birthplace of Sierra Leone when he was 11 and moved to the United States, where he would go on to graduate from two Ivy League universities, win confirmation for a federal judgeship and then become the first black nominee from Alabama for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kallon’s unusual backstory drew notice when President Barack Obama first nominated him in 2009; a few publications at the time also described him as a Muslim. Just last year, conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt brought up Kallon’s case while quizzing former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson about Muslim judges.

The Miami Herald spent several months with four Muslim-American families who live in South Florida. In time for the month-long Islamic holiday Ramadan, they share their stories and experiences.

Within 48 hours, applause over Qureshi’s nomination became interspersed with concerns over Kallon: Were people erasing Kallon’s contributions because of his race? Was the White House covering up Kallon’s faith to push through his nomination? Why wasn’t this Muslim judge getting more recognition?

Given Kallon’s accomplishments, it’s easy to see why Muslims would be eager to claim him as one of their own.

The problem is, he’s Methodist.

When Kallon was asked for comment through his office, the response came from U.W. Clemon, former chief judge of the Northern District of Alabama and the first African-American from the state to serve on the federal bench. Clemon, who has known Kallon since his law school days, said the judge came from a Muslim family but was himself a practicing Methodist who, along with his devout wife, attended church every Sunday near their home in Birmingham.

“Abdul is not a Muslim,” Clemon said. “Of course it should be completely irrelevant but” – he let out a deep laugh – “it is not.”

Clemon acknowledged that rumors have swirled for years about Kallon’s background, a reflection of how even a tenuous Muslim connection can turn into a serious political liability. Clemon recalled calling Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby about supporting Kallon in 2009.

“He said, ‘Can’t you get him to change his name?’ ” Clemon recalled.

Shelby and fellow Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions ended up pushing through Kallon’s confirmation for a district seat. That support appears to have dried up, however, since Obama nominated Kallon for a seat on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Atlanta-based court that considers cases from Alabama, Florida and Georgia. When asked for comment, spokespeople for both senators provided only a joint statement saying they’d withhold approval from any Obama nominee.

The White House is working behind the scenes to tamp down public speculation that Kallon is Muslim, according to people familiar with the nomination process who were not authorized to speak on the matter. The thinking is: A churchgoing Methodist is a much more politically expedient label than an African-born Muslim.

The intractable partisanship threatens to sink both Qureshi’s and Kallon’s chances, however.

“We’re in this wildly polarized environment where President Obama can’t get any of his Supreme Court nominees even considered, much less confirmed. So I suppose this judge has two things working against him: both the political polarization and a degree of, at least possibly, Islamophobia,” said Richard Cohen, the president of the extremism watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center, who was speaking of Qureshi and who knows Kallon from private practice.

Adnan Zulfiqar, who specializes in Islamic law as a Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said he was fascinated to see how a seemingly innocuous post he’d made to his Facebook page on Qureshi’s nomination spiraled into a discussion of Kallon, with spinoff debates on whether it was practice or belief that made one a Muslim.

“I got phone calls at 11 p.m. at night. People were texting me, I got Facebook messages, phone calls,” Zulfiqar said.

Zulfiqar recalled the collective letdown of finding out that a “Muslim” luminary wasn’t actually Muslim from an experience he’d had years ago in a fantasy football league. Every season, Zulfiqar said, “some Muslim or another” would draft Muhsin Muhammad, who played for the Carolina Panthers at the time, in the name of Muslim solidarity. When they discovered that Muhammad identified as a Christian, Zulfiqar said, there was “a deflated ‘oh.’ ”

“There’s an excitement generated by claiming public figures as Muslim because it attests to one’s presence here,” Zulfiqar said. “That is the rush to claim: They want to claim firsts, to celebrate that, because each time it happens it’s an affirmation that we’re here, we’re part of the narrative, we are part of what it means to be American.”

Farhana Khera, former counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and executive director of the legal nonprofit Muslim Advocates, said the calls for promoting Kallon as a Muslim role model were understandable, considering the current political hostility toward Islam. Muslims already were celebrating Qureshi when they learned there might be another Muslim up for a federal judgeship.

“Why is it important to claim a first? It reflects the fact that our community is still not fully represented in civil society,” Khera said. To Muslims, she said, such success stories are “an indication that we are fully engaged and fully accepted.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam