Democrats plan show of support for Muslims at Obama’s address

More than 20 congressional Democrats invited Muslim guests to President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday, to counter what they say is negative rhetoric on Capitol Hill and speeches on the presidential campaign trail.

Amid calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and to restrict the flow of Syrian refugees, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., one of two Muslim members of Congress, urged lawmakers in a letter to invite Muslim guests to Obama’s speech to show “the world that we will not be intimidated by fear into discrimination.”

“After so much disgusting rhetoric had been thrown around, none more so than calls to ban Muslims from entering the country to suggestions that we create registries and that we go back to the days of Japanese-American internment when it comes to Muslims, I thought it was absolutely critical that members of Congress stand together to show . . . that we are not going to tolerate that stain on American values,” Wasserman Schultz added in an interview.

Rank-and-file Congress members are allowed to bring one guest each to sit in the gallery above the House chamber for the president’s speech.

Wasserman Schultz’s guest is Dr. Mohsin Jaffer, a South Florida physician.

“This is much needed,” Jaffer said Monday. “I’ve seen how religious institutions have been getting hate mail and graffiti and the women who wear head scarves are getting teased and accosted. A doctor friend of mine was in a hospital and another person comes into the elevator, reads his name tag and says, ‘I’m not sharing this elevator with you,’ and leaves. Things like this are happening and, I’m sorry, it’s out of ignorance.”

Ellison invited his son, 21-year-old Elijah Ellison, an Army medic, to Obama’s speech.

Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., is bringing Sarmed Ibrahim, an engineer from Carmichael, Calif., who fled violence in Iraq.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., is bringing Nezar Hamze, the regional operations director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a deputy in the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

Other Democratic lawmakers who’ve committed to bringing Muslim guests include Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, and Reps. Judy Chu of California, Dan Kildee of Michigan, Grace Meng of New York, Jim McGovern and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Mike Quigley of Illinois and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

The Obama administration has also invited a Muslim guest: Refaai Hamo, a newly arrived Syrian refugee who lost his wife and daughter in a missile attack, will be sitting in first lady Michelle Obama’s box Tuesday night.

As of Monday afternoon, no Republican lawmaker had responded to Wasserman Schultz and Ellison’s letter by inviting a Muslim guest, Ellison said.

Still, he added, “the response has been good, and Debbie and I aren’t the only ones who feel the need to insert inclusion.”

“I hope this speaks to the country that there are no second-class citizens in America,” Ellison said.

Jaffer and others said the political atmosphere on refugees and terrorism was contributing to a further deterioration in the perception of Muslims among Americans.

Following the Paris attacks, the House of Representatives passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Hudson, R-N.C., and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, to stem the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the United States.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said last month that Muslims should be banned from entering the country for security concerns, and he argued in November that he would “strongly consider” shutting down U.S. mosques in response to the Paris attacks.

More than half the nation’s governors – most of them Republicans – said they would refuse to accept Syrian refugees. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have called for granting refugee status to Syrian Christians.

Early last year, some conservatives expressed concern when Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., a Muslim and a former police officer, was placed on the House Intelligence Committee.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a study to gauge Americans’ views on Muslims using a “feeling thermometer,” with zero being the coldest feeling and 100 being the warmest.

Overall, Muslims came in at a chilly 40, a point lower than atheists. Republicans and those leaning toward the Republican Party gave Muslims an average rating of 33 in the study. The faith fared better with Democrats, averaging a 47 rating.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly said that Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., is bringing a Muslim guest. Tonko is bringing Ann Thane, the former mayor of Amsterdam, N.Y.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas