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Faith groups accuse GOP senators of ‘apparent anti-Muslim animus’ for stalling Biden nominee

'We are deeply concerned by the apparent anti-Muslim animus driving this unprecedented action against Dilawar Syed,' the religious groups wrote in a letter to the Senate committee.

President Biden shakes hands with Dilawar Syed, whom Biden nominated for deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration on March 3, 2021. Photo via Twitter/Dilawar Syed

WASHINGTON (RNS) — A group of faith-based denominations and organizations is criticizing lawmakers for stalling votes on a high-level nomination by President Joe Biden, accusing Republican senators of “apparent anti-Muslim animus” for holding up the confirmation of what would be the highest-ranking Muslim American in the executive branch.

The controversy dates back to at least June 30, when Republican senators sent a letter to Sen. Ben Cardin, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate small business committee, criticizing Dilawar Syed, Biden’s nominee for deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration. Syed served in former President Barack Obama’s White House and currently works as the CEO of a health care technology company.

The June letter was signed by eight of the 10 Republican senators on the committee — including Marco Rubio of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tim Scott of South Carolina — and singled out Syed’s service as board member at Emgage Action, a Muslim American advocacy group. The senators accused Emgage of being “vocally anti-Israel,” citing its criticism of the country when violence broke out in the region in May. Lawmakers insisted on a second hearing to “ensure” Syed’s nomination “would not jeopardize small businesses with close ties to Israeli companies or small businesses owned by Jewish Americans.”

But religious supporters of Syed fired back on Monday (Aug. 9) in their own letter to the Senate committee. Citing their various faiths and work with the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, an effort that seeks solidarity with Muslim Americans, the religious groups decried what they described as a GOP-led “boycott” and pointed out it occurred “simultaneously with the circulation of a troubling strategy email that highlighted Mr. Syed’s birthplace in Pakistan and his association and civic work with a Muslim American advocacy organization.”

“We do not normally comment on presidential appointments, nor the Senate confirmation process, (but) we feel morally compelled to speak out,” the letter said.

After noting such a boycott is unprecedented in the committee’s history, the letter called for lawmakers to hold a vote to advance his nomination immediately, saying: “We are deeply concerned by the apparent anti-Muslim animus driving this unprecedented action against Dilawar Syed.”

It concludes: “Our constitution prohibits an ethnic or religious test for holding public office. To do so violates our nation’s valued principle of religious freedom. No one should be denied the ability to hold office because of what they look like or how they choose to worship.”

Signers include a diverse array of faith groups, including the Religious Action Center and Union for Reform Judaism, African American Ministers In Action, Sojourners, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, National Council of Churches, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Church World Service and Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Also listed were various denominational offices, such as the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church.

Opposition to Syed’s nomination has already sparked backlash from some Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Congress, which issued a statement of support for Syed in July that congratulated him on his success. “He will become the highest ranking American Muslim in the Biden Administration, an achievement to be celebrated by all Americans,” the statement said.

The Anti-Defamation League also rejected the lawmakers’ approach, saying in a statement that it “challenges any negative conclusion of Mr. Syed’s candidacy because of his association with Emgage.”