Rumana Ahmed received widespread media recognition after publishing an evocative personal essay in The Atlantic discussing her brief experience working for the Trump administration in its early chaotic days.
Muslim Girl sat down with Rumana to learn more about her time working for the Obama and Trump administrations and to understand how Muslims can effectively participate in the current administration to make changes.
Muslim Girl: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and raised? What did you study in college?
Rumana Ahmed: I was born and raised in Maryland to Bengali parents. I received a B.A. in International Affairs with concentrations in International Economics and Development at The George Washington University in 2011. An internship at the White House in 2010 paved the way to being offered a job there after graduation.
In your essay for The Atlantic, you write that you were the only hijabi working in the West Wing in Obama’s White House. What challenges did you face during your time working for the Obama administration? What were some of the most rewarding moments?
There were other Muslim Americans in the White House and other sisters who covered their hair working in the White House, but yes, I was the only hijabi in the West Wing throughout the Obama administration. My hijab isn’t what defined my experience at the White House, but it is part of what makes me uniquely and proudly me. Hard work, personality, and respect are what defined my experiences – most of the time it’s what led to some of my best memories and relationships.
I faced a variety of challenges — I wouldn’t say in relation to my hijab, but yes, I faced challenges by a few in relation to being a minority, a Muslim, a woman and in my 20s. Every challenge as frustrating or painful as it could be sometimes, taught me so much more – every time, it made me more proactive and strategic, wiser and stronger, more grounded and proud of everything I stand for.
There were so many rewarding moments working in the West Wing. As an 8th/9th grader, who was once harassed and called a “terrorist” post-9/11 for covering my hair, never in a million years would I have imagined the possibility of working in the West Wing of the White House, briefing the president of the United States in the Oval Office, or walking through the West Colonnade to head to the East Room for the annual Iftars.
As a hijabi, known to smile a lot and work hard, I did stand out — which invited people to get to know me – senior officials, Secret Service, the Navy Mess stewards, etc. And while it was exciting meeting some celebrities like Usher, Common, Nina Dobrev, Kevin Hart, Adam Scott and casts of some TV shows, it was more empowering knowing they came to the White House and got to learn more about my background, perspectives and work. Every day was an honor – being a proud head-covering Muslim American woman representing and serving my country at the White House. Most rewarding has been sharing my experience with other Muslim women and reassuring them that if I could make it to the White House, so could they.
Given the visibility of your Muslim identity, did your colleagues ever tokenize you as the go-to person for Muslim and/or Middle Eastern issues?
I was occasionally tokenized, which can be exhausting or frustrating, but can sometimes be important depending on what you are being tokenized for – especially given the social and civil circumstances we’re finding ourselves in these days. If there are real impacts to targeted communities then it’s better to be the go-to person, or to direct them to the right individuals if it means protecting our own narratives or having a voice on issues that impact us.
What compelled you to continue working at the National Security Council despite the blatant anti-Muslim rhetoric propagated by Trump and his administration?
As I mentioned in The Atlantic article, despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric – or because of it – I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff to try and give at least some of Trump’s aides a more nuanced view of Islam and of America’s Muslim citizens. There were many issues I had worked on in the previous administration, such as global entrepreneurship, advancing relations with Cuba and our general national security, which I cared deeply about and wanted to try to be a resource for and see continued. I also figured that Trump’s NSC could benefit from a colored, female, hijab-wearing, American Muslim patriot.
Why did you leave?
A number of reasons compelled me to leave. Just to name a few that I can share, it was a combination of the travel ban, constant peddling of blatant lies as “alternative facts,” and assertions by White House surrogates that the president’s national security authority would “not be questioned,” that were all appalling and frightening.
Key tenants of democracy, and what is, at least functionally, supposed to make government “of the people, by the people, for the people” were being undermined or slowly shut down.
Expertise on issues, or possible social or economic impacts of policy decisions, seemed to not matter as decisions were being quickly made by a few within the West Wing in the early weeks of the Trump administration. Some of us were no longer in a position to be able to even execute the basics of our day-to-day jobs with no guidance or direction from the leadership. Some of us were no longer being able to serve the public and felt we could do more being on the outside.
What were some of the drastic changes that you saw firsthand between Obama’s administration and Trump’s administration?
Diversity disappeared. A tense environment of mistrust of former staffers and frustration, even among new staffers, who felt left out of the loop, emerged. There was no clear guidance from the new leadership. The decision-making felt almost entirely centralized within the West Wing on foreign and domestic policies.
As a former U.S. government employee and national security advisor, how did you reconcile your personal beliefs with some U.S. policies that targeted Muslims at home and abroad?
You don’t reconcile or give in to backing away from your beliefs on policies and rhetoric you think is ethically wrong and harmful – you relentlessly push back, which takes a process of patience, listening, and communicating effectively. Although you won’t always win or be heard, changing even one mind is a step forward to extending the circle of those willing to speak up and speak the truth. Just like any movement, you need persistent voices of truth and reason, engagement at the table, and action. It’s not enough to just vent on social media.
You have to be in the room and at the table if you don’t just want to be on the menu for discussion and decision-making by others. There are many instances in which Muslim Americans being in the room has had a critical impact throughout government that our communities will never know about. Those instances have saved lives and contained situations that could have been much worse.
Just because we don’t agree on certain policies doesn’t mean it’s effective to completely disengage. Building sustainable relationships and being actively there on policies you agree with are imperative to having a voice on issues you disagree or have concerns. It takes giving to get, and building relationships to create valued space to debate.
From your experience working inside the White House and at the National Security Council, do you think change could emerge from within the system? What can you say to young Muslims who have setbacks about working for the government?
I never intended to work in government. I was among those who assumed the government was inherently corrupt and ineffective. What was meant to be just a onetime internship turned into a 5.5 year gig that was incredibly eye-opening for me. I learned what impactful grassroots organizing, strategic communications, partnership-building looks like. I saw the good, the bad and the ugly and realized how much we as Americans, as Muslims, as Latinos, as African Americans were losing by more of us not being at the table. I realized and witnessed personally and based on the work of many of my colleagues how much of an impact we could actually have on individuals, communities, and our nation as a whole through policies, engagements, speeches and decisions made.
Being able to suggest edits to the president’s speeches and getting to work with one of his speechwriters to draft the speech Obama gave at a mosque in Baltimore last year was imperative. Every word of any president has real impact on individual lives. You can’t know, understand or effectively impact what you haven’t been a part of.
Government has an extensive footprint and the impacts one can have from within are just as extensive. We need people in government as much as we need them in advocacy, the private sector, media, etc.
I hope more young people will pursue experiences or careers in government and be the change-makers we need. To effectively impact government, you have to understand how it works and how it’s impacted from the inside and not just based on what you’ve read in textbooks, newspapers, television, or vented about in living rooms. We need more people who will tirelessly see and work beyond themselves (their egos, desire for self-promotion, or their politics) to serve the broader community to get us past where we are today.
How can Muslims effectively engage the current administration, and future administrations, to change perceptions of Muslim Americans and to stop political Islamophobia?
I’m not sure how anyone can effectively engage with this administration, when they’ve done little to nothing to engage the American people before deciding on major policy changes. There are some partners left who are continue to do critical work with whom engagement should continue with of course. What can and needs to be done is expanding and strengthening sustainable alliances across and within communities.
To effectively impact government, you have to understand how it works and how it’s impacted from the inside and not just based on what you’ve read in textbooks, newspapers, television, or vented about in living rooms.
I don’t just mean across faith communities, but also across political, progressive, racial, gender and issue-based communities (immigration, climate, health, social justice reform, etc). As Muslim Americans, we’re vulnerable as long as internally we have our own African American and Latino brothers and sisters feeling so marginalized. We have a lot to do within – across sects, races and genders.
Sharing resources, best practices, cross-community trainings, or internships are all important ways to effectively build partnerships in addition to attending town halls and rallies together. Partnerships are what will both help fight political Islamophobia and prepare Muslim Americans to be more effective and have a more valued and relevant voice at the table when engaging future administrations on various domestic issues rather than just national security. Each of our voices are stronger when we stand united on issues we share a common concern for even if we are not unified as people, in our beliefs, or ways of life.
What are your next steps?
First, take a little break and travel to relax and rejuvenate. I don’t do this enough myself, but it’s important that we take the time to step away to reflect and take care of our health — spiritually, mentally and physically.
Working for the White House was my first full-time job out of college, so I’m planning my next professional steps to be outside of government, maybe the private sector, to gain some new skills and perspectives before I return to government down the road. In whatever I do next, it’s always been important to me to stay true to who I am and do what I love, no matter what people expect of me, which right now ranges from social issues to leadership development among young women, global and social
entrepreneurship to advancing relations with countries like Cuba and Laos.
That said, I’ve learned from experience that as much as I plan my next steps, Allah sometimes has greater plans. So, I’m keeping an open mind and praying for guidance. I’m looking forward to whatever comes next and hope I can be as impactful as possible and give back to my community, country and world as much as I can.