On a Friday evening in May, Zainab Al-Suwaij stood in front of her hotel mirror using jet-black Pakistani kohl to line her eyes. In an hour, she would represent the American Islamic Congress, one of the most progressive Muslim organizations in the United States, at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy conference on "Navigating the New 'New Middle East.' " For Suwaij, this also means navigating the deeply divided Muslim groups in this country: The social and political tensions that have gripped the Middle East are also evident in this country.
Suwaij spritzed on Christian Dior perfume and a saffron-scented Arabic fragrance that she had mixed at a souk in Kuwait — an assertion, she said, of her Muslim-Western identity. A tall, raven-haired woman who favors designer head scarves, Suwaij, 41, is co-founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), a nonprofit civil rights group that is headquartered in Washington and has bureaus in Boston; Basra, Iraq; Baghdad; Tunis; and Cairo.
The organization has a mission that is inherently vexing: serving as a voice for moderate Muslims. There's a diversity of sects, native languages and tribal histories from Serbia to South Africa that makes it nearly impossible for a unified Muslim voice to emerge.