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The unconstitutional bigotry of a religious test for Dilawar Syed

Pointing out the Muslim faith of the US Senate's SBA nominee is an insidious tactic, one that's all-too-familiar to Jewish Americans like me
Dilawar Syed, in March 2017, at the time president of the software company Freshdesk, speaks during a Tech Stands Up rally outside City Hall in Palo Alto, Calif.  (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Dilawar Syed, in March 2017, at the time president of the software company Freshdesk, speaks during a Tech Stands Up rally outside City Hall in Palo Alto, Calif.  (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

It’s fair to say that the Small Business Administration has not been a significant focus of my attention at Interfaith Alliance. And, yet as the United States Senate considers the nomination of Dilawar Syed to be the SBA’s deputy administrator, the focus on his Muslim faith by republican senators opposed to his nomination demands my attention.

The rapid erosion of constitutional norms during the last administration was deeply troubling for most Americans. To see this dismantling of the guardrails of our democracy continue with the imposition of what is obviously a religious test for this nominee cannot go unchallenged. Article VI of the United States clearly specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” I am grateful that the Biden-Harris Administration has embodied this ethos by demonstrating its historic commitment to diversity across the federal government – to the great benefit of the American people.”

When I became the leader of the Interfaith Alliance in 2015, I committed to protecting faith and freedom, challenging extremism, and building common ground. I know from the legacy of my own Jewish community how insidiously discrimination was exploited by reporting the “fact” of heritage or faith of people in both the public and private sectors. I simply won’t stand for that tactic when it is deployed against patriotic citizens willing to devote their talents to serving our country.

Interfaith Alliance generally does not endorse nominees, but we do call out the misuse of religion for political purposes. And this is as clear an example of abuse as I have seen in some time. After Syed’s nomination was reported out of committee – with Republican support, mind you – out of nowhere, an email noting Syed’s birth in a Muslim-majority country and his engagement with the get-out-the-vote efforts of a Muslim community organization emerged from a senator’s office. Calling for a reconsideration, the fact of his heritage and faith was used to imply a political position on foreign affairs – inaccurately, by the way – that has nothing to do with encouraging small businesses and entrepreneurship to bolster the US economy.

The continued attempt to hold Muslim Americans to a different standard simply because of their faith is anti-Muslim bigotry. It is unconstitutional, and it must stop.

As we recover from COVID-19, get our economy moving again, and get people back to work, the SBA will play a vital role in the recovery and growth of our economy. Support for small businesses is one of those rare causes that enjoys the support of Democrats and Republicans alike. At this critical moment, we need qualified leaders with experience running businesses and working with stakeholders across the small business community helping SBA facilitate this recovery.

Members of the Senate should focus on vetting Syed based on these standards. I am not an expert on these issues, but the original committee vote suggests that on the merits and absent political posturing by Republicans, he is qualified.

As Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in April, “Syed’s experience as a business and civic leader has prepared him to lead SBA in this pivotal moment… Syed’s decades of building and scaling companies will help SBA as it continues to implement new small business relief programs. SBA will also benefit from Mr. Syed’s many years as an advocate for underserved entrepreneurs.”

I have gotten to know Dilawar and found him to be every bit the person we need in public life. I have also worked with Emgage (the aforementioned community organization) for years as an ally in our work against discrimination and bigotry. Emgage Action has been an important voice for Muslim Americans and to Muslim Americans, encouraging them to use the ballot box to vote their personal values – the same message they deliver to all Americans. I have watched the flourishing of collaborations among various faith and ethnic groups during my three decades of interfaith work. They have shown that they understand the importance of being good allies in standing against stereotyping, hateful rhetoric and especially assault and violence.

I suggested to Dilawar that he not be dragged into denials or explanations of the politically motivated inferences made by opponents exercising their prejudices. That’s why I am stepping up as his ally to call out whoever it is that would so blatantly violate the Constitution in considering his extensive qualifications for this domestic policy position.

Waging an unfounded partisan attack against a nominee because of his heritage or involvement with a well-respected faith-based advocacy organization is an abuse of power, and at its core, a betrayal of the explicit principles that underlie every senator’s oath of office.

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Moline, the Executive Director of Interfaith Alliance, which celebrates religious freedom by championing individual rights, promoting policies that protect both religion and democracy, and uniting diverse voices to challenge extremism.
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