The enemy within: Why did the Secret Service deny a Muslim mayor entrance to the White House?

Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah was invited to Eid al-Fitr but then turned away. What happened?

Published May 5, 2023 5:00AM (EDT)

Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah speaks at a rally at the Gould Park of Paterson  United States on May 16, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah speaks at a rally at the Gould Park of Paterson United States on May 16, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

More than two years after Jan. 6, the American people still don't know what the U.S. Secret Service knew and when it knew it about the violent insurrection that almost upended the peaceful transition of power following the 2020 election.

It's very much an open question if it obstructed Congress's inquiry into the Trump junta's machinations to stay in power after the disappearance of a trove of agency text messages from those hours when they were simultaneously protecting Pence and Trump — whose tweets incited the mob to attack the Capitol Police and to erect gallows at the Capitol.

Now, this week comes confirmation that Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah was inexplicably turned away by the Secret Service at the gates of the White House a half-hour before the was to attend the Biden White House's celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the close of the holy month of Ramadan when the world's Muslims fast and recommit themselves to their faith.

When asked to explain its last-minute decision to embarrass the five-term Mayor from New Jersey the Secret Service's response was typically opaque.

"While we regret any inconvenience this may have caused, the mayor was not allowed to enter the White House complex this evening," an agency spokesperson told reporters Monday evening. "Unfortunately, we are not able to comment further on the specific protective means and methods used to conduct our security operations at the White House."

"What are we going to do about the targeting of Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, by federal agencies that are basically not telling us why we are being harassed at airports, border crossings and now for me to be denied entry into the People's House is baffling," a rightfully incensed Khairullah told CNN Tuesday morning.

For its part, the White House has remained mum on the issue as well, with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly referring reporters back to the U.S. Secret Service.

The Passaic County Mayor, who won both the Democratic primary and the general election last year by 2 to one margin, had been invited to the White House as part of a group of Muslim-American elected officials to attend President Joe Biden's East Room celebration.

"It's hard to think of someone more committed to elevating our country's highest ideals than Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah," said Senator Cory Booker in a statement. "Since immigrating to the United States over thirty years ago, Mayor Khairullah has contributed to his community, become a U.S. citizen, successfully run for elected office, and is now serving his fifth consecutive term as mayor. He embodies the American dream."

Booker continued. "That's why I was so profoundly disappointed that Mayor Khairullah — whose effective leadership and passion for public service has made him beloved in New Jersey — would be rejected from entering one of our nation's more important civic spaces: our White House. "

"What makes matters worse and all the more painful was that his invitation was revoked moments before he was set to attend the White House Eid al-Fitr celebration yesterday," Booker recounted. "To travel to Washington, away from the community he so diligently serves, only to be denied entry in this way adds insult to injury."

Along with New Jersey Sen. Bob Menedez and Rep. Bill Pascrell, both Democrats, Booker has called for a formal explanation.  

"We also urge you to provide Mayor Khairullah with the substantive reasons he was denied admission, and urge you to initiate a review of Mayor Khairullah's status so that in the future he may be able to attend events and represent his constituents at the People's House," the trio of New Jersey representatives wrote. 

Khairullah's campaign website includes pictures of him with Pascrell and Booker as well as regional elected leaders and law enforcement officials. Under the headline "Meet the American Mayor who happens to be a Muslim", the campaign urges voters to "act locally think globally."

"Fleeing his homeland of Syria in 1980, Mayor Khairullah sought to shape a new meaning of hope through civic engagement and grassroots activism," the campaign website explains. "As a former volunteer firefighter and through his relief efforts inside war-torn Syria, Mayor Khairullah demonstrated courage by running towards danger that most people run away from."

In 2001, just one year after becoming a citizen, he successfully ran for council in a diverse community with close to 6,300 residents. "After four short years of serving as Councilman, he was unanimously supported by his colleagues on the council to become the mayor," according to the campaign website. "For over eleven years now, since November of 2005, the residents of Prospect Park have re-elected Mayor Khairullah to office for three consecutive terms."

As would be expected the website recounts Khairullah's efforts to "promote economic development as well as "capital improvements at Hofstra Park" and a Mayor Wellness Campaign "to enhance services that provide residents with a resourceful base for a safe, inclusive, and nurturing community."

"As a freshman in college, he started volunteering for the local fire department, a journey that lasted 14 years," according to the campaign bio. "Before starting his relief efforts for Syria, Mayor Khairullah helped in relief campaigns for the people of the Dominican Republic and Haiti during their times of crisis."

The website discloses that "during the current conflict in his homeland of Syria, the Mayor has been actively inside the country seven times delivering food, medical and school supplies, and helping equip underground medical facilities."

Sadly, but not surprisingly, this was not Khairullah's first run-in with a national security state that failed to see the clear and present danger of a mob of white supremacists storming the U.S. Capitol but regularly racially profiles Muslim Americans.

Back in August of 2019, the married father of four was detained for three hours by Custom Border Patrol, after his return flight from Turkey landed at JFK International Airport. On that trip, Khairullah, his wife, and children 1,2,9 and 10 "visited relatives in Turkey who are Syrians displaced by war" and "Khairullah met with mayors of different towns to talk about government and business," USA Today reported.

"During the screening, he said, they asked him what he studied in college, where he works, his mother's name, his nicknames and where he traveled," the newspaper reported. "Khairullah said they asked whether he'd visited any towns with terrorist cells and whether he personally met with any terrorists.

"It's flat-out insulting," Khairullah told USA Today. "It's flat-out stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs."

The popular Prospect Park mayor turned over his cell phone as requested by the CBP officers which was taken to another room. As time went by, Khairullah decided to call an attorney and withdrew his consent for officials to the search of his phone. The CBP kept the cell phone for 12 days until a lawyer from the Council on American-Islamic Relations intervened.

In addition to his civic activities, Khairullah has had a distinguished career as a public-school administrator serving as an assistant principal with Passaic County's Technical Vocational School District.

What's totally surreal and disquieting is that while our law-enforcement security apparatus is targeting upstanding citizens like Prospect Park's Mayor, it tolerates and may even be covering for folks that are still in federal elected office who voted to overturn the lawful 2020 election results after Trump's thugs attacked the U.S. Capitol.

And there's more, much more.

Back on Dec. 11, 2020, Rep. Pascrell wrote Speaker Pelosi before Jan. 6 to point out that 126 House Republicans had signed on "a malignant lawsuit filed by the state of Texas against the states of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. This suit demands the will of the voters of these states be overturned and the Electoral College votes be stolen and awarded to Donald Trump."

Pascrell urged a close reading of the Constitution's 14th amendment, passed after the trauma of the Civil War which gave Congress the power to not seat members that "have engaged in insurrection or rebellion."

"Stated simply, men and women who would act to tear the United States government apart cannot serve as Members of the Congress," Pascrell wrote. "These lawsuits seeking to obliterate public confidence in our democratic system by invalidating the clear results of the 2020 presidential election attack the text and spirit of the Constitution, which each Member swears to support and defend, as well as violate the Rules of our House of Representatives, which explicitly forbid Members from committing unbecoming acts that reflect poorly on our chamber."

Pascrell continued. "Consequently, I call on you to exercise the power of your offices to evaluate steps you can take to address these constitutional violations this Congress and, if possible, refuse to seat in the 117th Congress any Members-elect seeking to make Donald Trump an unelected dictator."

We need more from Congress then statements of protest about the way Mayor Khairullah was treated this week. We need oversight hearings into the efficacy of the Department of Homeland Security, which was rushed into existence in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and almost overnight became this massive behemoth of 22 separate agencies including the U.S. Secret Service.

And President Biden needs to extend another invitation to Mayor Khairullah in the spirit of Eid al-Fitr, a holiday that celebrates "gratitude, forgiveness and for making amends."

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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Commentary Eid Al-fitr Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah Secret Service White House