Huma Abedin on how Islam helped her heal from estrangement

Huma Abedin on how Islam helped her heal from her broken marriage
6 min read
09 December, 2021
In a deeply personal book, Hilary Clinton's chief of staff Huma Abedin writes about how her faith enabled her to get over her broken marriage, with a trip to pilgrimage site Makkah becoming the pivotal moment of change for the US political staffer.
White House veteran Huma Abedin's book details the trials and tribulations of working in the public eye, and how her faith in Islam became a necessary antidote in dealing with political and personal scandal [Simon and Schuster]

In the spring of 2018, not long after her husband was jailed, Huma Abedin took a trip to Makkah with her young son Jordan. There, she prayed. “On this night, I repeated the prayer that all Muslims make,” Abedin writes in her memoir, Both/And. “I didn’t ask for an amazing job, loving family, exciting lifestyle. I have had all those things. I have said that prayer, whispered it, thought it, maybe a million times, but this night I concentrated as never before on its meaning. Rabana atina fiddunia hasana. God, grant me in this life that which is good.”

Abedin grew up in a loving family and indeed had that amazing job and exciting lifestyle, working for Hillary Clinton for almost 25 years.

Her work for Clinton (she now serves as her chief of staff) required her to fade into the background, something she largely succeeded at until she started dating, and married, then-congressman Anthony Weiner.

"Community, and the notion of the Ummah, has also been important to Abedin throughout her career, despite her being one of the very few Muslims, and almost certainly the only one who grew up in Saudi Arabia, working in the White House"

Weiner was a rising star in the Democratic Party, with an almost guaranteed future as a mayor of New York. But a series of sex scandals – including sexting with a 15-year-old girl, which was what landed him in jail for 21 months – put paid to both his political career and, eventually, Abedin’s marriage to him.

It was in the aftermath of the breakdown of her marriage, and Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, that Abedin took that trip to Makkah and prayed.

Until now, Abedin has rarely spoken publicly about what happened with Weiner. But Both/And is her chance to show her side of the story, and in interviews about the book she’s been forthcoming and candid about her past and current relationship with Weiner (they are co-parents to their son Jordan, and she takes care of both in the book and during our conversation to tell me that Weiner was a supportive partner in so many ways, despite his obvious failures).

But the book isn’t just a chance for Abedin to talk about her marriage, even if that is what most people might first read it for. It also contains fascinating insights into her career and is the moving story of her closeness with her family, particularly her father, who died when Abedin was just 16. And it is also a look at how Abedin’s faith has been at the core of who she is. She talks about practising Islam in a way that many Muslims will recognise, but that is ignored on TV, film and media headlines in favour of flat portrayals of Muslims as oppressed or as terrorists.

Over Zoom from her home in New York, Abedin tells me it was a privilege to share her story, adding: “I wanted to, first of all, explain what it is to be a Muslim in America, how it is a whole way of life. I lived most of my young life in a Muslim country, in Saudi Arabia, and explained that feeling of community, and having that grounding, has really been a source of strength for me.

“I used the book as an opportunity to share some of the principles and values that inform who I am as a human being, and a faith that I hold very dear to my heart.”

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It was her faith that got her through the aftermath of Clinton’s election loss and the shame she felt because of Weiner’s actions and their consequences (it was the seizure of his laptop that caused the FBI to briefly reopen the investigation into Clinton’s emails, widely said to be the reason for her loss). Healing is one of the themes at the centre of Both/And, and that 2018 trip to Makkah was part of her healing process.

“There's something about a place that is just devoid of judgment,” she tells me. “I went in that moment where I did feel like I was the elephant in the room, and did carry a lot of shame and trauma, and self-blame and guilt, and to be able to go to a place where I could just let it all go and release it to a higher power, was very therapeutic for me.”

"Abedin is determined that people get a nuanced view of Islam and Muslims, as well of her as a woman who chose – for a long time – to stand by a man who betrayed her"

Community, and the notion of the Ummah, has also been important to Abedin throughout her career, despite her being one of the very few Muslims, and almost certainly the only one who grew up in Saudi Arabia, working in the White House during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

In Hillary-land, the nickname given to the group of people working for Clinton, she found a community. “It’s a club that comes with a lifetime membership, and the entrance fee is simply the shared scars that come from doing battle in the roughest game in town,” writes Abedin in Both/And.

“There's always somebody there for you,” Abedin tells The New Arab. “I certainly was lucky to have that in my life.

“I was lucky to be surrounded by people who were curious about my faith, wanting to hear my perspective, sending me to certain countries, the funeral of the King of Morocco, the funeral of the King of Jordan at the time.”

While Abedin was embraced by her immediate colleagues and, after 9/11, sheltered from the abuse that many Muslims were subjected to, she was also exposed to Islamophobia in ways that few of us would have been. In 2012, a group of Republicans asked that Abedin be investigated for “possible terrorist ‘infiltration’” of the State Department, accusing her family of being involved with the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a shock, but Abedin received support from Senator John McCain and President Barack Obama.

“Unfortunately, it was just an appetiser to what we were to witness in 2016, where certainly Muslims and Arabs were considered ‘the other’,” Abedin tells me. “Our faith became a bogeyman. It was enough to scare people, with the unfortunate, horrible, horrible terrorist incidences, that only obviously made it convenient fodder for people who want to find reasons to hate us.”

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But Abedin is determined that people get a nuanced view of Islam and Muslims, as well of her as a woman who chose – for a long time – to stand by a man who betrayed her. Both/And is one of the ways in which she’s doing both those things.

Does she ever, I ask just before we sign off, feel any pressure in being seen as a role model for Muslims, and Muslim women in particular?

“There’s no pressure,” Abedin says, smiling. “There's definitely joy. I'm a little overwhelmed. I have found myself tearing up several times. It's so humbling. It's a little bit overwhelming, and it makes me want to do more.”

That more, perhaps, is Abedin being granted in this life that which is good.

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance literary journalist and editor. She writes about books for Stylist Magazine online and is the books editor at Phoenix Magazine.

Follow her here: @sarahshaffi