Growing number of Muslim candidates elected across NJ, nation
Hannan Adely, North Jersey Record
The moment when Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, claimed at a rally that he saw “thousands and thousands" of people in Jersey City cheering during the 9/11 attacks is seared into Mussab Ali's memory.
Here was a man aspiring for the nation’s highest office, lying about his community and putting them at risk. Those anti-Muslim comments, and others that followed, drove the Rutgers University student to turn to politics.
On Tuesday, Ali was re-elected to the Jersey City Board of Education, one of more than 20 Muslim-American candidates who ran in elections across New Jersey. In all, 11 won seats or were re-elected as school board members, mayors, councilmen and freeholders.
That mirrored a pattern across the United States, as Muslim Americans ran in numbers not seen since before 9/11, part of a national trend that saw one of the most diverse pools of candidates ever to seek office in a single U.S. election.
Among those candidates, two Democrats made history as the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Ilhan Omar, a former Somali refugee, was elected in Minnesota, while voters in Michigan chose Rashida Tlaib, an attorney and daughter of Palestinian immigrants.
“For me, it was resistance," Ali, 21, said of his decision to run for office. "Muslims didn’t celebrate 9/11, and in fact our community was really damaged by post-9/11 events."
"There was infiltration by the NYPD in our mosques and our student associations,” he said, referring to surveillance by New York City police.
“The fact that a person in office was perpetuating Islamophobia and specifically targeting Muslims in my community – I thought it was so important to stand up and be that person fighting back,” he said.
Across the country, at least 128 Muslim Americans ran for local, state and national offices this year, according to Jetpac, a Massachusetts-based organization that supports aspiring Muslim candidates.
Jetpac said interest in political office has grown since the presidential primary season began in 2015. People cite rhetoric about Muslims in politics and media and Trump’s ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries as reasons.
“I think since the primary in 2015 we’ve seen an increase in this negativity,” said Shaun Kennedy, executive director of Jetpac. “A lot of people want to put themselves out there not only as representatives of their community, but also as what an American Muslim looks like.”
Winning against bias
Like Ali, many candidates say anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric motivated them to run for elected office to counter bias, show leadership and form bridges with their communities. But the path hasn’t been easy for some.
Muslim Americans are winning races even as they face a rise in bias incidents and hate speech.
The Council on American Islamic Relations documented a 17 percent increase in bias incidents against Muslims in 2017. The number of anti-Muslim hate groups also jumped from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Salim Patel,elected to the Passaic City Council, read comments online claiming he’d bring “Sharia law,” or Islamic law, to the city or that he’d turn Passaic “into another Deaborn,” a reference to a city in Michigan with a large Arab-American population.
“It’s something that many of us have grown accustomed to dealing with or have to deal with, unfortunately,” said Patel, 40, whose parents immigrated from Gujarat, India.
Patel said he was heartened when others in the community quickly shot down those comments.
“From the bottom of my heart, I’m so proud of Passaic,” he said. “They saw these comments and they called them out for what they are, that it was hate speech, that it was bigoted and that it was narrow minded.”
Patel served on the city school board for a decade before he sought a seat on the City Council. He works in corporate finance and management and co-founded the SMILE Organization, a Passaic-based charity that helps local residents and refugees with donations, educational programs and social services.
“Seeing the void of Muslim-American voices in the public space, I felt it was important for there to be more voices from the various Muslim communities at the table,” Patel said.
Mussab Ali said he faced similar slurs during his campaign for a seat on the Jersey City education board – taunts saying that he wanted sharia law, that he would force girls to wear hijabs, that Muslims were taking over the country.
“I wanted to be that person for those people who never met a Muslim, to be a bridge for people who are ignorant about what Islam stands for and who Muslims really are,” said Ali, a senior at Rutgers and the youngest person ever elected to Jersey City’s nine-member school board.
Even on Election Day, candidates continued to battle bias. Asmaa Abdalla, 25, who also ran for Jersey City school board, said a woman spat, threatened and used slurs against her and two members of her family outside a polling station Tuesday. Police charged Shaquana Jones, 31, with bias intimidation, simple assault and terroristic threats.
Abdalla said she's been harassed before because of her faith.
"The fact that it happened to me again on Election Day, as a candidate running in Jersey City, I said, 'I can't let this go.' I ended up calling the cops and I reported it," she said on Facebook about the incident.
Muslims’ growing role in politics comes after they have set their roots in New Jersey over several decades and become more affluent and involved in their communities.
The New Jersey Muslim Voters Project has a running list of Muslim elected officials that includes 22 individuals in office in the state.
The names reflect a wide diversity within the faith, including African Americans and people of South Asian and Arab descent. Part of their success comes from better organization and collaboration among different communities, said Jimmy Small, a member of the Muslim Voters Project.
Small, an African-American Muslim who served on the East Orange City Council from 1994 to 2002 and on the city school board from 1987 to 1993, said people are running because they want a voice,just like any other group.
“They want to be in a position to make decisions,” said Small. “They want to be a fabric in their community and show they can be just like anybody else.”
Azra Baig, also a member of the Muslim Voters Project, said she views the rise in Muslim candidates as part of a national trend. The candidates this November included 256 women running for Congress and a historically high number of people of color.
“We’re not just seeing Muslim Americans,” Baig said. “Americans of diverse backgrounds are becoming more engaged. We have the first Native Americans [in Congress], more Latinas, even more African Americans. I think every group or minority is being targeted in certain ways and this is, in my opinion, our way to fight back or push back against what is coming from our leadership.”
Last year, when Baig was re-elected to the school board in South Brunswick, she found campaign signs defaced with the words “ISIS sympathizer” and “rag head.” But that never deterred her from being active in her community and local politics.
In fact, she said she worked harder, serving as the director of Muslim community outreach for the 2017 New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
“In New Jersey, I think we are waking up to the importance of being involved and engaged,” Baig said. “We’ve heard many times that if you’re not at the table, you’ll be part of the menu. If your voice isn’t there, you’re not heard.”