Muslim Partisan Group Launches With Goal of Greater Political Clout

Linda Sarsour

A group of Muslim American leaders have debuted a New York City-based partisan Democratic Club, drawing the attention of mayoral contenders, as Muslim Americans seek to flex political muscles amid growing clout and concerns of spying.

The Muslim Democratic Club of New York launched last night in midtown Manhattan, attracting Democratic mayoral contender Sal Albanese and City Comptroller John Liu, who is expected to announce his mayoral campaign on Sunday.

The group aims to engage Muslim voter participation all across the city in the upcoming Democratic primaries for the November 2013 mayoral race. By pushing for more Muslim participation in the election, the MDCNY hopes to elect a candidate more attentive to the club’s two major policy priorities: curbing the counter-terrorism surveillance program and including Muslim holy days as official public school holidays.

New York City has not had a new mayor in 12 years, since Mayor Michael Bloomberg was first elected. In that time, the Muslim community has butted heads with him over his support of a post-9/11 NYPD counterterrorism program that entailed spying on Muslims in mosques and university campuses.

“I don't think Michael Bloomberg is an ally to our community," said Linda Sarsour, one of MDCNY’s founders and the director of the non-partisan Arab American Association of New York, last month.

Organizers say it is the best time to establish this partisan group, especially in city that is a home to the fifth largest population of Muslims in the United States.  According to the 2010 U.S. Religious Census, the number of Muslims in the country has doubled to an estimated 2.6 million over a period of ten years.

It is a new experiment for Muslim American organizers. In past elections, they relied on a non-partisan approach, so as not to alienate Republican candidates or the 30% of New York City Muslims that the organization estimates are not Democrats.

“Imagine if 100 percent of Muslims went out to the polls,” said Sarsour. “ That would mean, hypothetically speaking, we would be 10% of the electorate of New York City.”

By the organization’s estimates, there are 105,000 registered Muslim voters in the city and 73,500 of them are Democrats that the organization hopes to rally.  

Sarsour explained that the estimate came from identifying Muslim and Middle Eastern surnames in voter registration records.

The Muslim Democratic Club of New York is following the lead of other partisan Muslim groups across the country that are trying to take advantage of this growing electorate. The Detroit-based Michigan Muslim Democratic Caucus, for example, was established four years ago to boost voter participation in a state that has one of the largest concentration of Muslims. Unlike MDCNY, it also mobilizes its members to vote for Muslim political candidates.

All Democratic mayoral candidates were invited to attend the launch event.

City Comptroller John Liu tried to align himself with the Muslim community’s concerns at the event.

“We have ongoing issues of surveillance of people just because of their religious faith,”
he said. “That’s not right and we should put an end to that.”

Liu also acknowledged the need for parity between Muslim holidays and those of other faiths.

Currently, the city’s Department of Education only recognizes Christian and Jewish holy days, but Muslim students have to miss school days to observe holidays such as Eid Al-Fitr, which concludes the month of Ramadan.

The organization, which is currently charging $25 for membership, will fundraise for the next four to six weeks in order to establish full-time staff in each borough. It aims to tap into a key group of young professionals “who may not have much time to dedicate to grassroots efforts, but have something to contribute, including their vote, hopefully financial resources and maybe volunteer time on the weekend,” said Sarsour.

The MDCNY will focus on two districts where the Muslim vote is most likely to sway the election. Those districts have yet to be decided.

While the MDCNY aims to overcome what it perceives to be politicians’ apathy to Muslim concerns, it also faces the formidable task of unifying a diverse group that includes Arabs, South Asians, Africans, Latinos, and black American Muslims.

“If we have no West Africans from the Bronx guess where we’re not going to be?” said founding member Ali Najmi, an attorney and community organizer. “We need to organize with those communities to join our group.”

The seven founding members are a mix of South Asians, Arabs and one Latino, representing groups with a spectrum of socioeconomic needs.

Amira El-Ghobashy, a graduate student in public administration at New York University hopes that the diversity displayed at the launch will contribute to an organization that will “respect differences within the Muslim community, while still being a strong, harmonious voice for the community.”

Zena Iqbal, one of the founders, feels there is potential to unify Muslims across the city even after MDCNY’s two main policy goals are achieved.

“We are going to find other platform issues like immigration and healthcare, which will always be of interest to Muslims,” she said. “ The real reason for coming together is for creating the infrastructure by which we can bring together diverse communities of Muslims.”