The second of a two part series. Click here to read part one.
Listen to Mohsin Zaheer discuss Muslims and the midterm elections on WNYC Radio.
NEW YORK – Muslim voters living in New York’s 13th Congressional District are unhappy with the choice they have to make on Election Day. Park51 – the proposed mosque and Muslim cultural center near ground zero – is one of the most important issues for Muslim Americans in the district, which includes Staten Island and part of Brooklyn. Yet both candidates, Democratic incumbent Michael McMahon and his Republican challenger Michael Grimm are against the project in lower Manhattan.
Recently a candidate’s night was organized in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, by the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY), a nonprofit social service agency. The evening started out routinely enough, with discussions about MTA bus routes, the need for more senior citizen centers, affordable housing, stimulus package funds, health care and education issues. But before long, the issues of Park51 and Islamophobia came to dominate the discussion.
At one point during the event, incumbent Democratic Congressman Mike McMahon from Staten Island, and his Republican opponent, Michael Grimm were on the same page as each other, but not with the audience. Both candidates said that the mosque near ground zero should not be built, but Arab Americans in the audience had a come-back for every one of their statements.
In response to Mr. Grimm’s argument that the site is ‘hallowed ground,’ one of the participants asked, “What about a strip club which is also two blocks away from ground zero?” Likewise, when Grimm argued that locating a mosque at the site may hurt the feelings of the loved ones of first responders or those who who lost their lives in the Twin Towers, a member of the audience responded, “More than 200 Muslim law enforcement officers were also first responders and almost 90 Muslims lost their lives in the towers too.”
Hesham El-Meligy, a Staten Island-based interfaith Arab American activist raised the point that it’s not just in lower Manhattan that Muslims are facing opposition to building mosques. “Park51 is two blocks away, Midland Beach is 15 miles away and California is more than two thousand away from ground zero, nowhere a mosque is acceptable now,” he said.
According to the Pew Forum, there have been 35 proposed mosques or Islamic centers in the U.S. that have encountered community opposition in the last two years.
“When the World Trade Center is built again, Muslims will go there for work and shopping and they would need a mosque there. Those who oppose the mosque two blocks away from ground zero must know that there was a praying room for the Muslims in one of the towers,” El-Meligy reminded the candidates.
Debbie Almontaser, an Arab American educator and community activist, responded to McMahon’s opposition to mosque projects, both in Staten Island and lower Manhattan. “As an Arab and Muslim American I feel troubled when you come to us and said to us that you have our back, but I feel like I have been stabbed in the back.”
In response, McMahon tried to explain the complexities of his constituency, which is mostly on Staten Island but also reaches into Bay Ridge. “I represent families of the fire fighters who lost their lives on 9/11, I represent the families of the large number of fire fighters and the people who were killed on 9/11, so quite frankly there are those whose hearts are still broken from a tragedy that has nothing to do with anyone in this room. Is there way to respect the loss and the tragedy that was felt by so many people? Yes, and that’s the position I took,” he said.
Watch this audio slideshow of Muslims who worship at the Park 51 prayer room.
Despite the difficult choices facing some Muslim voters on Tuesday, Dr. Shafi Bezar, chairman of New York’s annual Muslim Day Parade, urged Muslim Americans to cast their vote on November 2, “We need to support the candidates who are our friends and in other case at least support those who are not spreading hate,” he said.
According to Mr. El-Meligy, the scorecard on issues in the 13th Congressional District reads: Michael McMahon – D, and Michael Grimm – F. But he said some pro-Park51 voters would go for McMahon anyway, as they think he took the stand because of the majority of conservatives living in his district.
Basher Bajwa, a Pakistani American who works in a medical office and has 10 registered voters in his family was disillusioned. “My teacher used to say that sometimes the majority is wrong, and sometimes the minority is wrong–but sometimes both go wrong,” he said. For him this is a time when both Democrats and Republicans are wrong for Muslim Americans. “But,” he said, “We have no choice but to vote for Democrats.”
“People are angry at what’s happening and the rhetoric they are hearing from the anti-Muslims and by some of the politicians using Park51 as an issue to separate voters,” said Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the candidates night, and director of AAANY. “We as a community hope to take our anger to the polls and the actions will be the vote, and vote against politicians who are spreading hate, who are against religious freedom and who are against Park51.”
Sarsour and other Muslim leaders believe that eventually, if the community continues to be politically active, the Muslim voting bloc will influence election outcomes.
“There are 800,000 Muslims living in New York and they could become swing voters and will make a difference one day,” Sarsour said. According to the Pew Research Center, the total number of Muslims in the U.S. is 2,454,000, or .08% of the population.
“With each election cycle, New York’s Muslims are becoming noticeably organized, and community participation in the civic process has witnessed steady growth,” said Faiza N. Ali, Community Affairs Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) NY. “The Muslim community welcomes the opportunity to have a voice in the system, especially during a time when Islam, even the term Muslim, has been used as a political ‘smear’ as seen in the 2008 election cycle and again vilified by many candidates during the midterm elections.”
Zaheer Uddin, executive director of Majlis Ash-Shura of Metropolitan of New York (Islamic Leadership Council) which is a coalition of more than 40 mosques and Islamic organizations in New York, is optimistic about Muslim American voter-turnout this year. “Muslim organizations have been doing vote drives and are now reminding voters to cast their vote in favor of good and balanced candidates. It is expected that there will a good turn out of Muslims nationwide,” Uddin said.