NYC’s Pakistani Immigrant Community Removed from Local Political Process

NYC Comptroller John Liu and U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke at a Chand Raat festival in Midwood, Brooklyn - Photo: Mohsin Zaheer

NYC Comptroller John Liu and U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke at a Chand Raat festival in Midwood, Brooklyn. (Photo: Mohsin Zaheer)

NEW YORK–You’ll find many different kinds of signs on the storefronts along Coney Island Avenue in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn nicknamed “Little Pakistan,” but you probably won’t find any concerning a candidate running in today’s primary election.

According to the 2000 Census, there were 34,310 Pakistani-Americans living in New York City, with over 40 percent of them in Brooklyn. (The number in 2010 is surely much higher, since the community’s rate of growth jumped 154 percent from 1990-2000.) But according to the Census, only about 10,000 of the Pakistani immigrants in New York are U.S. citizens who have the potential to vote. Many are not registered voters.

Possibly for that reason, there has been little courting of their votes by Democratic or Republican candidates running for office this fall.

“For me the reason that there is no sense of election in Little Pakistan is that I am Republican, and no Republican candidate has sent or mailed any election campaign material to me,” said Ghulam Farid Langrial.

Ali Akbar Mirza, a former candidate who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Nassau County Legislature, wondered if the reason politicians weren’t coming to Midwood might be because they didn’t feel it would be worth their while. “Those who participate are being contacted by the politicians. Almost all the candidates who run for the elections have a list of people who have record of voting, so their first priority is to contact them.”

But politicians may be underestimating the potential of these new citizens, some of whom hold tightly to the parties they view as improving their lives in the U.S.

“I am registered Republican because of President Reagan who gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants in 1986,” Mr. Langrial said. “I am still committed to be Republican,” he added.

Last Thursday, less than a week before the primary election, there was an event for Chand Raat (which translates as “night of the moon,” a festival that is celebrated the night before Eid ul Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan) held in Midwood’s Little Pakistan. Hundreds of members of the community gathered for this cultural and traditional event.

But unlike recent community events in other New York neighborhoods that drew political candidates running in contested elections, there weren’t any tables displaying political fliers or brochures for attorney general or governor.

Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY) did show up at the Chand Raat festival, partaking in the celebration of one of the biggest Muslim holidays of the year with her Pakistani-American constituents. Clarke is running for re-election in New York’s 11th district, which includes Midwood, without any opposition in Tuesday’s primary.

She agreed to some extent that politicians show up when they need votes, but said that’s not the case with her.

“We all have a responsibility to invite our elected officials to come and play their role, ” she emphasized.

Congresswoman Clarke said the reason that there is no sense of an upcoming primary election in Midwood, or in many parts of New York, is because the concept of midterm elections “is not understood by many people in many communities.”

But she was confident that the Pakistani community would get more involved in the next presidential election. “We will see more and more activities pick up with the passage of time,” Clarke predicted.

“I am a good example of what it means for an immigrant community to participate in the political process. My mother was the first foreign-born woman, Una Clarke, elected as a city councilwoman. I succeeded her in the City Council and later was elected congresswoman.  All you need is to participate,” Clarke said.

Clarke may be right, but it’s evident that many Pakistani-Americans in Midwood are simply unaware there is a political process to participate in this fall.

When this reporter asked Mr. Sallahuddin, 44, a contractor by profession, who he was planning to vote for on Tuesday, he was surprised to hear there was a primary election.

“My friend, I am not the only one, go on the street and ask the common New Yorker, half of them don’t know about election,” Sallahuddin scoffed.

Community organizations, which often serve to educate new immigrants about the American system, haven’t been focused on bringing Pakistani-immigrants in Midwood to the polls.

Asif Baig who is a naturalized U.S. citizen and a registered Democrat said, “I know there will be a primary election on Tuesday and I was told by my neighbor (who is)  a social worker, not by any of our community organizations.”

Qudsia Awan, an independent candidate for the New York State Assembly - Photo: Mohsin Zaheer

Qudsia Awan, an independent candidate for the New York State Assembly. (Photo: Mohsin Zaheer)

Qudsia Awan, a little known Pakistani American candidate who is running as an independent for a seat in the 47th State Assembly District in November, said her community seems to be more focused on the politics of their native country than the politics of Brooklyn, New York State or on the federal level. She says she is trying to push the community to change its political culture.

“The Pakistani-American community needs to look outside their circles,” she said. “We should not wait till the problem knocks at our door, many issues would automatically resolve when we become an active part of the political system.”

Indeed, in this election season, one problem has effectively knocked at the door of the predominantly Muslim Pakistani community: that of the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan. The issue is being constantly debated on the streets of Little Pakistan, but Fi2W could not find one resident who said it would affect their decision of who to vote for–simply because they did not know which candidates were for or against the project.

What does it mean when an immigrant community, like Pakistani immigrants, does not participate in mainstream politics?

“It is of paramount importance that everyone who can register to vote registers and actually does vote. This is the only way our community–especially immigrants–can gain a voice and representation in all levels of government,” said John Liu, the city’s comptroller, who was the first Asian-American elected to city wide office.   In response to this question, Liu noted that in New York City, which is heavily Democratic, 9 out of 10 election decisions are made in the Democratic primary.

“So we cannot afford to wait until the general election in November, but must vote in the September primary election. So please vote next Tuesday, September 14, and ensure that our voice is heard loud and clear,” said Liu.

Zahid Syed, a Pakistani American who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in New York’s State Assembly in the 17th district in 2006, said financial challenges are foremost in the minds of immigrants, rather than the political process. “The main issue with any immigrant community is that the majority of their members confront day to day challenges to make ends meet.”

Zahid Syed, a Pakistani American who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in New York’s State Assembly in 2006 - Photo: Mohsin Zaheer

Zahid Syed, a Pakistani American who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in New York’s State Assembly in 2006. (Photo: Mohsin Zaheer)

But Syed said that Pakistani-Americans should follow the example of other immigrant groups who have politically mobilized over time. “We need to learn from others’ experiences and I think the Jewish American community is a good example, they participated and do have a stronghold in the political system,” said Syed.

Even though Nassau County’s Mirza sounded jaded about the motivations of politicians, he still urged Pakistani-Americans to become more involved and get out the vote, because he believes it will benefit the community in the long run.

“The more we vote, the more easy it will be for the community to confront their day to day challenges,” Mirza said.

Mohsin Zaheer is the editor of the Weekly Sada-e-Pakistan, and editor and founder of The Pakistani Newspaper.  Feet in Two Worlds coverage of the New York Primary is supported, in part, by the New York Community Trust.

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