It isn’t every day that a local politician makes a note of devoting time and energy to a particular marginalized community. However, in the wake of the Christchurch tragedy, Assemblyman Phil Ramos did exactly that. In a Facebook video shared by his wife, fellow politician Angela Ramos, the assemblyman made a point of sharing his condolences with the local Muslim community.
“Even as the Muslim community grieves, I hope they know that others outside of the community grieve with them,” he said.
Though this video is touching, it also extends respect in more than one way. By acknowledging the Muslim community, Ramos recognizes and accepts them as a large area of his constituents.
And if he acknowledges them, they, in turn, will continue to uplift his efforts.
After decades of holding a presence in the area, Long Island Muslims – in both Suffolk and Nassau County – are finally being acknowledged as a demographic that will flex its political muscle. The shift in the dynamic between this community and local government officials is a testament to increasing Muslim confidence in raising their voices and being able to be heard nearly two decades after 9/11.
What, however, has caused this change of heart in this particular region? Many attributed the political enthusiasm to the 2016 presidential election. Dr. Mamoon Iqbal of Suffolk County Masjid Noor went so far as to call President Trump’s campaign a well needed “kick in the pants,” forcing them out of reluctance and concerns about potential community surveillance and toward more structured involvement in government affairs.
What particularly helped Muslims recognize the importance of their voices on a national scale were organized movements led by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other Muslim civil rights organizations. Events such as voter registrations at local masjids and Islamic schools helped enforce the sense that this was an issue the Muslim community should take note of.
In addition, community leaders such as formidable Long Island activist, Dr. Hafiz Ul-Rehman of Bay Shore, deliberately set up meetings between politicians seeking to obtain or hold onto key seats in local elections.
(Dr. Rehman, too, saw the presidential election as a boon rather than a failed attempt. “There is always a blessing in disguise,” he said. “Support for our community and our needs has only increased.”)
As recently as the past year, the Muslim community heavily set its weight behind candidate Liuba Gretchen Shirley as she attempted to unseat the notoriously Islamophobic Representative Peter King. Though Shirley ultimately conceded, the race was close, and it was only another feather in the cap of Muslim civic involvement.
Indignation over targeted Islamophobic rhetoric in the 2016 race trickled down into enthusiasm for local campaigns and promising candidates. Ramos is a prime example, as many young Muslims of the Bay Shore community in particular actively participated in canvassing, volunteering and promoting his mission to their peers and other community members.
A more recent example can be found in elected union leader Sam Gonzalez. Like Ramos, he openly recognized the Muslims of Suffolk County, thanking them alongside Black and Latinx community leaders for helping to get out the vote and securing his county legislature seat.
Youth of the Muslim community, in particular, have been particularly key to enthusiasm for the vote. The older generation has had its reservations on whether or not they are willing to vote. Though some of these reasons have been attributed to a lack of confidence in Muslim voting numbers, one older community member hypotheses, “We’re worried about voting for candidates that will say one thing and do the other.”
“As a young Muslim girl in America, I was always told to stay away from the political sphere as my words would ‘come back to haunt me’,” noted Maria Shaikh, a young college student and frequent volunteer for Assemblyman Ramos.
This has not been an obstacle that younger members of the community worry about, however. One student remarked, “You vote for the lesser of two evils if you have to. It’s about having your voice counted and showing that the Muslim community belongs here as much as anyone else.”
Shaikh also agrees with this, adding, “My experience on campaigns has been quite the opposite [to what I was told]. It is through political engagement that anyone is able to express their values, and by getting involved I have been able to accomplish exactly that. After working on just a few political campaigns, I found many doors opened up for myself as well as many other young, ambitious Muslims.”
The rise of political enthusiasm has also led to Muslims themselves throwing their hat into the ring for candidacy. Hearteningly enough, the bulk of these efforts have been from Muslim-American women. One particular success story is that of now-former clerk for the Town of Hempstead, Nasrin G. Ahmad. Ahmad’s assistant, Farrah Mozawalla, has also been assigned a position with the Office of Minority Affairs in Nassau County. With these triumphs visible over the county line, perhaps Suffolk will soon see its own fair share of involved Muslim candidates.
The drive seems to be only increasing as voters look toward the 2020 election. Even as there is fear, there is also hope and a determination to stand behind the right candidate at all costs.
“We are noticing a new level of engagement of Muslim youth in politics and, surprisingly, it is easy to get involved and have your voice heard,” Maria Shaikh said of the upcoming election cycle. “I think all Muslims should be engaged in government and work with their local representatives to create a better environment for all. After all, it is through unity that we turn darkness into light.”