The Trump bump? With a surge of election wins, Muslims make their mark on NJ politics
Smita Nadia Hussain is one of many Muslim women elected to office in the past 4 years NorthJersey.com
Feras Awwad dreamed of entering politics and government one day to help his community and change the negative narratives about Muslims he heard growing up after the 9/11 attacks.
Last year, at age 26, he seized the opportunity, winning election to the Clifton Board of Education.
“With the Muslim ban and everything else going on, it was basically: How can I take a back seat on this?” Awwad said, referring to then-President Donald Trump's policy restricting Muslim travelers. “I just have to jump in and take charge and represent the Muslim community as best I can and have a positive impact.”
Awwad is one of at least 40Muslims serving in elected office in New Jersey, two-thirds of whom were elected in the past four years — part of a surge in activism and civic involvement in the era of Trump. These leaders include the children and grandchildren of immigrants who are winning seats on school boards and municipal councils.
Many say they were drawn to elected office in response to growing bias and discrimination against Muslims. But their involvement also reflects a sense among the younger generation, who have strong local roots and professional success in New Jersey, that it’s time to lead, to help their communities and be part of decision making.
Awwad, the son of Palestinian refugees, said his father worked at Clifton’s famous Hot Grill and his grandfather was a custodian at Montclair State University. Today, he is a Rutgers University graduate and operations manager at Amazon. Like many in the crop of newly elected officials, he has a progressive political bent.
“It’s not just about Trump,” he said, citing “ongoing issues” with police brutality, workplace discrimination and racism. As a school board member, he is weighing in on plans for school renovations and on pandemic learning and diversity issues. He hopes, he said, to make change from the ground up.
“You can instill and educate younger generations for a better future,” he said.
Other newcomers include Smita Nadia Hussain, 36, a Bloomingdale school trustee and director of the Maternal Justice Campaign at MomsRising, a family advocacy group. She ran for the school board to continue her work promoting family-friendly policies in her children’s district, she said.
Hussain, whose family came from Bangladesh, is also a community activist who serves on state and national boards of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I am here representing everybody, not just Muslims,” she said. “But it is about visibility. We are demonstrating that we are all in this together. My family is not the other, even if there is this national rhetoric going on.”
The 9/11 generation
For Mussab Ali, a turning point came when he heard Trump on the campaign trail falsely claim that he saw “thousands and thousands" of people in Jersey City cheering during the 9/11 attacks.
Today, at 23, Ali is president of the school board in Jersey City, one of the largest districts in the state.
“Hearing him attack our community like that, I knew I had to get involved,” said Ali, a remote student at Harvard Law School. “When Trump got into office and started passing legislation and policy against our community, it kind of emphasized to me how important it was to be engaged.”
Jersey City also has its first Muslim councilman, Yousef Saleh, who was elected in the fall. The son of Palestinian immigrants, Saleh was born and raised in the Heights section of Jersey City. His civic involvement started as a high school representative to the city Board of Education.
He was also president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly and Rutgers Newark Law School Student Bar Association.
Saleh, 31, is part of a generation who saw families “work to the bone” so their children could find success, he said. They are also a generation devastated twice: first by 9/11, in which they mourned as Americans while also becoming targets as Muslims, and then by a spike in Islamophobia that paralleled the rise of right-wing extremism in recent years.
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“Now that we are educated, we know we are much more than the caricatures they portray us to be on TV,” Saleh said. “I think we’re out to prove that there’s a better way for all cultures and all faiths. I think we just want to show we’re as much a part of the American fabric as anyone else and that we are contributing members of society.”
NJ leads a national trend
The surge in Muslims seeking office is part of a national trend, with New Jersey leading the way.
A record 170 candidates ran on the 2020 ballot, according to a joint report by Jetpac, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and MPower Change, organizations that promote and track Muslim civic participation. In New Jersey, 22 ran in elections, the second-highest total after Minnesota.
In the past four years, more than 500 Muslim Americans ran for office nationwide, Jetpac said. That included over 100 in New Jersey, more than any other state.
The Garden State has the highest percentage of Muslim residents in the U.S., at 3%, according to the Pew Research Center.
Mohamed Gula, national organizing director for Emgage, a Muslim civic engagement group based in Washington, D.C., said candidates have been aided by a young network of organizations that provide political guidance, training and support.
These groups have grown their efforts, campaigns and reach during the Trump presidency, especially after the administration restricted immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries in 2017. At the same time, they have seen a boost in support and interest in running for public office, Gula said.
The groups are also organizing voters and pushing concerns affecting Muslim communities to the forefront in national campaigns, he said.
"We have the infrastructure where we can hold officials accountable," Gulsaid. "Our voices are being amplified."
Muslim leadership is not new in New Jersey. The state has had Muslim mayors in Teaneck, East Orange, Prospect Park and Basking Ridge as well as council and school board members. But the number of new candidates and elected officials is growing.
They join a number of Black Muslims who have served in New Jersey government over decades, including Jimmy Small, who was an East Orange councilman from 1994 to 2002 and a school board member from 1987 to 1993.
Today, Small is president of the Muslim League of Voters of New Jersey, which aims to increase Muslim participation in voting, outreach and politics. Political participation has gone beyond running for office, he said.
Muslims are also organizing voter drives, volunteering for campaigns, joining civil rights organizations and collaborating with diverse groups on political initiatives. The coalition's membership grew from a handful to 150 social, political and religious groups in the past several years, he said.
"In 20 years, this is the most I have seen Muslims engaged," Small said. "Muslims are going to stay involved."
Nadia Kahf, a Democratic Party leader in Wayne, said she also has seen more people of diverse backgrounds get involved in civic affairs. In New Jersey, the next welcome step would be for a Muslim American to be elected to the state Legislature or U.S. Congress, she said.
“It’s all about representation, especially now that we have a female vice president,” Kahf said. “Little girls have someone to look up to. It’s about representation and seeing people who look like you in a position of power.”
Nationally, three Muslims are serving in Congress: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and André Carson of Indiana. None came from New Jersey.
Sadaf Jaffer, the former mayor of Montgomery in Somerset County and the first female Muslim mayor in the U.S., said she was considering running for state Assembly in Central Jersey's District 16 this year.
"If I want to see a more representative government, I have to play my part," she said.
Hannan Adely is a diversity and education reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.