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New York’s Muslim Community Organizers Have a Model: Ultra-Orthodox Jews

Two decades ago, Jewish leaders in Borough Park and Williamsburg built a new constituency. Can Muslims do the same?

Matt Taylor
October 31, 2013
A voter registration table at the 2012 Bay Ridge Arab American Bazaar.(Arab American Association of NY)
A voter registration table at the 2012 Bay Ridge Arab American Bazaar.(Arab American Association of NY)

In 2012, when the Associated Press reported that the NYPD had been spying on Muslims not just across the five boroughs of New York City but in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Long Island—and on student groups at some of the country’s most prestigious universities, including both Columbia and Yale—the condemnations came quickly.

Congressional Democrats wrote angry letters. Cory Booker, then Newark’s mayor, called the practice “deeply offensive” and demanded New Jersey’s state attorney general investigate. Yale’s President Richard Levin, wrote a sharply worded indictment of the program, prompting a public spat with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But when it came to demanding changes, or even just an apology, one group was largely missing from the frame: New York City’s Muslim community. The suddenly obvious lack of political clout for a minority that accounts for about 700,000 New Yorkers prompted activists to get serious about organizing. “One part of me is like, ‘Thank you, Commissioner Kelly, for spying on us—for bringing our community together,’” said Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and co-founder of the newly formed New York Muslim Democratic Club.

Sarsour didn’t have to look far for an example of how to mobilize: the ultra-Orthodox communities of Borough Park and Williamsburg, whose leaders enjoy unparalleled clout in city and state politics. Just look at the mayoral race, where some candidates have willingly volunteered public positions on the arcana of Jewish circumcision rituals in order to secure support among various ultra-Orthodox sects.

“The Orthodox community learned what it takes—registering people to vote and fundraising—to be heard and get what it wants,” said Debbie Almontaser, the founding principal of Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, who is now on the board of the Muslim Consultative Network, a community-organizing and social-action group. “Like the Orthodox community, we have come to realize the only way to change what is impacting us as a community is through uniting and organizing around the common causes that bind us.”

But unlike ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, which are clustered geographically and whose leaders can deliver large blocs of votes, Muslims are scattered unevenly across the five boroughs. Just as important, they are divided by lines of ethnicity, language, and even class, with second- or third-generation Americans—those whose children were being spied on at college campuses—having relatively little in common with more recent immigrants, many of whom are unfamiliar with the machinery of New York politics.

“There’s much less binding together a Muslim candidate from Bangladesh and a Palestinian Arab than a Hasid in Williamsburg and [someone from] a competing sect,” said David Luchins, a professor at Touro College and a former adviser to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

But, Sarsour argues, all these people have some concerns in common. The revelation of the NYPD’s surveillance tactics followed closely on the heels of the debate about Park 51, commonly referred to as the Ground Zero mosque, which was in many ways a test case for how welcoming a city New York is for observant Muslims. And to many, the most critical issues are much simpler—things like having city schools recognize Muslim holidays.

Meantime, candidates were publicly engaging the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox community, appearing in the New York Times seated at long tables crowded with men in beards, hats, and yarmulkes—the result of more than two decades of concerted effort. In the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, when incumbent Mayor David Dinkins— Bill de Blasio’s former boss—was seen as insufficiently concerned about protecting the Jewish community from violence, rival sects came together and leaned on umbrella organizations like Agudath Israel to engage the electoral machinery and ensure nothing similar ever happened again.

“There was a palpable sense that we needed to upgrade our political activism and involvement,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel. “We undertook a voter registration campaign that year that was by far the most successful we’ve ever done.”

In the run-up to this fall’s mayoral election, Muslim organizers have followed suit, forming an umbrella group, known as the Muslim Political Strategizing Committee, to coordinate political activities across different organizations. Meanwhile, the Muslim Democratic Club began assembling a list of potential voters to target ahead of the primaries. Using common Islamic surnames, they came up with about 105,000 registered voters who were likely Muslim, of whom some 70 percent were Democrats.

Earlier this month, the activists won their first concrete victory: Both Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio and his Republican rival Joe Lhota said they would add Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to the city school calendar alongside Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Christmas, and Easter. “Happy Halaliday!” cried the Daily News. “We hit the front page with an issue our community has been working on diligently for the last seven years,” said Sarsour, a 33-year-old Palestinian-American from Brooklyn.

When she founded the Muslim Democratic Club in March, the hope was to corral support from the diverse field of candidates, and thanks in part to the early backing of Comptroller John Liu, a debate on Muslim issues was held in May. Muslim leaders met with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, once the presumed Democratic front-runner in the mayoral race, and have met with de Blasio as well.

Indeed, on Oct. 16, Muslim activists appeared with de Blasio at a rally in downtown Brooklyn, where he vowed to have the NYPD’s new inspector general review the department’s surveillance program, known as the Zone Assessment Unit, which maps Muslim residents at their places of worship and leisure—just one step in a long process, but another sign of change.

De Blasio’s GOP opponent Joe Lhota, on the other hand, has declined to meet with Muslim groups like Almontaser’s, she says—a sign of how far Muslims have yet to go in terms of convincing political elites they are an indispensable constituency. Complicating the organizing process is that imams are simply not politically involved in the way many rabbis in the ultra-Orthodox community—who often oversee religious service or welfare organizations, rather than pulpits—have been. Many imams working in the city are temporary stand-ins traveling from abroad and do not take a prominent role in local politics, leaving the political work to community leaders—people who don’t have identifiable constituencies they can promise at the polls on Election Day.

“There’s no convenient way for outsiders to define the Muslim community as a bloc,” says Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Unfairly, Muslims are still being tarred with the 9/11 brush, and politicians are not afraid of them.”

And yet, it’s possible to imagine de Blasio appointing a formal liaison to the Muslim community—an equivalent to the Jewish community liaisons whose presence in city offices is now almost a given. Muslim leaders hope that this is their Crown Heights moment—that those unfamiliar with the mechanics of American democracy will be inspired to figure it out—but know they have a long way to go.

“The next step for our community, which the Jewish community has been able to see, is when you see people like you in political office,” Sarsour said. She named Orthodox City Council member David Greenfield, longtime Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and state Sen. Simcha Felder. “That’s the next level,” Sarsour said, “to really engage our community on a mass level.”


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Matt Taylor is an associate editor at VICE Magazine and former staff reporter at The East Hampton Star. His political reporting has also appeared in Slate, Salon, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, Capital New York, and New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer. His Twitter feed is @matthewt_ny

Matt Taylor is an associate editor at VICE Magazine and former staff reporter at The East Hampton Star. His political reporting has also appeared in Slate, Salon, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, Capital New York, and New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer. His Twitter feed is @matthewt_ny