Registering NYC Muslims to Vote

A voter registration banner displayed at the National Community Ramadan Iftar held in June at Rufus King Park in Queens. 9Photo by Alex Ayala for Voices of NY)

A voter registration banner displayed at the National Community Ramadan Iftar held in June at Rufus King Park in Queens. (Photo by Alex Ayala for Voices of NY)

Mosques in New York City are becoming more than a place of worship for American Muslims; they’re also becoming a place to register to vote and educate American Muslims on voter rights.

Donald Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States and a general sense that Muslim identity is misunderstood have energized community leaders to promote civic engagement among Muslims. The Islamic Leadership Council of New York, also know as the Majlis ash-Shura, an organization which works with many Muslim communities across the metropolitan area, is promoting the One America Campaign to help get the total number of registered American Muslim voters to 1 million by Election Day.

“We set a target to achieve, we want to get there,” Mohammad Yousufuddin, first vice president of the Majlis ash-Shura of New York, said. “This is going to be a challenge to the Muslim community and masjids.”

There are more than 800,000 American Muslims with traditionally Muslim names registered to vote nationwide, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America’s largest Muslim civil rights organization. That’s a 300,000 increase from 2012.

CAIR approximates this number by using “first, middle or last names matched to a list of 43,538 traditionally Muslim names developed by CAIR,” according to the organization. CAIR notes the list does not fully represent Muslims voters, as African-American and Latino Muslim families “do not necessarily have names traditionally associated with being Muslim.”

The Muslim population has been growing and is projecting to gain more ground in coming years. A study by the Pew Research Center estimates that this year there are 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States. By 2030, Pew estimates, Muslims will make up 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, or 6.2 million, up from 0.8 percent or 1.8 million from 2010.

The One America Campaign was created by the US Council of Muslim Organizations (USCOM), a group of Muslim organizations from around the country founded in 2014 whose main mission is to empower and amplify Muslim voices. The campaign was launched in June in response to anti-Muslim rhetoric following the San Bernardino shooting and Donald Trump’s discussion of a plan to ban Muslims in the U.S.

Secretary General of the U.S Council of Muslim Organizations, Oussama Jammal, speaks at the Remembering Heroes, Building Leaders convention hosted by the Islamic Leadership Council of New York at York College in July. (Photo by Alex Ayala for Voices of NY)

Secretary General of the US Council of Muslim Organizations, Oussama Jammal, speaks at the Remembering Heroes, Building Leaders convention hosted by the Islamic Leadership Council of New York at York College in July. (Photo by Alex Ayala for Voices of NY)

“Thanks to Donald Trump, who really awakened our community and gave them reason to feel that they cannot take the backseat anymore in their lives, that they have to stand up, they have to fight,” Oussama Jammal, secretary general of the USCOM, said. “Through struggle we learn, through struggle we embolden and strengthen our existence and Donald Trump just done that for us.”

A major nationwide registration drive is coming up: National Muslim Voter Registration Day is scheduled for Sept. 12, which is the date of this year’s celebration of the holiday Eid Al-Adha. But registration efforts have been ongoing throughout the summer and will continue well into the fall.

The plan by the Majlis ash-Shura is to target boroughs with large Muslim populations and large mosques around New York City. Every Friday, after Jumu’ah prayers, a voter registration table is set up and volunteers ask attendees if they want to register to vote.

But that’s not all.

The Majlis ash-Shura also provides translators to those who cannot speak English well. And now with the New York City Board of Elections adding Arabic to voter registration forms, one of five languages added on July 14, the local Muslim community has been more empowered.

But getting to the target of having 1 million registered American-Muslim voters nationwide is not the main challenge ­– it’s getting them out to vote.

“Our community cannot afford not to vote this year,” Jammal said. “This is a specific obligation, it is not just because of Donald Trump… I think we need to instill the spirit of responsibility of good citizens in the hearts and the minds of our community members, that this is our obligation to the country we love, to the country that we have chosen to be our home, to the country [where] our kids [were] born and raised, that they need to pay back. The only way to pay back your country is to be engaged in shaping its future.”

That’s why the campaign plans on taking American Muslims on buses to early polling stations to vote.

“We’re apprehensive but we’re not worried about our future,” Abdul Aziz Bhuiyan, secretary general of the Majlis ash-Shura, said. “We want to encourage ourselves and our children to make sure to get active and not to just get the right for Muslims but to make sure we are active for everyone.”

And what will happen once Election Day has passed?

A report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, an organization that “conducts objective, solution-seeking research,” says that in order for any change to take place, the community has to be involved or no change will happen.

The report, entitled “American Muslims in the 2016 Election and Beyond: Principles and Strategies for Greater Political Engagement,” interviewed 30 stakeholders to figure out what American Muslims wanted in the 2016 presidential election and offers both short- and long-term solutions.

While the near-term focus has been on voter registration, long-term strategies from the report include investing in political activism and building an American-Muslim political culture.

“Overall, just following the track record of other minority groups, Blacks and Hispanics, I think the Muslim community, we’ll be there, we will be there, along with these communities, on par with these communities in political involvement,” Yousufuddin said.

Jammal said once the elections are over, it is only the beginning. The time will begin to hold officials accountable.

“Voter registration and voting is one step of the entire process. It doesn’t end by the second day of voting or by announcing the winners and losers. As a matter of fact, it is only the beginning,” Jammal said. “We want to make sure that we are part of making these polices and getting these policies. We want our people to be involved, to work, to be positive thinkers, to be doers, so it’s not going to end by announcing the results of the election.”

Alex Ayala, who recently completed eight weeks as a Knight-CUNY Journalism Summer Fellow, interned at Voices of NY. He is a graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh.

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