New York’s first Muslim Democratic Club launches, with a focus on local issues

Linda Sarsour and Ali Najmi. (Azi Paybarah via flickr)
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The launch of New York City's first Muslim Democratic Club took place in a lounge on West 38th Street—a common area of a fancy residential builing, with marble floors, leather couches and a glass-enclosed fireplace.

"Now I know how the other side lives. This is a really fancy place," said New York City Comptroller John Liu, one of two mayoral candidates who attended the club's party.

The other candidate to attend was Sal Albanese, a former Democratic Councilman from Bay Ridge.

("Sal, have you ever been to a Democratic gathering like this?" Liu asked.

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"I want to come back here," Albanese said, to much laughter.)

Representatives for New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former comptroller Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio were also in attendance.

Robert Jackson of Harlem, the only Muslim member on the New York City Council, spoke to the crowd. So did Zead Ramadan, who is also Muslim and is one of the candidates running this year to replace Jackson.

There were approximately 60 people in attendance at the most crowded point, and the crowd was mostly young professionals in their late 20s and early 30s. (One of the organizers said afterward that the club had collected the signatures of 80 attendees on a sign-up sheet.)

The men wore suits, and some of the women wore hijabs covering their hair. A few men met in the front of the rectangular room shortly after 7 p.m. for evening prayers.

At the back of the room was an assortment of kebabs, olives and hummus. Some of the napkins were red, white and blue with blue stars.

New York 1 News sent a camerawoman to film the speeches. Ross Barkan, covering the event for the Observer, was there early. Matt Sledge of the Huffington Post was in attendance, as were two Columbia University journalism students. Among the oldest people in attendance were Mohammad Farrukh, 41, of the Pakistani Post, and Mohsin Zaheer, 42, editor of Sada-e-Pakistan, a Pakistani-American newspaper distributed throughout the metropolitan area.

The crowd of attendees was, in large part, second-generation Americans of South Asian and Arab descent.

Two of the club's founders who are appearing on New York 1 tonight, respectively, are SouthAsian and Arab: Ali Najmi and Linda Sarsour. The founders of the club have said they're hoping to recruit members from the black and African Muslim communities also.

Najmi and Sarsour stood in front of the crowd as they presented a slide show of the potential strength Muslim votes could have in local races.

According to an analysis of registered voters' last names, the club estimated that there are 105,000 registered Muslim voters in New York City, with about 70 percent of those in the Democratic Party. Four of the five neighborhoods with the highest numbers of Muslim voters are in Queens.

There are 6,500 Muslim voters in Glen Oaks and Floral Park, in Queens, which is City Council District 23; Jamaica, City Council District 24, has the second most, with "just under 6,500," according to Najmi. Astoria, which is City Council District 22, was number three on the list.

Bay Ridge was number four on the club's list and number five was Sunnyside.

To illustrate the potential power of the Muslim vote, Sarsour spoke about a City Council race that took place three years ago, in District 23.

"4,300 hundred votes got [Mark] Weprin the nomination of the Democratic ticket. Right? The total number of Muslim registered voters in that district is 6,500. So think about that," she said. "Imagine what that 6,500 hundred could do in a race like that."

It's worth noting that Weprin's brother, David, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in a 2011 special election race against Bob Turner that largely revolved around foreign policy: namely, which candidate was more pro-Israel.

During a question and answer session in front of the last night's audience, I asked Najmi and Sarsour what issues would they use to evaluate candidates. The answer was clear: not foreign policy.

Sarsour said, "We're a domestic policies, local issues, you know our top two issues. Our top two issues are NYPD surveillance of the Muslim community. We want candidates to take that straight on and we also want to talk about Muslim school holidays: access to education and civll right issues. So, those are our main issues."

(Attorney Nermeen Arastu, a co-author of a report critical of that policy, called Mapping Muslims, which urged imams and Muslim leaders to declare "informants are not tolerated," was also in attendance last night.)

Afterward, I asked Sarsour if they were purposely seeking to avoid a more direct challenge to the Democratic Party's establishment over foreign policy in the Middle East.

"It's not every Muslim's issue," Sarsour said. "This is not a Palestinian club, or an Arab club. This is a Muslim club," and "none of these candidates will have influence on foreign policy. It makes no sense for us to even bring it up when they have influence on foreign policy."

"They have no influence. They're not federal candidates, they're not running for president of the United States. We want to avoid it because it's not the Muslim communities issue. We don't want to impose that issue on anyone and no one has influence over that issue."

But that will change next year, with the arrival of the mid-term Congressional elections.

"By that time, we have built the membership and the membership has a say," Sarsour said. "'Do we want to talk about Palestine? Do we want to talk about Pakistan?' If they choose to to that, then we go with the membership."

"It depends who's in the club," she said.

CORRECTION: Ali Najmi's name was misspelled in the original version of this article.