By Akeem Alao
Religion remains a platform on which political coalitions are built. Many factors determine who emerges a leader of a local council, state and country. One of such factors is religion. In some climes, political leadership is alternated on the basis of religion. Most times, religion makes strong claims on people’s electoral decisions. Elections are won on the altar of religious affiliation. It determines the followership strength. Globally, religion plays vital roles in politics, especially in a secular state, where there are people of different faiths. In this case, New York City, wherein the Bronx is located, is no exception in this regard, as it homes all members of major religions in the world – i.e. Islam, Christianity, Jewish, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
The common belief is that domination of the political space by a particular religion will promote attention to the needs and concerns of a group who are adherents of that religion. Religious leaders seek recognition through active participation in politics.
This story examines the roles of Muslims in the Bronx politics, and some Muslim leaders were interviewed to ascertain the population strength of the Muslims in the Bronx. It further enquires to know the level of participation of Muslims in the Bronx politics and the roles played in the City Council election, including the cases of marginalization against Muslim candidates.
But it is a herculean task to get the accurate figure of Muslims living in the Bronx. This is due to the incomplete national and local data on religion.
Muslims live and work in all five boroughs — migrant and non-migrant backgrounds. According to a report about 2016 population censure, not less than 768,767 Muslims reside in NYC. This population represents about 8.96% of New Yorkers.
The report added that about 22.3% of America’s Muslims live in New York City, and "the Muslim community is rapidly growing on account of immigration and reproduction".
Meanwhile, the ubiquity of mosques in the Bronx testifies to the appreciable number of Muslims population among its residents. The report says, in 2015, there are about 47 in the Bronx.
Mory Kouyate, the Chairman of the African Immigrants' Commission of NY&CT, noted, in an interview with Parkchester Times, that there is no official population count based on religious affiliation in the Bronx. "However, NYC is home to approximately 1 million Muslims making up about 10 percent of the NYC population. We know that there are, as of 2015, 285 mosques across the city with 47 mosques in the Bronx."
"This means that there is a large number of Muslim in the Bronx. We need better data that’s why it is important to support the work being done by the NY Muslim Voter Project (MVP) which is a diverse coalition of organizations dedicated to civically engaging Muslims and making sure they are registered to vote and turnout for the elections," Kouyate said in the interview.
Considering the appreciable Muslim population, the influence of Muslims in the Bronx political affairs is highly significant. For instance, Muslims have successfully grained political recognition with the declaration of festivals such as Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha as public school holidays.
According Sheikh Musa Drammeh, a clergyman, community leader, human rights activist and publisher of Muslim Media Cooperation, the Bronx is home to a diverse Muslim population from many parts of the world. Among these are Africans, Albanians, Arabs, Bangladeshi, West Indians, Pakistanis, African Americans, and Latinos.
Drammeh explained that, "These groups of Muslims make up at least 25 percent of the Bronx population of 1,400,000 residents. Since the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Bronx are immigrants and first generation Americans, political representation in high places are nonexistent so far."
He added, "These Muslim groups are more oriented in entrepreneurship opportunities in establishing themselves in their newly adopted country."
This community leader further noted that Muslim Bronxites’ political participation has markedly increased in the last two decades.
"The tragedy of World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2011 has put Muslims in negative position in general to a point of a tremendous anti-Muslim attacks and Islamophobia. Due to this precarious condition, Muslims all over the nation became very involved in their civic, interfaith and other community activities outside of their once insulated and isolated cocoons," he said in the interview.
He maintained that African-American Muslims, as a group of earliest Muslims, were marginally active in politics before September 11, 2001.
Drammeh stressed that due to term limits this year in New York City, almost all political positions will be filled by new political candidates. He explained that political activities are high in every neighborhood of the city.
For the first time, there are many Muslim candidates in all the boroughs of New York City. Some of these first time candidates actually have good chances of making history. Muslims are also visibly active in campaigning for candidates they support in their districts. It’s expected after the conclusion of these elections that some Muslim candidates will be elected while many more Muslims will be in high government positions.
He concluded that "Muslims in New York City support various political candidates whom they know, work with and get promises in advancing the religious and constituent interests beneficial to them after being victorious in their campaigns – halal food in public schools, double parking in front of the mosque during Jumu’ah prayers, effective anti-hate programs, friendlier entrepreneurial environment, immigrant issues, and many more."
In the interview with the Chairman of the African Immigrants' Commission of NY&CT, regarding the level of participation of Muslim in the Bronx politics, Kouyate stated that the "Muslims in New York have traditionally done a poor job of participating in the electoral process and the number of actual voters has been low".
"This needs to change because Muslims in the Bronx have a real opportunity to be swing voters in their districts and decide elections. For example, district 16 is a heavily concentrated area and has seen many African Muslim candidates. This year two Muslim candidates are running in that district in the democratic primary. We need more Muslims across the Bronx to run for office and participate in the process. Of course, our community needs to be strategic at the same time.
"The community needs to come together and make sure we are putting the best candidates forward and then unity behind them. Right now, there’s too much division and that’s causing the strength of vote to be diminished," he said.
While reacting to the roles Muslims play in the City Council election, Kouyate maintained that Muslims are involved at every level of politics from being candidates for office to working on campaigns to volunteers.
In his words, "I am aware of 10 Muslim candidates running for City Council around the city—four of the candidates are women. This year, our community is refusing to sit on the sidelines and be spectators. Instead, we are getting involved as voters and candidates.
"The community is getting more engaged. That’s why NY MVP is so important. People are realizing that they need to be civically engaged in order to create the change they seek in their neighbors. The mentality of coming to America to just work and return overseas has changed. This is our home, and we have to be involved at every stage."
He added that the Muslims have no favorite candidates for the Bronx election. "It’s fair to say that in general Muslims in the Bronx are democrats. There are excellent candidates from our community that are running for office. The candidates have done a good idea of building their base within our communities. I think the communities supports the Muslim candidates are we are rooting for them.
"Electing a Muslim from our community is important for representation and for the future generations. Our children need to see someone that looks and prays like them in office so they can be empowered to do it too and much more. It will be very empowering to our youth and all immigrants," Kouyate said.
On whether the Bronx records cases of marginalization against the Muslims, he responded that he has never heard of any cases of marginalization against the Muslim candidates nor against the Muslim communities.
"The same rules apply to every candidate. Not one rule for one candidate and another for others. Just like any community, we must register to vote the same way that any other community must register to vote. We have not seen any discrimination during this campaign cycle," he said.
In another interview with Fatoumata Kante, founder of Kante Foundation Inc., it was noted that there is a strong Muslim presence community in the Bronx. She maintained that there are mosques in different parts of the Bronx. She also cited many halal food locations. "You can definitely sense the presence of a Muslim community," Kante said.
She, however, stated that Muslim participation in Bronx politics needs some improvement. "As far as voting is concerned, we do participate, but when it comes to representation there are not enough Muslim officials in Bronx politics.
"I think there is need for more Muslim candidates running for the different political positions," she added.
In her own response regarding the roles of Muslims in the Bronx politics, Kante said, "We may vote in the City Council election but I don't think we are as active as we should be."
Kante continued that there are no favorite Muslim candidates in the Bronx. She explained, "I wouldn't say a favorite candidate but we hope for an inclusive candidate who will help with issues facing the Muslim community especially during this pandemic."
She, however, concluded that there are always cases of marginalization against Muslims especially "if you wear the hijab".
"I think people are a little more knowledgeable about Muslims now but there's still more work to be done in order to minimize prejudice against the Muslims," she concluded.
Despite the low numerical strength of Muslims, their roles in the Bronx politics cannot be underestimated. The emergence of some Muslim candidates contesting vacant posts indicates that the Muslims are obviously ready to actively participate in the coming elections.
All in All, report gathered so far shows that religion, of course, plays a significant role in the political activities in not only the Bronx but also the entire New York State, and that Muslims’ political awareness is indeed very low. Perhaps Muslim leaders need to do more in sensitizing their community members and make them aware that the rights of the Muslims can best be protected through active participation and representation in the political activities in their various districts and communities.