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'This Is The Time That We Cannot Shy Away': Muslim-Americans Seek To Engage Politically

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With her 3-month-old baby on her lap and her 2-year-old son strumming a guitar in the background, Nichole Mossalam ticks through her hypothetical platform as a candidate for Malden School Committee.

Sitting around a cluttered table in the shared office space of a Cambridge-based nonprofit, Mossalam learns the ins and outs of running for public office.

The nonprofit, Jetpac, trains potential candidates regardless of party affiliation, with a goal of increasing civic engagement within Muslim communities.

Mossalam is 34, lives in Malden, and is a director at her local mosque. She's been working with the political training group for over a month and admits she's got a way to go before she launches her run in June.

"Oh, there's so much to learn," she says with wide eyes and a grin. "But it's definitely exciting. The Islamic community is excited because if elected, I would be the first Muslim elected in the city of Malden, and they really want to see that for the community. Some of the parent groups that I'm involved in, they want a voice on the school committee as well."

Nichole Mossalam of Malden (with her baby on her lap) and Sarah Khatib of Walpole are both exploring bids for elected office with the help of Jetpac, a nonprofit looking to engage Muslims in politics. (Shannon Dooling/WBUR)
Nichole Mossalam of Malden (with her baby on her lap) and Sarah Khatib of Walpole are both exploring bids for elected office with the help of Jetpac, a nonprofit looking to engage Muslims in politics. (Shannon Dooling/WBUR)

Part of Jetpac's mission is to help potential Muslim candidates identify opportunities for civic engagement and then to empower them.

Another candidate-in-training is 41-year-old Sarah Khatib of Walpole, who says the current political climate is somewhat of a motivator.

"You know we are a target of a lot of unfortunate rhetoric and even physical assaults," Khatib says, "and I think, yeah, it can be a catalyst, you know."

With a master's degree in structural engineering, Khatib has her sights set on the Walpole Planning Board. But why is this mother of four and political newbie gearing up for a campaign now? Well, she says it's time for Muslim community members to engage.

"As the community sees more and more people who are able [to] step up and try to run, then it will give them confidence," she says. "Jetpac, it's just a wonderful resource so that, like, somebody [like] myself who maybe has that inclination to run, this gives you the extra boost that you need to see it through."

Muslims Have Been On The 'Defensive'

Providing this "extra boost" to people thinking about a bid for office is part of what Jetpac's cofounder and Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen had in mind.

"In my opinion, organizing in the community is the best way to get started thinking about running for office," Mazen says, "and running for office is one of the best ways to impact the local or state level community on issues of great, important value to our everyday lives."

As Massachusetts' first Muslim city councilor, Mazen wants to encourage other American Muslims to enter politics.

But putting your name on a ballot means opening your life up to the public, and that's a tall task for anyone.

For Muslims, Mazen says, it's just not something that communities have been focused on in the past.

"Muslims to a great extent have been on the defensive for the last couple of decades," he says. "When you are spending so much of your life on the defensive, it makes it difficult to do the work that is community-oriented."

Somali refugee Deeqo Jibril is running for Boston City Council. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Somali refugee Deeqo Jibril is running for Boston City Council. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In New England, there are only a handful of Muslim elected officials. But Mazen sees plenty of potential. Jetpac had only three Massachusetts participants earlier this month. After the launch, more than 100 people nationwide responded.

Mazen says political organizing in communities has the potential to translate into voters at the polls but, he adds, tipping political scales is not the sole motivation.

"Let's go beyond that, to the fact that it's incumbent upon Muslims to achieve justice in the community, to protect people's housing, to visit the sick," Mazen says. "It's incumbent upon Muslims to be part of that discussion. All of that comes out of community solidarity, community organizing."

'This Is The Time That We Cannot Shy Away'

Deeqo Jibril has been living a page out of the community organizer playbook for decades now.

"I am [an] activist, a lot of politicians come to me to mobilize this community," Jibril says. "And this year I said, well, the community wants to see somebody that look[s] like us."

Jibril is Somali and came to the U.S. as a refugee when she was 12 years old. She and her family have called Roxbury home ever since, and soon she hopes to represent the district as the first Muslim elected to the Boston City Council.

"We are underrepresented," she says, "and I encourage always to civically get engaged [in] the community, and now I encourage them more to get engaged, because this is the time that we cannot shy away."

Jibril is running for the seat currently held by Tito Jackson, who earlier this year began a campaign for mayor. When asked about her chances of winning, she pauses and says: "I don't know, we'll see. It's uphill battle, but, um, regardless [of] what happens, this campaign will inspire others to get more engaged."

Even if it that engagement happens one candidate at a time.

This segment aired on February 21, 2017.

Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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