Sumbul Siddiqui is so new to her job as mayor of Cambridge that her office door doesn’t have a plaque with her name on it yet.
But when it comes to being a prominent Muslim American in politics and dealing with the venom that distinction sometimes comes with, the 31-year-old Siddiqui already has more experience than she wants.
“It’s par for the course, unfortunately,” she said.
In an interview with WBUR’s Morning Edition, Siddiqui admitted she’s been the target of Islamophobic messages and insults this week, after the Cambridge City Council unanimously appointed her the first Muslim American mayor in Massachusetts history. She previously served one term as a Cambridge City Councilor and had just begun her second term when she was appointed mayor.
Siddiqui discussed how she and others cope with anti-Muslim sentiment, especially in light of the continuing conflicts between the United States and Middle Eastern countries like Iran.
“I think the last few days have showed me that there is a lot of Islamophobia. I was, even the first few days, just still shocked at some of the vitriol that was thrown at me through social media because of my election,” says Siddiqui, whose family emigrated from Karachi, Pakistan when she was two years old.
Siddiqui didn’t elaborate on specific messages directed at her online but said she’s faced harassment in person as well. On more than one occasion, she said, people have brought up her last name in connection with terrorist groups.
She also insisted the outpouring of support she has received since her inauguration outweighs the negative responses.
“So many members of the Muslim community, Pakistani community, South Asian community, have reached out and have said they feel more safe, that there's someone that looks like me and who is Muslim in government, and that's very important to me,” she said.
This isn’t Siddiqui’s first encounter with Islamophobia as a public figure.
She said she experienced similar treatment when she first started running for Cambridge City Council in 2017. She talked about some of those experiences on WBUR’s Morning Edition while introducing “Cambridge Digs Deep,” an initiative she sponsored to help engage citizens in discussions about equality and race.
She had a simple response to negative comments and hate speech directed at her: “I will not let it get to me.”
Siddiqui said she will continue advocating for more accessibility to affordable housing in Cambridge, including the preservation of 500 affordable housing units at Fresh Pond Apartments – one of the places she and her family lived after coming to the United States.
She also expressed a willingness to consider the implementation of safe-injection sites to aid in harm reduction for people struggling with drug addiction, continuing in the path of outgoing mayor Marc McGovern.
Though she's only just begun her two-year term as mayor, Siddiqui said she wants people to remember her as a mayor who makes Cambridge City Hall more accessible to the community — both by keeping the doors open to citizens and by providing them with a fresh perspective.
"I've always said, 'you can't be what you can't see,' and I think to have representation in these government systems is vitally important," Siddiqui said.
"And I think for many people, even non-Muslims, it's a fresh face. It's a new face. It's someone who comes from a different background. My approach to office has always been to be someone who is welcoming to everyone, someone that people can connect with and build a relationship with. And I think that's what's gotten me so far."
This segment aired on January 10, 2020.