As part of a growing but still underserved electorate, Muslim, Arab and South Asian New Yorkers finally got a chance to hear what the mayoral candidates, if elected, would do for their communities.
Six Democratic mayoral candidates, along with Independence Party nominee Adolfo Carrión, faced off on Sunday in a mayoral candidate forum hosted by the Arab American Association of New York and the Islamic Center at New York University.
According to the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, there are 105,000 registered Muslim voters in New York City, making up 10 percent of the total electorate.
“We can’t just be discussed,” Imam Khalid Latif, executive director and chaplain of the Islamic Center at NYU, and chaplain for the New York Police Department, said in the event’s opening remarks. “We must be part of the process to see systemic change.”
Although invited, none of the Republican candidates were in attendance.
The candidates unanimously agreed on many issues, including allowing city workers to don religious wear at work and eliminating bullying of religious minorities in schools.
Both Bill de Blasio and Christine Quinn praised current mayor Michael Bloomberg’s leadership during the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy when right-wing groups objected to the construction of an Islamic community center close to the World Trade Center site. Each of the candidates vowed, if elected mayor, to protect religious freedom and the right to build houses of worship wherever zoning laws allowed.
All candidates also promised they would add two Muslim holidays – Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha – to the public school calendar. The City Council has already passed a resolution adding the days, which Bloomberg has rejected.
However, when moderator Errol Louis of NY1 asked the candidates to indicate which of them found the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims to be unconstitutional, only John Liu and Rev. Erick Salgado raised their hands.
“No offense to you guys here — How can anyone think it’s okay to surveil and spy on people just because they’re Muslim?” Liu asked his fellow candidates as the crowd cheered.
However, Bill Thompson, who did not raise his hand, clarified his position.
“Is it right? Absolutely not. Should it be done? Positively not. Would I allow it? Definitely not,” he said.
Instead of raising her hand, Quinn reiterated her promise to install an inspector general to monitor the NYPD, but stopped short of endorsing a bill allowing citizens to sue the NYPD for racial profiling in state courts.
“We don’t want to have a law on the books that gives state courts the ability to run our police department,” said Quinn. “The mayor needs to run the police department with community input. ”
However, the fact that only two out of the seven candidates raised their hands both shocked and disappointed Maryam Said, a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
To her, the unconstitutionality of the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program is a no-brainer.
“It’s equating being a Muslim to being a criminal,” she said.
For Said, it’s also personal. While she was vice president of the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Muslim Student Association, she found out one of the student members was spying on the group as an undercover agent for the NYPD.
“It created a really mistrustful environment,” she said. “Like this guy wasn’t our friend. Who else isn’t our friend?”
Another tense moment at the mayoral forum came during a question about Brooklyn College sponsoring a panel discussion on the economic boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
De Blasio, Quinn and Thompson all disagreed with the college sponsoring the BDS event. For them, it was a question of a public university not showing equal consideration to both sides of the issue.
“If the political science department [at Brooklyn College] is sponsoring the [Ku Klux] Klan, I would want both sides put forward,” said Thompson.
Long shot candidate and lawyer Sal Albanese, however, challenged Thompson and de Blasio on their answers and said it was really just a matter of freedom of speech.
“I disagreed with some of the things said in the [Brooklyn College] forum, but I think they have the right to say it,” Albanese said. “It’s wrong to hold people back from speaking out.”
New York physician Rajinder S. Malhotra appreciated when the candidates offered concrete solutions, such as when de Blasio promised to pass both the NYPD inspector general and racial profiling bills and replace current Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Malhotra, a Sikh, also respected the candidates who did their homework. One example was Liu, who knew the difference between United Sikhs, an international advocacy group, and the human rights organization Sikh Coalition.
“It not only shows sensitivity, but a real understanding,” he said.
Still, even though the mayoral forum wasn’t necessarily “tectonic,” longtime community activist and writer Ibrahim Abdul-Matin believes that it was a good introduction to the mayoral candidates geared towards a Muslim community that’s increasingly maturing as a political entity.
“I think we’re now starting to put our head above the sand,” he said.