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Building Political Engagement In New England's Muslim Community

Jetpac Inc.
Jetpac members discuss the organization's new national campaign to encourage Muslim Americans to run for elected office.

Muslims in America are the subject of heated political debate, but they account for a very small number of elected politicians in New England. Enter Jetpac, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit, that is encouraging American Muslims across the U.S. to run for political office. Jetpac will train potential candidates regardless of party affiliation with the goal of increasing civic engagement within Muslim communities.

With her three-month-old baby on her lap and her two-year-old son strumming a guitar in the background, Nichole Mosssalam ticks through her hypothetical platform as a candidate for Malden school committee.

Sitting around a cluttered table in Jetpac's shared office space, Mosssalam learns the ins and outs of running for public office.

The 34-year old 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, but it's definitely exciting. So 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.”

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 Kahtib of Walpole.

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

With a master’s degree in structural engineering, Khatib says the Walpole planning board would be a perfect fit. 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, you know, step up and try to run, then it will give them confidence and Jetpac, it's just a wonderful resource so that like somebody myself who maybe has that inclination to run, this gives you, like, the extra boost that you need to see it through.”

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, 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. When you are spending so much of your life on the defensive, it makes it difficult to do the work that is community oriented."

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 peoples housing, to visit the sick. It's incumbent upon Muslims to be part of that discussion. All of that comes out of community solidarity, community organizing.”

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

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

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 and I encourage always to civically get engaged the community, and now I encourage them more to get engaged because this is the time that we cannot shy away."

When asked about her chances of winning the Boston City Council seat, Jibril pauses and says:

“I don't know, we'll see. It's uphill battle, but, um, regardless what happens this campaign will inspire others to get more engaged."

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

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.