Arab Muslims in Brooklyn Find Power in the Voting Booth

October 18, 2008

Author: James Estrin

Source: The New York Times

As they pressed their foreheads to the sidewalk in front of the Islamic Center of Bay Ridge, a group of Arab men finished their noon prayers on a recent Friday. Unable to squeeze inside the mosque, they worshiped alongside a bright red table that held voting literature and buttons that said, “I’m Arab and I vote.”

“Yalla vote, Yalla vote,” Jihad Kifayeh, 17, shouted as he pressed voter registration forms into the hands of his elders outside the mosque in Brooklyn. Yalla means “hurry up” or “let’s go” in Arabic.

He is among several dozen Arab Muslim teenagers in South Brooklyn who are volunteering for voter registration drives, campaigning for local politicians and taking neighbors to the polls. Many, like Mr. Kifayeh, a senior at Fort Hamilton High School, have persuaded their parents to register to vote for the first time.

Their efforts are part of a political awakening, stirred by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, that has brought a growing number of Muslims into the electoral process.

“Some of my people are scared to vote,” said Mr. Kifayeh, whose family moved to New York from the West Bank city of Ramallah when he was 3. “They think their opinions might be criticized, particularly after 9/11. But it’s better that our voices are heard by the politicians.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, as a large Arab Muslim community took root in South Brooklyn, its leaders struggled to get their voices heard. Their events were rarely attended by local office holders. The community could not deliver many votes because older immigrants tended to stay away from the polls, doubting their ballots would matter.

“We came from countries where the government changed the votes,” said Zein Rimawi, 54, one of the founders of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. “Here in our country, the votes count, and votes can change a government. We had to convince older people that their votes would count.”

While leaders of the Arab Muslim community were skilled at running mosques, a local school and several civic groups, they were relatively unsophisticated when it came to politics, Mr. Rimawi said. But after Sept. 11, many of those leaders realized they needed to become more politically astute to gain the respect and attention of elected officials.