Kelly: For Muslims, Trump adds urgency to feast day of Eid al-Fitr

July 7, 2016 GMT

They lined up shoulder to shoulder on Wednesday, Muslim men on one side of the sweltering Teaneck Armory drill hall, women on the other – 5,000 in all, bowing and chanting in thanksgiving for the end of the monthlong Islamic fasting period known as Ramadan.

Then came the politics.

This presidential campaign season has already produced its share of transformative moments. But what happened Wednes­day inside the acre-sized National Guard drill hall near Teaneck’s border with Bergenfield may turn out to be one of the more unusual.

After finishing prayers to mark the end of the Ramadan fast, dozens of Muslims lined up to register to vote, with many saying they had just one goal: to stop the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, from reaching the White House.

“We want to send a message with our votes,” said Siraj Hassan, 50, a financial analyst from Ridgefield who brought his family to the armory. “This is important for the country, not just the community.”

Hassan said he has been a regular voter in recent elections. But he found that far too many of his Muslim friends and relatives did not take the time to register — or, if they did register, to then go to the polls on Election Day.

Not this year.

“The fearmongering has really energized people,” Hassan said.

Another Islamic Eid al-Fitr, or “feast of fast-breaking” prayer service to mark the end of Ramadan, took place Wednesday morning in Paterson, also attended by thousands of area Muslims. As in Teaneck, a number of Democratic political figures cheered them on and called for increased voter registration among North Jersey Muslims.

The impact that these new Muslim voters will have is still difficult to assess, however. Only about a third of America’s 3.3 million Muslim adults are registered to vote, according to recent surveys by the Council on American-Islamic Relations or CAIR, the Washington-based Muslim civil rights group.

But with Trump’s persistent popularity among conservatives — and a growing perception that he is anti-Muslim — a variety of American Islamic civic groups, led by CAIR, have launched voter registration drives across the nation with a goal of registering a million more Muslim voters in time for the November presidential election.

“It’s important for Muslims to find their political voice in this country,” said James Sues, a former Episcopalian who converted to Islam two decades ago and is now executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey chapter.

“In the past,” Sues added, “many Muslim-Americans may have been reluctant to register to vote in part because they had emigrated from countries that did not have a strong democratic tradition or because they felt their vote did not matter. But the current political climate has caused a rethinking.”

“We’re not just going to sit idly by,” said another CAIR-NJ official, Abdul-Alim Mubarak-Rowe as he watched the Teaneck prayer service. “Trump is empowering more Muslims to get involved.”

The scene in Teaneck on Wednesday was a mix of religious joy and backslapping friendship – and serendipity. As an imam led prayers, babies cried and women fanned themselves in the oppressive humidity. Outside, children scampered on two decommissioned tanks that are monuments to the National Guard’s missions.

‘I want to vote’

Among those who were moved to add their names to the voter rolls was Osama Syed, 45, a lab technician from Teaneck.

Syed immigrated to the United States from Pakistan 19 years ago. But he never bothered to register to vote.

“I was too busy at work,” he said. “I also felt my vote would not count for much.”

On Wednesday, however, Syed finished his prayers, then rose from his prayer rug on the green synthetic turf that local soccer and lacrosse leagues use when National Guard soldiers are not training. Behind him, a row of tables were piled high with doughnuts, fried chicken and rice – the rewards that Muslims offer each other for completing the Ramadan fast.

But Syed bypassed the food and got in line at another table where he could register to vote.

“I want to vote this time. I want to participate now. I want to make a difference,” he said, looking up from his registration form.

Syed said he admired Trump – but only for his success in business. As a politician, however, Syed said Trump had insulted his faith and his community – so much so that he plans to make a point of casting a vote against him.

“The rhetoric he’s using is so explosive,” Syed said, adding that he feels anti-Trump sentiment will prompt many Muslims to vote this year.

Certainly that seems to be the case for Naba Sadiqulla of Cresskill, who recently turned 18.

In the fall, Sadiqulla, who graduated from Cresskill High School last month, plans to start pharmacy classes at St. John’s University in Queens. But before she arrives on campus, she said she plans to register to vote – and then make a point of casting her ballot against Trump in November.

“As young Muslims we are faced with so many obstacles,” Sadiqulla said. “Obviously with Trump running, we need a large amount of votes against him.”

Sadiqulla’s father, Mohammed Sadiq, an engineer who came to America more than 30 years ago from Pakistan, said he has noticed that younger Muslims are increasingly worried about their safety.

“This is a great country,” Sadiq said. “My kids were born here. This is their home. But they feel alienated. They ask me, ‘Are we going to be sent back?’Ÿ”

In a survey last February, CAIR found that that fewer than 8 percent of Muslim voters said they would support Trump. By contrast, 52 percent of Muslims surveyed by CAIR said they would vote for the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Another 22 percent said they supported Clinton’s primary challenger at the time, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Whether those figures have changed since February is hard to determine, CAIR officials say. Likewise, it may be still too early to determine if an increase in Muslim voters will make much of a difference in the November election.

Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said an influx of Muslim voters will likely help Clinton in the Garden State – and perhaps put her over the top in other states such as Minnesota where recent polls show her running in a close race with Trump.

But Dworkin added that no matter how the election turns out, an increase in participation by Muslim voters is another step in their transformation from immigrants to full-fledged citizens. It’s a process, Dworkin said, that other immigrant groups, such as the Irish, Jews and Latinoshave followed throughout U.S. history.

“It’s not just about Trump,” Dworkin said. “As you see with any immigrant community, as they become citizens and certainly in the second generation, they become more active in political life. That’s a good thing.”

Motivating force

Musharaf Dar, 42, a real estate broker from Little Ferry, said it was especially important for Muslims to vote in the presidential election to stop Trump.

“Our votes count,” Dar said. “If you don’t vote and the right people are not elected, our kids will have a problem in the future.”

Dar’s 10-year-old son, Salman nodded.

“Martin Luther King had to deal with racists,” Salman said. “I guess it’s no different than what we have to deal with in Trump.”

And while Trump is clearly a motivating force in the current election, many Muslims said they felt the criticism they had endured from him already during the presidential campaign has actually helped to energize them.

“This is an opportunity for us to come out and represent ourselves,” said Omar Chaudhey of Teaneck.

Mudduser Malik of Wayne agreed.

“The way you deal with adversity,” he said, “defines who you are.”

Email: kellym@northjersey.com