“It’s difficult to avoid the elephant in the room,” says Faiza Ali, a 33-year-old New Yorker. “Walking the streets of New York, you can’t forget you are Muslim, brown, or black.”
The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Ali describes herself as a community organizer, a civil rights activist, and a proud Mets fan. She works in local government, as the co-director for outreach at the New York City Council. She has also been an activist for many years. When her father came to New York City in the late 1960s, he worked as a dishwasher and later at a knitting factory, before securing a union job as an elevator operator. Her mother worked as a seamstress from their apartment in Brooklyn. She says her bustling childhood household of seven led her “to activism, anchored in values of justice and passion.” After 9/11, she was further galvanized after witnessing injustice perpetrated against Muslim communities, including “experiencing my own daily microaggressions of being a woman in hijab in NYC.”
Across the United States, Muslim women, especially those identifiable on account of their dress, have become the poster children of stereotypes regarding Islam, patriarchy, and gender inequality. But Muslim women in New York City are increasingly at the forefront of local and national political engagement—not as spectators, or even just participants, but as largely unrecognized leaders of civic change.
New York City, while often held up as a beacon of progressivism, has also been critiqued for local policies aimed at its minority populations—from racial profiling by police officers to the NYPD surveillance program targeting Muslim communities after 9/11. As Ali attests, Muslims have come to recognize the power of political organizing, “making sure that the communities of New York City see themselves in local government.”
In 2017, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank that researches American Muslims, launched the Muslims for American Progress NYC project. The project sought to quantify the contributions of Muslims to New York City (an earlier report had measured their impact on Michigan). New York City has the most concentrated Muslim population in America; it is home to more than 22 percent of all American Muslims, who make up almost 9 percent of New York City’s populace. They also have a long history there, having been a part of the city since at least the seventeenth century.
The MAP-NYC project was, in part, aimed at countering the negative media portrayals of Muslims. As the principal investigator of this project, I led a team of four other researchers in interviewing 86 Muslims (43 women and 43 men) across the five boroughs. We also compiled and analyzed quantitative data, aiming to fill the significant knowledge gaps about Muslim American life.
We found that Muslim New Yorkers comprise more than 9 percent of the city’s medical doctors and more than 12 percent of the state’s pharmacists. They work across STEM fields, including as 11.3 percent of the city’s engineers. In keeping with the tradition of zakat (alms-giving), Muslim New Yorkers donated $608 million in 2016 for both domestic and international causes, and Muslim K-12 teachers educate close to 250,000 students in the city each year. Muslim New Yorkers are also engaged at every level of civic life, from the mayor’s office to the nearly 1,000 Muslim officers who work at the city’s police department today. Of the 18 individuals we interviewed who work in civics and democracy, half were women.
A few high-profile Muslim women activists in New York City have dominated headlines on politics and activism, including Linda Sarsour, who helped organize the Women’s March, and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, who founded MuslimGirl.com, a virtual platform for Muslim women to “talk back.” There are also female civic leaders like Carolyn Walker-Diallo, the first Muslim to become a civil judge in the city, who gained public notoriety when she took her oath of office on a Quran despite an online backlash.
Most of the advocates interviewed for the MAP-NYC Project are unfamiliar to the broader public, but are nevertheless taking back narratives about women, Islam, and American life. Their activism has renewed urgency after the election of President Trump, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies have created a surge in Muslims running for political office in a “blue Muslim wave,” as The Washington Post put it. In this climate of discrimination under President Trump, Muslims have been profiled and targeted in national immigration legislation, most notably through the so-called “Muslim ban,” or travel ban, which was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. Muslim women, in comparison to Muslim men, experience even higher levels of both discrimination and dissatisfaction in the United States, according to a 2017 Pew survey.
Despite the divisiveness of the current political moment, for many of these women activists, their work began earlier, in the aftermath of 9/11. The terrorist attacks were formative for all American Muslims, but perhaps more so for Muslim New Yorkers, not solely as a demarcation for the subsequent era of suspicion and fear, but also as a call to action.
Reflecting on her role after 9/11, Ali said, “My Muslim identity was forced to be front and center.” After 9/11, educator and community leader Debbie Almontaser built relationships with the mayor’s office, where she advocated for a “know your rights” campaign, in which Muslim communities received trainings on how to respond to profiling and surveillance by local law enforcement. Ahsia Badi, who is vice-chair of her local community board and president of a local Democratic club, felt similarly called to participate in civic life after conflict arose over Park 51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” She decided to volunteer on her local community board when city representatives in Lower Manhattan noticed a void in Muslim representation, and subsequently encouraged Muslims in the city to become more politically active.
These women all recognized that Muslim voices were largely absent in local government, so they raised their own. Beneath their initial impetus for engagement, however, lies a deeper stimulus. Religious identity motivates their political action, and a hostile sociopolitical atmosphere has not thwarted their piety. (On classical measures of religiosity, Muslims rank similarly to the U.S. Christian population, with 65 percent saying that religion is very important in their lives and more than half praying daily.) “Islam is the moral and spiritual guide,” says Ali, who focuses on outreach to disenfranchised communities in her city council work. She also directs part of the council’s budget, where residents decide how to spend budgets on public spaces like playground and schools. Ali’s faith taught her the responsibility “to protect and love,” she says. “My calling came doing work in the community in different ways, in local government. There is a need for representation on all levels.”
According to Badi, “Faith teaches you, both Islam and many other religions, to look out for people who don’t have opportunities.” Badi initially joined her midtown Manhattan community board in 2011, when she was a a stay-at-home mom. “I got sucked in. I loved it!” She was empowered by the opportunity to not only understand but influence legislation and became increasingly proactive in her approach to city-level political life, encouraging minorities across the city to volunteer and run for office. “I am working within the system,” she says, citing the responsibility of communities who feel underrepresented and underserved to participate in, rather than distance themselves from, politics. Badi has recently been named part of an advisory board by Mayor Bill DeBlasio to erect monuments recognizing women and women-led events that have positively shaped New York City.
Debbie Almontaser has also become a “go-to person” for institutions across the city, including the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the NYC Commission for Human Rights. The events of 9/11 motivated her to jump into politics, beginning by engaging the mayor’s office to counter Muslim surveillance by the NYPD. In 2007, she founded the Gibran Academy, the first Arabic-language public school in New York City. In 2016, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention as one of Hillary Clinton’s “Muslim surrogates.” Like Ali and Badi, Almontaser’s civic engagement is rooted in Islam. “Faith does drive me to create a better community for my community, as a moral compass of what I do. My faith teaches us to care for your fellow human beings, neighbors and society.”
Almontaser and Ali also worked together on a successful campaign to gain recognition of Muslim holidays in NYC public schools. They were part of a coalition of Muslim leaders, including civil rights lawyer Omar Mohammedi, that emerged when state-level school testing was held on Eid in 2006. Muslim communities across the city were outraged that their children were stuck in classrooms rather than celebrating with their families, setting in motion advocacy efforts that lasted for over a decade. The law, which closes public schools on Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha, passed in March 2015 after years of grassroots organizing. “There are no overnight wins, overnight successes … It was a lesson in many ways. If you organize, you win,” Ali says.
While these women cite strides made in inclusion at the local level, it has not been a steady uphill climb. The travel ban, which targets five Muslim countries (out of seven in total), is perceived as a serious hit to inclusion. Almontaser was one of the main organizers of the bodega strike held in response to the initial iteration of the ban. She considers this one of the most difficult moments in her two decades as a political organizer and advocate. She says, “The one thing that has been the silver lining are all the relationships that we formed and the coalitions we built were readily available to prepare and execute actions on the ground for the assault by the Trump administration.”
After the ban was upheld by the Supreme Court, Badi told me, “Our community, working in partnership with other communities, must help get more diverse judges elected and appointed and that starts from the ground up.” She wants to get diverse minority students engaged in the judicial process, and to help them find mentors if they choose a career in law.
These Muslim women at the forefront of civic life in New York City show that their faith does not constrain them, but in fact, emboldens them. In an interview, Almontaser described her work teaching non-Muslim women about Islam. At one such training, participants were visibly surprised that Almontaser had risen as a public face—and voice—of New York City’s diverse Muslim community, since she was as an outspoken and professionally accomplished woman. She saw this as an opportunity to push back against deeply ingrained stereotypes about the role of women in Islam. “I tell them I am a living testament of what Islam says about women.”
Elisabeth Becker, the principal investigator for the MAP-NYC project, is a postdoctoral fellow for the Religion & Its Publics project at the University of Virginia. She is also a non-residential fellow at the New America Foundation’s Muslim Diaspora Initiative and the University of Connecticut’s Humility & Conviction in Public Life project.