Muslims urged to take greater role in civic life
BY SCOTT FALLON, STAFF WRITER
At one of the biggest meetings of the faith in New Jersey since the New York police surveillance was exposed, the conversation at the 15th annual American Muslim Union’s Community Brunch focused on ways to combat such police practices through active participation at every level of government.
“Today we live in a world of Islamophobia,” Mohamed Younes, president of the AMU, told an audience of 400 Muslims and government officials. “It is only when we as Muslims have a voice in the government that we can make sure our rights are protected.”
The event brought together Muslims of all backgrounds, Arabs, Asians, Africans and more to the Marriott at Glenpointe. Some men wore traditional robes while others wore suits. Some women covered their hair with hijabs while others let their locks flow freely.
The message, though, was unified: More Muslims need to integrate themselves into every facet of American society, even if they feel like they are being pushed out. Public demonstrations and other acts of outrage can only go so far. “If you don’t get involved, guess what? You’re not going to get ahead,” said Hassaan Arshad, of Closter, a Pakistani native who has voted in almost every election since becoming a U.S. citizen.
Morad Abou-Sabe, a Rutgers biology professor and president of Arab American League of Voters of New Jersey, said Muslim participation in American life was at its highest before Sept. 11, 2001. But after the attacks by 19 terrorists from the Islamist militant group Al-Qaida that killed almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., “anything and everything that looked Arab or Muslim had become the enemy,” Abou-Sabe said.
A 2009 Gallup poll found that only 51 percent of young Muslim Americans ages 18 to 29 were registered to vote, the lowest of any major religion surveyed. About 65 percent of all U.S. citizens in that age group were registered.
Outside the hotel’s ballroom, voter registration applications were laid out on tables Sunday.
Mirza Ayub didn’t need one. He will be voting in his first presidential election this year, something the 22-year-old Little Ferry resident said is “the only way to speak loud.”
In an opening prayer, Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck called on God to bless “the Jew, the Christian, the Muslim and all faith communities to be there for each other.”
The conference also drew some of the state’s top law enforcement leaders such as U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa and Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the State Police. Fishman and Chiesa said in no way would they ever want police to spy on ordinary citizens just because of their religion.
The NYPD collected information on mosques, businesses and worshipers in Newark and targeted the Masjid Omar mosque in Paterson for surveillance, according to police documents made public last month by The Associated Press. The NYPD also monitored Muslim student groups at 16 Northeast colleges, including Rutgers University, according to the AP and police documents.
“As long as we’re in office, our organizations will be available to hear those complaints to talk about the right path and to make sure we all understand there is no conflict between effective policing and civil liberties,” Fishman said to applause. “We are a more secure and safer country when people’s civil liberties and civil rights are protected.”
Chiesa said he spoke to a Sunday school class he teaches about how they would feel if somebody was secretly writing down where they went, who was in church and who they associated with. The students “looked at me like I have three heads,” he said.
Fuentes said he wants to see more Muslims recruited into the state police.
“Please send your sons, your daughters when we have our recruiting drives,” he said. “The way to understand law enforcement better is to come into our ranks.”
Among the attendees was Manny Pavon, a Hindu, who accompanied a Muslim friend to the conference.
“I don’t want to see any religion discriminated against,” he said. “That’s not what this country is about.”
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