Muslim Competitors: Vying for the Same Office

Editor’s Note: update June 2015: Our crew at That’s Some American Muslim Life had following these two candidates for months on their journey to becoming the first elected Muslim in city council in 2013. Listen to our audio story of these two candidates just published at We asked our associate features editor to do a write up in 2013 on this story as a preview to that audio story. These interviews were conducted prior to the elections. Listen to the podcast to find out how who won.

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Written by Yasmine Hassan

What to say about Cambridge, a city that is home to world-class universities and a population that embraces its rich diversity and multicultural reputation? The city is also known for the variety of professional opportunities. For people with an affinity for politics and the hope of eventually joining office, there is the option to drop in on local level government meetings at City Council or a lecture by a prominent politician. With Boston so close, art and entertainment buffs can attend the shows at the Art District. In addition, the Cambridge Art Council provides beautiful displays of public art of all kinds for residents to enjoy. Cambridge is a city where you can develop your passions, where, as one famous resident, Julia Child, said, you can “find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”

Based on last year’s census, out of an estimated 106,471 residents in Cambridge, 34 percent are of a visible minority group while 13 percent of businesses are owned by a member of a visible minority. It is clear that, although not a majority, immigrants and second generation Muslims are becoming a prominent part of Cambridge. It was in 1958 when three Muslim students created the Harvard Islamic Society and Muslim Cantabrigians. In 1981, the Islamic Society of Boston was formed, now at the ’Prospect Street Mosque and since then Muslim organizations and community groups have grown. But in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, with the bombing suspects not only residents of Cambridge, but also having engaged in the Muslim community and mosques, the suspicion of the Muslim community made it almost necessary to be actively involved in civic engagement.

This effort at becoming more prominent members of their city also encompasses running for local level government. This year twenty-five candidates competed for nine seats, running against seven incumbents. This year’s election had the most candidates competing since 2003, with a greater number of younger candidates compared with previous years.

These elections come in the midst of several scandals that tainted the City Council, including revelations of the city manager’s salary as a hefty $330,000 a year, double what the mayor of Boston makes. This, in addition to the high cost of living and the housing situation that continues to lock out poor, and even middle class, residents.

It’s true that minorities in the U.S. have come a long way in terms of representation in the government. (While 13 percent of the population is African American, only 7% of members of Congress are African American; 10 percent of the population is Hispanic, compared with 4 percent members of Congress; and Asian Americans are 3 percent of the population, but 1 percent of Congress. This according to Muslim Americans fare even worse. But in the Northeast this year, rather than the usual one Muslim running for office, in say a three-state radius, two Muslims competed for the same position in Cambridge, each hoping to be the first Muslim on the City Council. Even more significant are the different sets of skills and experiences that these two brought to the race. Mushtaque Mirza and Nadeem Mazen may have run on different platforms and campaign strategies, but both heavily campaigned to the Muslim residents of Cambridge.

In many ways the race indicated a sense of “‘we have arrived”’ with both candidates appealing to the Muslim community, while at the same time balancing their identities as Cambridge residents with decades of experience and skills that can be beneficial for all Cambridge residents. This is a significant step forward as it shows the diversity of talents and skills that Muslim residents can offer as elected officials.

The campaigns run by Mirza and Mazen show both to be good candidates for the city and for the Muslim community. Their differences stem partly from the generational gap, with Mirza having immigrated here in the 1970s, and Nadeem the American-born son of Egyptian immigrants, but also from their different skill set, work backgrounds and experiences living in Cambridge.

Mushtaque Mirza, mid 60’s, has generally stuck to a traditional campaign, with his volunteers going door to door, cold calling voters and holding events to spread the word about his platform. After three decades of working in the community, he decided to run for the City Council, under the slogan “Cambridge can do better.”

A trained engineer, Mirza feels that his “expertise in environment and building construction will be a lot more beneficial for City Council.” Cambridge has a very old zoning master plan and it needs to be changed, and who better to help do it than a councilor with a strong background in the field. A longtime active member of the community, Mirza helped create the Arab American Institute along with Dr. James Zogby, he hosted Representative Mel King at a forum where he was encouraged to begin his career in politics and was advised by former Speaker Thomas Philip “Tip” O’Neill who always called him “a good-looking young fellow.”

Mirza spends the rest of his day helping people with problems such as immigration papers to job hunting. Mirza proudly discusses how he campaigned for ’public schools to close for the Eid holiday. He was an early member of the Prospect Street mosque, the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Democratic City Committee and finally the Democratic State Committee and the Universal Muslim Associates of America where he holds a yearly workshop and encourages young Muslims to register to vote. In 2004, he became the first Muslim to be a vice president of the Electoral College.

Mirza speaks of how he knew instantly on his first visit to Cambridge that this was the city he would like to live in. He took up his first job as a structural designer at Stone and Webster. Soon after, he got involved in fighting discrimination and being a voice of the Muslim community in government and with law enforcement. But Mirza was looking to represent all Cantabrigians with his platform that included a vision to create more affordable housing and to develop more environmentally friendly buildings. He offers the advice to others thinking of running to “get experience first, don’t just wake up one morning and decide to run for City Council.”

Mirza’s advice, while not explicitly saying so, could be a healthy dose of competitiveness directed at his other Muslim competitor, Nadeem Mazen. Mazen, 30, in an attempt to move as far away as possible from the traditional route, decided to do anything and everything that would be different, especially relying on technology. Mazen has mounted a campaign inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. With his use of social media and the team he has set up to develop apps and other tech tools, Mazen’s is far from a ’typical campaign. He does admit that “door-knocking, debates and events are still our bread and butter but what has been done with tech will be a phenomenal help.” He’s a quintessential representation of the younger generation of residents, he knows what they want and how to get to them and he does it very well.

Mazen moved to Cambridge as a freshman at MIT, and now has two businesses under his belt, along with his experience as an educator. He says he draws his energy from the positive feedback he gets from those that he meets on a daily basis. Owning local businesses and teaching allows you to watch your community, your businesses and your students grow. And as he watched them develop, he found an interest in what the government was doing to enable local prosperity, and found himself disappointed. After attending a few city meetings, Mazen noticed, “Everyone felt as though they were not being listened to […] decisions are being made even before we come to give our input.” As Mazen grew as an active member of the Cambridge society, he met people he would have never been able to meet had it not been for his business ventures. He began to engage with the underserved, the communities that don’t necessarily have access to topnotch education. “That’s the Cambridge I’ve grown to love and I am really very excited to help and support it”, he says. This was the catalyst that caused the transition from “jack of all trades/entrepreneur Mazen to full-time candidate Mazen.”

His day started with a bombardment of emails with various requests and issues from his businesses and students. “I have to go out and meet clients, I’m helping the managers of the two businesses that I own direct those companies, I coach squash, I teach and do academic advising.” But for the past few months, his daily tasks included canvassing, attending meetings at City Council and just running his campaign.
Having grown up between two cultures adds to Mazen’s appeal. He says growing up biracial and bicultural proved to be a challenge, but the experience makes you stronger. But “there are elements of discrimination and elements of having to be an apologist for your religion” that come along with the package, he added. Nevertheless, he enjoys discussing the current state of affairs in Egypt and admits that a portion of his thoughts always revolves around issues of social justice and international politics that other Americans don’t necessarily think about. He also draws a great deal of his inspiration from the events in Egypt. “I’m inspired by every movement that takes hundreds of thousands of people to the streets, builds slowly and sustains change.” This was the basis for his campaign in City Council, how sustainable is a non-traditional leader.

Nadeem Mazen Q & A, interviewed two weeks prior to the election

TIM: Do you think that your campaign will inspire others from the community to run in the future? What would be your advice for future candidates in terms of campaigning? ’

Nadeem Mazen: I have so much advice, I’m learning so much every day and every couple of minutes I’m writing notes for myself about things I should do in general or do differently. I wish I had that person for me but I haven’t met that one lightning rod person that will guide me and show me how to run and teach me from their experience. I haven’t had that person in the Muslim community or outside it, mentorship is very hard to find in today’s professional economy and especially in the field of politics.

But we’re working on combating that and in the spirit of being non-traditional; we are taking all of our experiences and putting together a little curriculum of things that we learnt. We aren’t saying that this is the only way to run, but we are saying that this is one way to go about it. We’re taking what we’ve learnt and making videos, templates and white papers that will bring people who are starting from scratch up to speed more quickly than I was able to do. We’ll be interviewing with the people that advised us along the way and with my campaign staff and I’ll be sitting in front of the camera myself. We’re creating animations all in the hopes of creating a digital campaign advisor or campaign strategist that will be in your corner. It will be for non-traditional leaders, for young Muslim leaders and for people who don’t necessarily want to make a career out of politics but want to treat it as a service oriented position. We’re hoping to inspire and educate the people that live for organizing, for empowerment and for city and community first thinking, for those who shun the notion that this is a brand and that this is about me aggregating power. There is potential and we want to make sure that we’re in aid of that movement and of that whole genre of politicians.

TIM: Does your background as an entrepreneur and an educator give you an edge over your competition in this election?

NM: Yes, I think that as an educator people respect that and I feel that it’s very refreshing that people care that I’m an educator. It’s fascinating the number of pedagogical discussions that I get into. As an entrepreneur, it’s even more applicable. I’ve come to realize that starting your own campaign is a lot like starting a small business, and it’s not just a small business, it’s one that is coming into a competition with people who have incredible brand name recognition under their belts. You don’t get the startup time where you’re in stealth mode, you have to register with the state and right off the bat you’re on their radar and there are people already planning for you that have twenty years experience in the business. It’s the most brutal type of entrepreneurship.

If you’ve been swimming in the democratic party, you’ve been organizing with the Democrats then you become sort of a spinoff company in that even though you’re new, you have all this support from the parent brand. I’m an independent and I’m not an established candidate and as a lapsed Democrat, it means that I don’t have that help from the parent brand. The downside to this is that as a self-starting first time candidate, you lose out against those who are in this analogy born wealthy. It’s difficult for a first time candidate to compete against others that have the support of a party because that party will often support them regardless of whether or not they have the right credentials for the position. That’s when we find ourselves with people who have a tremendous amount of longevity in the field and a tremendous amount of party support.

Muslims have had a hard time in the U.S., especially with the media portraying an aggressive and stereotypical image of them. That being said, how do you feel about the interest that the Muslim community is having in running for positions in government given that one of your competitors is also Muslim?

The interest isn’t there and one of the surprising things that I found out while running is that all the lists and organizations that people pointed me to that would have helped me in my campaign didn’t exist with the Muslim community. I heard people talking about lists, voting blocks and strong voting communities in their area but our community has yet to pass from wishing it to be so to it actually being the case. And this is the case for most of the Northeast for Muslims and civic engagement. It’s great that we’re getting over ourselves and any stereotypes about us because people are read to support us for who we are but we aren’t a faith group or a civic group that has any meaningful power yet.

TIM: Do you feel that another Muslim candidate running for the same position will impact the Muslim vote?

NM: We’re working very hard and we’re doing our very best to go out there and impress upon the people the importance of my stances and of the candidate that I am and if people want to vote for both of us they can.

TIM: What’s been the response of the non-Muslim community towards your campaign?

NM: We mostly campaign in non-Muslim communities, we’re trying to represent Cambridge and so we’re trying to include the non-Muslim communities in the leadership of the future and that includes minority groups and immigrant groups from different parts of the world. And so that’s something that resonates with the non-Muslim community very well. Most of my platform is very secular, it’s a platform about education, democracy, returning power to people rather than aggregating it in the hands of elected officials, term limits and about giving back money from a city councilor’s salary to grassroots communities for leadership development. I really think that when I’m exposed to people who are listening, they find it very refreshing to imagine that leaders would diminish their own power and their own best interest in the service of the community.

TIM: If the worst-case scenario takes place and you don’t win, what will be the next step for you?

NM: I’m in the unique position where it’s very exciting for me whether I win or lose. I’m a tech entrepreneur, I have my own businesses and I teach, so if I win, I get to talk about how I won and get to spread that knowledge. If I lose, I get to research how others won and spread my findings around as part of the digital package I mentioned earlier. Either way, I have enough production and research to keep me busy. In the event that I don’t win, I get to think about a little pet project of mine that tackles the reasons as to why it is so hard to get twelve or fourteen hundred people out to the polls when all my campaign volunteers and I have thousands of friends on Facebook. I would be delighted to help people make slightly more meaningful and civically oriented connections through their existing online database of contacts and I think that could be a very powerful tool.

Win or lose, I would like to explore the potential of that idea and so I’m blessed to think that either way I’m feeling very good about this educational process and about the ideas that have come about through this process.

Mushtaque Mirza Q & A interviewed two weeks prior to the election

TIM: Having moved here in the 1970s, how has living in India influenced you on a personal level and how will this affect you as city councilor?

MM: As an immigrant myself, I understand the issues of immigrants, I understand the family structures and the culture very well. For example, when I invited the mayor of Cambridge to come and speak at the Harvard Islamic Society iftar party, I asked him not to shake hands with the women there because many women didn’t feel comfortable touching a man. This is just one example of the many cultural things that Americans don’t necessarily understand. Our traditions and family structures are very different and so there needs to be someone who understands them and knows how they work. As city councilor, I would be able to do things that the immigrant community will appreciate because I will be in a position where I can influence the decisions that are being made that affect their lives directly.

Cambridge is a city of intellectuals, scientists, engineers and academic scholars and so with my engineering background I can understand their needs and culture as well. I know what they look for and what facilities they will need in order to help them and help the city because I studied the subjects and have experience in the field.

Living in India, I was taught about the Hindu culture and religion; I can recite the verses of the Hindu religious texts; I can read Sanskrit and Arabic and recite the verses of the Holy Quran and I can do the Friday Prayer sermon. Because I can understand all these aspects of the community and also understand the American community, I can bring them together. I can help the immigrant community accept the American culture without loosing their culture. Before, the hijab used to be a novelty to Americans but now because they’ve been exposed to it so much, they’ve gotten used to it and they know why women wear it.

I’ve been attending meetings for the Bridge Organization to educate members of the law enforcement on how to deal with the community and to bring to their attention to any problems that may have come up with their dealings with us. Since I have a firm understanding of both sides, I can help both sides and be the middleman for them. If there’s been some sort of a violation that takes place, I speak to law enforcement and tell them that the community will not accept such acts. And as city councilor, I will be able to bring even more issues to the attention of the police department and help bridge the gap between both parties.

TIM: American Muslims have had a hard time in the U.S., especially with the media portraying an aggressive and stereotypical image of Muslims. That being said, how do you feel about the interest that the Muslim community is suddenly having in running for positions in government given that one of your competitors is also Muslims?

MM: I believe that anyone and everyone has the right to run, you cannot tell anyone not to run and it’s up to the people of Cambridge to decide who is best suited for the positions. This is a part of the democratic process. Candidates have to carry out their campaign in a civilized way that respects the democracy and I think all the candidates running for City Council have been very respectful to each other. We say hello when we cross each other in the street so there are no hard feelings.

I always say one thing and that is not to vote for me because of my ethnicity or my religion but to elect me for what I can do for you in the City Council. That’s the most important thing, not my race or religion, but what I can do for the city because of my academic background and my work experience as an engineer. My first job was building affordable housing and so I know what it takes to create it, so I can bring a lot to the table as city councilor.

TIM: How do you think the fact that there is another Muslim candidate running for the same position will affect the Muslim vote?

MM: I personally have no thought about it, it may divide the vote but there isn’t much I can do about it. Everyone has the right to run for office. I have a lot of experience, I’ve lived in Cambridge for a long time, I’ve taken care of the Muslim community for a long time, I brought the celebration of Eid and I know the city councilors very well so I can work with them very easily. I have all the credentials needed to make this city, in my personal opinion, much better. You are the jury and the judge and you will decide who the best candidate will be. So all I can do is work on my campaign and do my best and leave the result up to the people of Cambridge. The most important thing is for them to go out and vote.

TIM: What’s been the response of the non-Muslim community towards your campaign?

MM: Their response has been great, it’s important to tap into the non-Muslim community because it includes the Hindus and Ethiopians and many other ethnic groups whose’ response has just been amazing. I’m making sure to reach out to every single community we have here, I can’t rely solely on the Muslim community. There are people that are concerned with the environment that will vote for me, people that are concerned by housing will vote for me, Green Party candidates will vote for me because my thoughts and ideas are very close to their core issues.

TIM: How do you reflect on your national level campaigning now that you’re running for a position in the local government?

MM: National was very interesting when I did it in 2004. I had to reach out to each and every group of people and it was a lot less personal than local level campaigning. In national, we didn’t do any door to door so I didn’t really get a chance to have any direct contact with the people. With this campaign, I’m going door to door, I’m calling people and I’m holding events and house parties so that people can have a chance to get to know me better and ask me any question they want. Local level is much more personal, it’s all about who you know. Most people will vote for a candidate because they know them well and because they like that particular candidate. It’s a personal thing.

TIM: If the worst-case scenario takes place and you don’t win, what will be the next step for you?

MM: Well I hope that I win but if I don’t then I will continue serving the community. I will be the advocate of environment, housing and human rights for all and especially for Muslims. I will continue to do what I’ve been doing since I came to Cambridge. I will not let the loss have any impact on me because I know I did what I had to do and put a lot of effort into it. I started a little late but disappointments cannot stop you in your mission in life and I know that I’m doing everything that I can to hopefully win.

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  • About the autor
    Yasmine Hassan

    Associate Features Editor, Yasmine Hassan, is a freelance writer in politics and current events with a B.A. in Political Science from Concordia University.

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