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Article updated: 1/6/2013 7:12 AM

Suburban elections see rise in Muslim candidates

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

With her two children in college, single mom Nazneen Hashmi decided it was time to give back to her community of Streamwood.

An information technology professional, Hashmi was appointed to the village's Community Relations Commission where she worked to promote diversity and organized a forum on marriages around the world.

That led several community leaders to suggest Hashmi run for political office, which she will do for the first time in April as a candidate for one of three Hanover Township trustee seats.

"I think (Muslims) are awakening because we made this our home, so we need to get involved," she said.

Hashmi is among several Muslim candidates running for elected office in the suburbs this spring who have caught the eye of the group Project Mobilize.

The Summit, Ill.-based budding nonprofit says it aims to educate, develop and promote the advancement of politically marginalized communities, especially Muslim-Americans.

Its mission is to foster greater civic involvement and help the political campaigns of first-time candidates through training, networking, fundraising and providing resources to reach target demographics, group co-founder Reema Ahmad said.

Ahmad previously worked with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago. Through her involvement with the Muslim civil rights organization, she began to recognize the potential for growing future leaders within the Chicago area Muslim community.

"We wanted to be the vehicle to help those individuals gain leadership skills," she said. "Project M is a tool that they can wield. We do not have any political agenda beyond helping communities that are politically marginalized have a voice."

Ahmad said the Muslim community has evolved over the last 30 years from being mostly first generation immigrants finding their bearings to citizens and registered voters who are becoming more politically active.

"It was time for the Muslim community to kind of take the next step and take ownership of the political process and run ourselves for political office," she said. "That was the motivation for starting Project Mobilize, which was founded in May 2010. Our goal was to build our leadership from the bottom up. We knew that we had community leaders who were more than capable of serving in these various capacities, municipal, county, school board levels."

Hashmi, being relatively new to the political process, welcomes the group's support.

"There are some newcomers who don't know much about politics, so they need a little bit of training and coaching on how to go about it, and Project M has done that pretty well," she said.

Hashmi became interested in politics after volunteering as an election judge in the 1980s. Since then, she has knocked on doors for local, state and national candidates, and gotten involved in training people interested in running for elected office through a program at Roosevelt University in Schaumburg and through Project Mobilize.

She advises politically minded Muslim-Americans to get involved with local boards and volunteer in the community before running for elected office.

Ahmad said she was convinced of her community's political acumen after seeing volunteers mobilize for various suburban political campaigns.

In the Northwest suburbs, the community came together particularly with the goal of defeating the re-election bid of U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh in the 8th Congressional District after he made incendiary comments about the suburbs being a hotbed for "terrorists."

"(Asian-American and Muslim) communities in the Northwest and Western suburbs are becoming more politically involved increasingly in a strategic and intentional way," Ahmad said. "We sent over 9,000 mailers to Muslim American voters in the 8th Congressional District, basically highlighting some of the hateful and reprehensible stances that he holds."

Walsh lost the seat in November to Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates.

The group plans to support Muslim candidates running in suburban races in the April elections.

Among them are Junaid Afeef, who is running for the Hoffman Estates Park District board; Mohammed Farooq Patel and Zuhair Nubani, both of whom are vying for seats on the Schaumburg Township board; Abdul Javid, a candidate for the Palatine Township Elementary District 15 school board; former York Township Trustee Moon Khan, who is a mayoral hopeful in Lombard; and Muzammil Saeed, who is running for Lombard village trustee.

Afeef, a former executive director for the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said it's great to see more Muslim-Americans getting involved in local government.

"It gives friends and neighbors, and the public an opportunity to see American Muslims in the community in a light that they wouldn't otherwise be seen in from the media," Afeef said.

Afeef, who ran unsuccessfully in 2007 for the Hoffman Estates village board, said the experience gave him the opportunity to get to know people outside of his immediate network and build bridges with the non-Muslim community.

"Those relationships carry over, win or lose, beyond the election," said the 43-year-old father of four. "This is a very exciting time. We are, as a community, finally picking up where we left off in 2000. After 9/11, we got hit with a lot of stuff that sidelined us or redirected our focus to other things. We are finally reclaiming our right to become more civically engaged and add our voices in the public square."

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