Every so often the state of New Jersey surprises me. Teaneck, a heavily Jewish township, recently elected the first Muslim mayor of Bergen County. Mohammed Hameeduddin is an American-born Muslim of Indian descent. Elected to serve with him as deputy mayor was Adam Gussen, an Orthodox Jew. They both went to the same middle school and college. However, Islamophobes are latching on to the election of Hameeduddin as proof of the creeping Islamization of America.
Several news reports of the election describe the process as contentious and divisive. For example, here’s how Matzav begins their story:
Mohammed Hameeduddin became the first Muslim mayor in Bergen County history Thursday, as a divided Township Council elected him after a fierce, weeks-long debate over who should take the gavel. This year marked the first time in memory that a mayoral selection created a public uproar, adding to the divisions that have frequently plagued politics in recent years.
Several Islamophobic sites are using these brief descriptions to argue that the people of Teaneck were divided over Hameeduddin’s faith. However, the articles are usually quite clear that the debate was over whether to elect a Muslim man or a black woman, both of whom brought distinct qualities to the office. The reports are about debates of relative merit, rather than minority pandering. It would actually be odd for a community to elect someone who was not like them in any way racially or religiously, unless it was a meritocratic contest.
One of the interesting things in noticing the coverage of this event is how basic the reporting is. There are mentions of the Muslim-Jewish governing combination, but it’s usually no more than a descriptive line, while the rest of the article focuses on the politics of the election. At the core, the story is about the politics of the politician, not the identity. For example, an Indian newspaper covering the election uses his ethnic identity in the headline, declaring “New Jersey town elects Indian American as Mayor.” This statement shows how many different ways we could slice Hameeduddin’s identity.
The focus on Hameeduddin’s politics was refreshing. Perhaps the hysteria over religious identity is receding somewhat. We may even be listening to Colin Powell’s words from the last presidential election: “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America.”