Portland councilor embodies call for Muslim activism

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PORTLAND — The first Muslim to win an election in Maine could be on the leading edge of a national movement.

City Councilor Pious Ali won an at-large School Board seat in 2013.

A native of Ghana, Ali came to America in 2000 and Portland two years later. He is now a youth and community engagement specialist in the Muskie School/Cutler Institute of Research’s Children on the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine.

Ali said he knew he was not the first Muslim to run in Maine, and that Muslims have long been a part of the nation’s history.

“Islam is as old as America. Slaves who were brought here were Muslims. It is not something that has come to America overnight,” he said.

Last November, Ali trounced incumbent Councilor Jon Hinck and challenger Matthew Coffey to win Hinck’s at-large council seat. 

Ali recently said his Muslim faith is only part of his makeup.

“I tell people I have a complex attitude, which makes makes me human,” Ali said. “I am a black man, an immigrant, a Muslim. None of the identities I have is more important than one or the other.”

Now, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, councilor is calling for more candidates like Ali.

Nadeem Mazen, a second-term Cambridge city councilor and founder of the nonprofit Jetpac, issued a Feb. 2 open letter to Muslims throughout the country, seeking candidates for public offices large and small.

“Jetpac is not interested in what party you want to run for, or for what office – we want to make sure you’re ready to win before you even declare your candidacy,” Jetpac Executive Director Shaun Kennedy said in the letter.

Jetpac, founded in 2015, is an acronym for the Justice, Education and Technology Political Advocacy Center.

Along with candidate training and voter registration work, Jetpac also organized an advanced placement course on government and political science at the Boston-are Al-Noor Academy.

“People’s communities make them into good leaders and organizers,” Mazen said.

U.S. Rep Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, may be the most notable Muslim holding public office in the U.S., and Mazen said he is aware of maybe 10 serving throughout the country.

He considers himself a free market supporter and said he has often been in the minority voting bloc on the nine-member Cambridge City Council. He wants to translate that experience to potential candidates.

“I think for me, the joy of operating in the minority is, long slogs can pay off. The support of the community means everything,” Mazen said.

The playbook for success includes wider use of social media and digital platforms for fundraising, but Mazen said there is still an accent on the basics.

“I think it is necessary to have diversity, but you have to have commitment to democratic ideals,” he said.

Ali said he has spoken with Mazen and they plan to meet. They agree on the need for more engagement and community organization.

“If you occupy any leadership role, you need to continue to educate and nurture younger leaders,” Ali said. “I am glad I am here as a resource, to share what I can do.”

Ali helped lead the March 3, 2016, protest against President Donald Trump when he made a campaign stop before the state Republican caucus. He has attended other rallies, but said people need to move beyond protests into concrete actions to express their opposition.

The blend of his identities is also a fabric of democracy, he said.

“The American ideal is an experiment that is still unfolding itself,” he said. “We are a combination of people from different backgrounds, different faiths, different cultures. All we have together is the idea of a whole America under the Constitution.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Although he was the first Muslim to be elected to any office in Maine, Portland City Councilor Pious Ali said his religious identity is only one of the components he brings to public service.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Councilor Nadeem Mazen founded Jetpac two years ago, to engage more Muslims in community organizing and governing.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.