Arab Muslims in Brooklyn Find Power in the Voting Booth

As they pressed their foreheads to the sidewalk in front of the Islamic Center of Bay Ridge, a group of Arab men finished their noon prayers on a recent Friday. Unable to squeeze inside the mosque, they worshiped alongside a bright red table that held voting literature and buttons that said, “I’m Arab and I vote.”

Yalla vote, Yalla vote,” Jihad Kifayeh, 17, shouted as he pressed voter registration forms into the hands of his elders outside the mosque in Brooklyn. Yalla means “hurry up” or “let’s go” in Arabic.

He is among several dozen Arab Muslim teenagers in South Brooklyn who are volunteering for voter registration drives, campaigning for local politicians and taking neighbors to the polls. Many, like Mr. Kifayeh, a senior at Fort Hamilton High School, have persuaded their parents to register to vote for the first time.

Their efforts are part of a political awakening, stirred by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, that has brought a growing number of Muslims into the electoral process.

“Some of my people are scared to vote,” said Mr. Kifayeh, whose family moved to New York from the West Bank city of Ramallah when he was 3. “They think their opinions might be criticized, particularly after 9/11. But it’s better that our voices are heard by the politicians.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, as a large Arab Muslim community took root in South Brooklyn, its leaders struggled to get their voices heard. Their events were rarely attended by local office holders. The community could not deliver many votes because older immigrants tended to stay away from the polls, doubting their ballots would matter.

“We came from countries where the government changed the votes,” said Zein Rimawi, 54, one of the founders of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. “Here in our country, the votes count, and votes can change a government. We had to convince older people that their votes would count.”

While leaders of the Arab Muslim community were skilled at running mosques, a local school and several civic groups, they were relatively unsophisticated when it came to politics, Mr. Rimawi said. But after Sept. 11, many of those leaders realized they needed to become more politically astute to gain the respect and attention of elected officials.

With the help of a few supportive neighbors, they discovered a basic truism of American politics: “You vote, you exist. You don’t vote, you don’t exist,” Mr. Rimawi said.

Ralph Profetto, 74, a district leader for the Democratic Party, was among those who helped the local Muslim community after the attacks. “I am an Italian-American,” he said. “When I grew up, people said all Italians were Mafia. I knew how they felt when people said they were all terrorists.”

Mr. Profetto went around the neighborhood, taking off his shoes as he walked into mosques and explaining to worshipers the importance of forming a voting bloc, and what arguments to make to persuade neighbors to vote. Mr. Profetto covered the basics, like how a voting machine works.

And he told Muslim audiences that politicians ought to be judged by their deeds not their words. “I registered 362 voters in 2001,” Mr. Profetto said, referring to Arab Muslims. “Now there are several thousand.”

The number of Arab Muslims registered to vote in South Brooklyn increased by about 60 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to an analysis by John H. Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

At the same time, certain perceptions among local leaders have shifted. “Five years ago, common wisdom among some politicians was that you shouldn’t be perceived as working too close with the Arab-American community,” said Stephen A. Harrison, who was the leader of the local community board from 2001 to 2003. “It could be used against you. I never subscribed to that.”

As a Democratic candidate for the Congressional seat that includes Bay Ridge, Mr. Harrison said he received more than $60,000 in contributions from Arab Muslim store owners and professionals. Mr. Harrison lost in the September primary to Michael McMahon, a City Council member who represents Staten Island.

Mr. McMahon had scheduled a fund-raiser on Saturday with Muslim leaders, in a hall next to the Beit Al-Maqdis Mosque on Sixth Avenue. “I’m from Staten Island and was not that well known in Brooklyn,” he said. “It’s the same outreach I do in the Italian, Irish, Asian and Russian communities.”

Mr. Rimawi believes local politicians now realize the value of cultivating good will among Arab Muslims. “Politicians are like wolves,” he said. “They can smell votes and they can smell money.”

These days, politicians are more commonly seen in Muslim pockets of South Brooklyn.

When the Nablus Sweets store on Fifth Avenue had a grand opening this summer, Councilman Vincent Gentile and State Senator Martin J. Golden were there, eating pastries and cutting a ribbon for a photograph for Aramica, a bilingual Arab-American newspaper. And Mr. Gentile and a fellow councilman, Domenic Recchia, attended the graduation party for a storefront after-school tutoring program.

Nine local elected officials attended the Arab-American Association’s annual community Ramadan dinner last month. And in a sign of how the political dynamics have changed, residents received automated calls in Arabic before the September primary from Mr. Harrison, urging them to vote for him.

For community leaders, the political success of other ethnic communities is seen as a road map for the maturation of the Muslim community in South Brooklyn.

“We look at the Italian community, the Jewish community and the Greek community,” said Wael Mousfar, the president of the Arab Muslim American Federation. “They started like us or even worse off. And in many cases, when they are strong enough, they have their own candidates for office. Eventually that day will come for us. This is the beauty of our system, the American system — anyone can join.”