“We can no longer afford to be ignored especially by those running for the highest office in the land,” says Political Strategist Salima Suswell.
Written by Aliya Z. Khabir
PHILADELPHIA, Penn. – After five days of uncertainty, the winner of the 2020 Presidential election was announced and the world was informed that the Biden-Harris campaign had prevailed. In a tough race where every single vote counted, the world began to recognize the people behind the historical victory that produced the first Black Indian American Woman Vice President our nation has known.
People like Stacy Abrams, who took an unjust defeat in her bid for governor of Georgia in 2018, organized against voter suppression, not only in Georgia but across the south. And there’s Symone Sanders, who joined the Biden campaign early as a senior advisor and faced heavy criticism for it.
In an election where several traditional Republican strongholds, even by a narrow margin, flipped in support of a Democratic presidential candidate, we have to recognize the people behind those efforts. Many of those people behind the scenes working diligently for historical change were Muslims, specifically African American Muslim strategists and organizers, Imams, and elected officials who moved the needle in Pennsylvania’s stronghold – Philadelphia.
One of the nation’s largest Black Muslim populations resides in Philadelphia, which puts them in the position to influence the outcome of this election. Philadelphia leads the country in supporting and electing Muslims to the office and building political power.
Salima Suswell, political strategist and organizer who made history in 2017 being appointed by Governor Tom Wolf to the Pennsylvania Commission for Women, is one of those African American Muslims leading the way in politics in the Greater Philadelphia area.
“This effort has been underway since Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Trump was elected President,” says Salima Suswell, Deputy Pennsylvania Senior Advisor, Biden for President. “As the presidency progressed, it was clear that Pennsylvania was an essential win for the effectiveness of a blue wave.”
Suswell, who was recently called “a rising star in the American Muslim community” by Democratic National Committee (DNC) leaders, was one of the many African American Muslims in Philadelphia responsible for the strategic plan to mobilize the Muslim vote across the nation.
In addition to orchestrating “get out the vote (GOTV)” activities in the Muslim community and throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Suswell worked closely with Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of Maryland and other prominent leaders to develop the Black American Muslim (BAM Vote 2020) voting bloc and campaign, a non-partisan effort to increase voter participation in Black American Muslim communities in key battleground states.
Former President Barack Obama’s direct engagement with our community highlighted the importance of exercising the power of our collective voice. Local faith-based leaders, like Imam Idris Abdul-Zahir at Masjidullah’s Center for Human Excellence in Philadelphia, played pivotal roles in the months and days leading up to this unprecedented election during a global pandemic.
Imam Abdul-Zahir was invited to a conversation with President Obama as he took to the road in support of his former Vice President and now President-elect Joe Biden.
“The opportunity to meet with President Barack Obama to discuss the significance of Black male engagement in the political process and how it can be a catalyst for change was an uplifting and validating experience,” said Abdul Zahir.
“I was one of 10 Black male community leaders in the City invited to participate in an intimate round table discussion that included public officials, a host of faith-based leaders and community activists. President Obama’s direct engagement with our community highlighted the importance of exercising the power of our collective voice. ”
The efforts of Pennsylvania State Senator Sharif Street, who served as Vice-Chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, was also very consequential. “The Muslim voting bloc, in every state, was necessary to the outcome of this election,” says State Senator Street.
Street, who comes from a political family dynasty (his father John F. Street served two terms as Philadelphia mayor and over a decade as a member of the city council) partnered with fellow state legislators to increase voter turnout in areas that are often underserved, areas with low voter turnout.
Street’s district is heavily populated with people of color and also has a great deal of Muslim residents.
Philadelphia’s Muslim youth also contributed to efforts to increase Muslim voter participation, as college students Noor Bowman (Drexel University) and Nasihah Thompson-King (Temple University) both served in the Biden-Harris campaign fellowship program.
Not only were Muslims vital to the record-breaking voter turnout in Pennsylvania and across the nation, but Muslims also held positions that oversaw the integrity of the election. City Commissioner Omar Sabir is another African American Muslim serving in public office, who was at the center of the oversight of the election in Philadelphia County.
Sabir, who was raised in Philadelphia’s Muslim community, was elected in November 2019 as one of three city commissioners responsible for overseeing elections for the county of Philadelphia.
COVID-19 and the quarantine increased the number of mail-in ballots substantially, thrusting Sabir into the spotlight as voter suppression was being fought on the front lines of the PA Convention Center, where Sabir and his colleagues managed the counting of every single mail-in, absentee and provisional vote.
“I am so proud to serve as Philadelphia City Commissioner. Our team at the Board of Elections is top-notch. They worked day and night to ensure that our election and ballot count were conducted with dignity, transparency, and professionalism,” Sabir says.
“A special thanks to my wife and family, and to all of our families, who held down the forts while we spent countless hours away in the recent weeks and months,” he adds.
State Senator Street said he traveled across the Commonwealth to engage voters of color. “Pennsylvania has a diverse electorate,” Street says. “ We have been successful in engaging voters since 2016, which resulted in 2018 victories in traditionally Republican counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery.
He adds, “Those voters again came out for the Biden-Harris ticket and literally secured the electoral votes for a victory.”
Street affirms, “Philadelphia is the birthplace of American democracy with high turnout especially in Black and Brown communities motivated in part by Police Reform Ballot Referendums in the wake of the death of Walter Wallace Jr. at the hands of law enforcement.
“This reminds us of the importance of local elections which have the most immediate impact on our communities. I’m proud to have been reelected to serve the community I was born and raised in North Philadelphia,” he concluded.
As run-off elections in Georgia determine the balance of the Senate and inauguration plans are being made for President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, Sis. Suswell is not letting up. “Our real work begins now. Voting is just the first step to help establish a more just society,” says Suswell.
“At its best, it helps to put in place political leaders that are willing to work with community leaders to improve policies and provide more resources that benefit the people. We must now engage the new administration to help bring about substantive change for our nation and community. We can no longer afford to be ignored especially by those running for the highest office in the land,” says Suswell.
(Writer Aliya Khabir is the principal consultant at AZK Communications, LLC, and a contributor to the Philadelphia Daily News, a published author and a member of the Philadelphia Muslim community. She can be contacted at azk-comm.com and Aliya@azk-comm.com. )