Sunday, September 05, 2010

Politics & religious pluralism in New Jersey

Adam Holland passes along the news that in Teaneck, New Jersey, a town whose population is about 40% Jewish, a Muslim mayor was recently elected with heavy Jewish support. Current controversies aside, we should not forget that in the long run events like that represent the more fundamental American story—and we should try to keep it that way.

That's true despite all the messiness and complications involved. Here's a longer account of this election from a New York Times columnist:
You’d like to think there’s just a feel-good story in the unlikely selection of Mohammed Hameeduddin as mayor of this diverse Bergen County town that is increasingly a stronghold of Orthodox Jews.

And, on balance, that’s probably the bottom line: a Muslim, who first got involved in local politics when his mosque was planning to expand, was picked by his fellow town council members, 5-to-2, as the town’s new mayor on July 1.

“Teaneck is not perfect,” said Adam Gussen, an Orthodox Jew and a friend of Mr. Hameeduddin’s since middle school and the new deputy mayor. “We’re not a shining Camelot beacon to all, but we’ve done a lot of great and noteworthy things we can be proud of, and this shows we still have the ability to get it right.” [....]

Religion aside, there’s a pretty traditional tale in Mr. Hameeduddin’s rise from the son of immigrants from Hyderabad, India. His father, Mohammed Hameeduddin Sr., was a founding member of the Darul-Islah Mosque in Teaneck. The younger Mr. Hameeduddin, an entrepreneur now working in title insurance, is remembered by classmates as one of the cool kids at Teaneck High School, where he and Mr. Gussen graduated in 1991. Friends called him Mo and he is still fondly remembered for the sleek Champagne-colored Ford Probe he drove. (Mr. Hameeduddin, saying he’d had too many interview requests and didn’t want to call undue attention to himself, declined to be interviewed.)

HE first became interested in public life after 9/11 when he decided to speak out about misperceptions of Muslim culture. After getting involved in the mosque issue, he served on the town planning board from 2006 to 2008 and then on the town council.

As a result, Mr. Hameeduddin’s election got a lot of publicity. But it seems few in Teaneck took much notice of his religion and ethnic background.

“I don’t care,” said Rabbi A. S. Teicher, who runs a small religious shop off the main drag of Cedar Lane. “As long as he does the job, why should I have a problem with what he does at home?” [....]
Yes, that does seem like the bottom line. At the same time, this is not a simple tale of sweetness and light. In the real world, democratic politics are never entirely harmonious, nor should they be; and the politics of ethnic and religious pluralism, in particular, tend to be contentious even when they work out successfully.
[I]f the dominant story line was Mr. Hameeduddin’s ascent to the mayor’s chair, there was also bitter disappointment in Teaneck’s black community and intimations of discrimination when another council member, Lizette B. Parker, who had been the deputy mayor and was the top vote-getter in the May election, failed to become the first black woman chosen as mayor.

Sigh. Life’s complicated, particularly in this racially and ethnically diverse town, which became famous in the 1960s as the first community in the nation with a white majority to voluntarily desegregate its public schools. It’s certainly complicated now, with a powerful Orthodox community and 15 synagogues in a town of about 39,000 that is also almost 30 percent black, has a growing Latino population, and enough of a Muslim community to support two mosques and contentious local politics. [....]

And Barbara Ley Toffler, who cast a dissenting vote along with Ms. Parker, said Mr. Hameeduddin’s appointment had more to do with the council majority’s instincts to slash spending than any feel-good vibrations. “It’s not a sweet and happy story,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they are Muslims or Jews. My concern is this will harm the town and harm the schools.” (Or, more positively, finally a way to bring Muslims and Jews together: the current vogue for cutting taxes and government spending.)

[....] And to some, civic discord along race or ethnic lines is a slightly tired story line. “Taking umbrage is like a sport in Teaneck,” one online poster wrote. [....]
Democracy in America ...

--Jeff Weintraub

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