Jetpac Gets Muslim Voices into Politics

JetpacPhoto courtesy of Jetpac.

When Nadeem Mazen ran for city council in 2013, he was elected by just six votes, becoming the state’s first Muslim city councilor. In 2015, he got more votes than any other candidate.

His reelection strategy challenged general campaign wisdom. His team chose not to limit their focus to the fraction of the population that consistently votes. Instead, they ran a grassroots campaign powered by personal interactions, reaching out to their Facebook networks individually and utilizing Instagram before it reached today’s massive popularity.

The results were enormous: In addition to Mazen’s resounding reelection, the campaign also succeeded in tripling turnout from Muslim voters, according to the team.

Usually campaign infrastructure is broken down after an election, Shaun Kennedy, Mazen’s 2015 deputy campaign manager, explains.

“2016, for instance, Hillary’s campaign built so much stuff from scratch—I’m talking analytics dashboards, all of the infrastructure that goes into a campaign,” he says. “And end of 2016, it gets broken down, and the next person that does it has to build it back up again. It’s this cycle of spinning resources and time, because there’s not a lot of sharing around it.”

The campaign staff decided to take a different approach: to try to replicate their success by supporting Muslim candidates running for any elected office all over the country.

They became the team of Jetpac (Justice Education Technology Political Advocacy Center). The nonprofit trains Muslim candidates using the strategies of Mazen’s 2015 campaign and ever-evolving grassroot approaches.

“We figured, rather than make this about one man and break down everything that we’d built up, we would try and form an organization around it, scale it, and see who else we could teach to do the same thing,” says Kennedy, who co-founded Jetpac with Mazen and serves as its executive director.

Muslims are underrepresented in U.S. politics. Despite there being almost 3.5 million Muslims in the country, according to NPR, Jetpac reports that under 300 are elected officials. 

“American Muslims have been largely absent from politics,” the Jetpac website says. “We are now living with the consequences: lack of political representation, discriminatory policies, Islamophobic rhetoric, and a 600 percent increase in hate crimes against American Muslims since 2014.”

The one-on-one training emphasizes the importance of digital engagement, peer-to-peer networking, and making contact with people who don’t regularly vote. That process can also help to get minority voices involved in politics, Kennedy explains.

“People are still really caught up with the idea that people who vote, vote and people who don’t vote won’t,” he says. “Even when I’m training someone who’s in the fellowship, they’ll go out and have a meeting with a consultant, who says, ‘No, you can only focus on this 10 percent of the population that has voted consistently in the last five elections that they were able to.’ They see it as a question of resources.”

“It’s always an older crowd,” he adds of the group who consistently votes. “Almost invariably over 50, almost invariably white, almost invariably have lived in the city for a while. So what we’re doing speaks to a younger population, it speaks to newly registered voters, it’s talking to renters.”

For the 33 candidates Jetpac has trained—13 of whom have won their races—making contact with non-voters has been enough to increase voter turnout, according to Kennedy, who says their margins of victory have corresponded with jumps in turnout.

“So often we get caught in these silos—I think that social media increases that, I think that the polarization of our politics increases that—and the more we bridge those boundaries, the more likely we are to get people engaged and interested,” he says.

Jetpac also trains candidates on how to deal with the Islamophobia they’ll inevitably face during their race. The Jetpac team experienced that challenge firsthand just after Mazen’s reelection, when Breitbart spread Islamophobic lies about him. One thing the campaign focused on was combating Breitbart’s successful search engine optimization by getting him coverage in other media, pushing the Breitbart article back in Google results.

“[Muslims are] the easy boogeyman of this generation,” Kennedy says. “Anyone who does want to rise to the challenge and run for office and challenge the status quo has to be ready. It’s about making sure that the narrative that they’re pushing doesn’t become your narrative as well. You can’t buy into it by getting defensive … you can’t be apologetic for perversions of Islam that have nothing to do with the real Islam.”

“You’ve got to talk about what you’re really there to talk about, which, for the most part, is the same issues that everyone else wants to talk about—it’s universal healthcare, it’s affordable housing,” he adds. “There’s this idea that there are American Muslim issues, and there’s not, there’s just American issues.”

That’s something that Kennedy emphasizes: that American Muslims are a microcosm of the rest of the population in many ways, that they are more racially and economically diverse than they are perceived and that they face the same struggles as other Americans.

Jetpac also brings civic education to teenagers. What started as an AP-accredited U.S. Government and Politics course has morphed into a weekend youth training program that helps promote “messaging against Islamophobia,” Kennedy explains. The program draws parallels between founding U.S. values, such as those written in the Constitution, and those of the Quran.

“That, for me, is a counter narrative to the Islamophobia that they hear, because a lot of what is put out there by the alt-right is telling them that their faith is not congruent with being American,” Kennedy says. “We want to make sure that they are fully aware that what is being said about them is false, so that they’re able to have a good sense of identity.”

Jetpac’s goal for the future is to open chapters in other states, while maintaining an emphasis on grassroots organizing. Kennedy envisions first chapters would be in places where they’ve already worked, such as Illinois, New Jersey, and Michigan, but they also aim to set up shop in more conservative parts of the country.

“We want to break out of this fact where people maybe see, ‘Oh, you did it in Cambridge, but Cambridge is progressive,’ because we can do this anywhere,” Kennedy says. “It’s not just going to be elite, coastal, northern, progressive hubs.”

For more information, call (626) 538-7221 or visit jet-pac.com.

This story originally appeared in the Voices of the City Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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