Imam Suetwidien Muhammad sits at the end of a long conference table, not just as the Imam anymore but as the president of the Muslim League of Voters for Delaware County. Political signs, maps of Philadelphia, and photographs of famous political figures cover the conference room walls inside Masjid Muhammad, a refurbished factory-now mosque in lower Germantown.
On the wall behind him Bill and Hillary Clinton pose with a younger Imam Muhammad. His cell phone buzzes softly by the minute while he waits for a his last appointment before our interview.
“I’ve met leaders from around the world” he begins.
The Muslim League of Voters for the Delaware Valley consists of over 55 Imams, each representing a mosque of constituents. Muhammad and his board have been endorsing local candidates for the last 10 years.
Along Germantown Avenue in lower Germantown, Muslim-owned businesses dominate the landscape. The two largest African-American Muslim populations reside in South and Northwest Philadelphia mostly thanks to the Nation of Islam, according to the Imam. There are an estimated 250,000 Muslims across Philadelphia.
The Imam sees Masjid Muhammad is a stronghold for the Germantown community. Muhammad says Muslims and non-Muslims alike send their children to the masjid for events because they know it’s safe. They offer free meals, computer classes, tax preparation, a boxing gym, barber shop and even a sit-down cafe inside the retro-fitted factory off of Belfield Ave.
One program, “Put down the guns, and pick up the gloves” is aimed at reducing the number of young people on the streets, and gang related crimes.
“These kids are on the same corner that their father was killed on,” he said. “We need to break the cycle.”
The program consists of setting up a boxing ring on the same street corners and offering a boxing competition between fighters from his own Muhammad Ali gym. At the same time, the masjid partners with local businesses and colleges to offer job and school applications.
In 2009 there was a match on Belfield and Penn Street. This summer another boxing match is going to be held in front of Martin Luther King High school near Price Street. Muhammad says funding has been the biggest difficulty in keeping these kinds of programs going.
“We know politicians, we are friendly with politicians, but its not like anyone is knocking on our door, trying to support the programs and efforts that we’ve been doing,” he said.
Why Milton Street?
Despite supporting elections for years, this election cycle is special for Imam Muhammad. Omar Sabir is the first Muslim candidate running for judgeship in the city of Philadelphia; he is running for traffic court judge.
Muhammad sees opportunity for Muslims in politics. He cites religious teachings that society needs spiritual, educational, economic and political influences to “bring the common people back to life.”
To this end, Imam Muhammad says he supports T. Milton Street for mayor despite his criminal convictions.
“From my understanding, he was arrested for not paying all of his taxes or something like that,” he says.
Street went to federal prison for three misdemeanor counts for failing to file tax returns.
The Imam says he sees Street’s brushes with corruption as nowhere near that of Bernie Madoff or the Wall Street bankers that were bailed out by the American tax-payers after the financial crisis.
Muhammad says crimes are all relative to the situation and it’s really an anyone but incumbent Mayor Michael Nutter campaign for him.
“If [Milton Street] was a person that robbed somebody, or killed somebody or sold some drugs – those are the kind of crimes that we are concerned with in our community, we would never support anything like that,” he says.
Imam Muhammad’s problem with Nutter stems from broken promises and the ways he sees Nutter’s policies impacting his neighborhood.
While in office, Mayor Michael Nutter promised a Commission on Muslim Affairs, but that never happened. The current committees include issues like civic engagement to public housing and ethnic minorities. These efforts are focused on being an intermediary between the Mayor and the community, especially for the census. An Interfaith committee is charged to represent all religions across the city to the Mayor but Imam Muhammad says it doesn’t play out like that.
“I’ve been an Islamic leader in this city for 20 years and I’ve experienced it for all 20 years,” he says. “It’s not really a big issue but as the Mayor of the city you represent all the citizens.” He says he gets the sense that leaders of Christian churches have far more influence in the city than do those from other religions.
In addition, the Nutter Administration’s handling of the Live Stop and the Stop and Frisk programs are serious issues for Imam Muhammad because they have such a large impact on quality of life in his community.
“I’ve seen them put families out in pouring down rain, make them walk from where they are with babies and children in tow, in their arms,” he says referring to an incident where a driver didn’t have updated registration on hand.
The Live Stop program was created in an effort to reduce the number of uninsured and improperly licensed drivers.
But the Imam says there is a way low income people get pinched between the program, driving laws that can be expensive to uphold, and inadequate public transportation.
“If you don’t have no car, you don’t have no job, you don’t have no home, the next thing you know you don’t have no wife,” he says, referring to a Muslim brother he knows who went through that kind of a scenario. “It’s a trickle-down effect.”
The Imam sees Milton Street as someone who understands the plight of the common person in Philadelphia – a people’s candidate more than Nutter. He says that even if Milton Street doesn’t win his support for him sends a message, “We want to let the mayor know, every citizen of this city counts.”
Currently, Muhammad says the Muslim community in Germantown has no strong political supporters whatsoever, “None” he says without hesitation.
Suddenly the glass door to the masjid offices opens and Cindy Bass, Eighth District Council hopeful walks in wearing a black suit. “Hello” she says softly as she passes by.
Close behind her is Donna Reed Miller’s former chief of staff, Steven Vaughn wearing a colorful African kufi hat.
The closed-door meeting between the three lasted about 20 minutes. Imam Muhammad’s endorsement of Bass isn’t a surprise, there are political signs for Bass outside the Masjid facing Belfield Ave.
The Imam declined to comment about the specifics of his meeting with Bass, but he warns that politicians who whisper sweet nothings need not apply.
“I don’t want [to hear] empty promises or politicians telling me things because they think that’s what I want to hear,” says Muhammad. “I just want the truth.”
The Imam says that compromises are rife in politics and has been disappointed before. He says he just wants to see his neighborhood get more support.
Muhammad says Milton Street did his time in prison and is ready to serve in office. “If the judge say it was okay for him to be on the ballot, then its okay for us to support him and vote for him.”
He says he feels similarly about Bass campaign volunteer Steven Vaughn, who went to prison for corruption while working in the Council office
The Imam says Bass is the candidate to win; it seems the endorsement is based on strategy. “We hope and pray that [Cindy Bass] brings to the community what she promises to bring to the community,” he says, and then a long pause. “If not, four years is not a long time.”
The Muslim League of Voters is planning to endorse Milton Street for Mayor, Curtis Jones for the 4th District, Cindy Bass for the 8th District, Ed Nessmith for Councilman-At-Large, Vincent Johnson and Mike Fannery for Judge Court of Common Pleas, Jewel Williams for Sheriff and Omar Sabir for traffic court judge.
This story has been revised. An earlier version incorrectly stated the crime that sent Street to prison. NewsWorks regrets the error.