Making sure Muslim voices are heard in Philly mayor’s race

Emgage Muslim vote
Then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, Salima Suswell and Joe Khan attend the Emgage Pennsylvania Gala in October 2022.
Emgage Pennsylvania

Candidates, in the run-up to an election, often meet with pastors and other community leaders to hear their concerns and seek their support.

At least one group is trying to make sure mayoral and City Council hopefuls pay just as much attention to Philadelphia’s sizable Muslim community.

Emgage Pennsylvania, the local chapter of a national Muslim civic engagement organization, is interviewing contenders in the city’s 2023 primary for mayor and plans to issue an endorsement after a candidate forum next month.

“We’re asking mayoral candidates to pay attention to Muslim Philadelphians and hear the needs of our community,” Salima Suswell, the state branch’s executive director, told Metro.

Suswell, who has been active in politics for about 15 years, working on numerous local campaigns, said Emgage’s goal is to increase interest and participation in the upcoming municipal primary and general elections.

Emgage employs a four-person staff in Pennsylvania and usually hires 10 canvassers to go door-to-door closer to Election Day.

Within the Muslim community, gun violence, education and voting rights seem to be the top issues for voters, Suswell said.

Headquartered in Washington D.C, Emgage has an advocacy arm and its own political committee, and the organization also has a presence in Florida, Michigan, New York, Texas and Virginia.

Salima Suswell is the executive director of Emgage Pennsylvania.Emgage Pennsylvania

Suswell’s Pennsylvania team is holding a mayoral forum March 18 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Masjidullah Center for Human Excellence, a large mosque in Cedarbrook, in partnership with the Muslim League of Voters of Delaware Valley and the Pennsylvania Muslim Civic Table.

Emgage will make an endorsement for mayor later in March, Suswell said, and a similar event for Council candidates is scheduled for April.

“What we’re telling elected officials is they must earn the Muslim vote in our city, particularly the Black Muslim vote because there’s a very large Black Muslim population in Philadelphia,” Suswell said.

Philadelphia, once referred to as “Muslim Town” in a Washington Post headline and the “Mecca of the West” in a Billy Penn article, has among the highest concentration of people identifying with the religion (4%) out of any large county in the U.S., according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

Emgage estimates that there are about 300,000 Muslims living in Philadelphia. Several elected leaders – including Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., City Commissioner Omar Sabir and state Sen. Sharif Street – belong to the faith community, Suswell noted.

“We know that we have the power to sway any election in the city of Philadelphia and across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” she added. “We’re incredibly influential.”

In addition to a longstanding African American Islam community, there are also Arab American, South Asian and Spanish-speaking Muslim communities in the city, she said, adding that Emgage wants to pull those diverse groups together.

“I think it’s important that elected officials know that we will be holding them accountable as they earn our vote,” Suswell said.