New Jersey Arab mayor urges community to engage Americans first before Middle East
Mohamed T. Khairullah, the mayor of the borough of Prospect Park in New Jersey, said on Wednesday that Arab and Muslim Americans should prioritize becoming fully engaged and successful in America over focusing on foreign policy.
Khairullah, who was the guest on the Ray Hanania Show on the US Arab Radio Network sponsored by Arab News, said he was not suggesting that what happens in the Middle East wasn’t important.
The Syrian American immigrant, who entered politics in April 2001, said that Arabs and Muslims could be more effective in helping people back home if they became successful as leaders in the communities where they lived in America.
“I am very proud of who I am and where I come from. But I think when it comes to politics, we need to vote as Americans. We need to vote based on issues. And unfortunately, communities get played based on ethnicities. It’s the divide-and-conquer type of situation and we need to get above that to electing good politicians that will move our local communities and essentially our nations forward,” Khairullah said.
“My position as mayor is all about policy. But when you call me and say I want you to speak to Arab Americans, absolutely 100 percent. But when I am at City Hall I don’t talk about Arabs or Muslims, I talk about issues and that is what we have to do. But that doesn’t take me away from being an Arab or a Muslim, and when I go into the community I want to motivate them. I want to listen to their issues. And I listen to the issues of Latinos, and African Americans and so on and so forth. Part of my success was because I built coalitions so those are extremely important for our community.”
Khairullah said that Arab and Muslim Americans must be “fully engaged” at all levels of American life first as a foundation to then make a difference for their people back home overseas.
“We need to be in all aspects of life. We need to be in unions. We need to be teachers. We need to be nurses. We need to be police officers. Everything that is a part of American life. If you are living in the US, you have to be a part of the society. That doesn’t mean you have to lose your identity but you do have to be a part of the larger society,” Khairullah said.
Khairullah said that his family left Syria in 1980 during the first uprising against Syria’s strongman Hafez Assad. He said that his grandfather was a sheikh at a local mosque who was targeted by the Assad regime because of his activism. The family fled first to Saudi Arabia, where they found support, and then later immigrated to the US.
He said that he immediately became active in his new American local community, volunteering in a hospital and later serving as a volunteer firefighter. In April 2001, after becoming a US citizen, Khairullah ran for public office, winning a seat on the Prospect Park Borough council in New Jersey. In 2005, Khairullah was elected mayor of the borough where he continues to serve.
“The fact that I was engaged in my community. The fact that people recognized who I am as Mohamed Khairullah, as a person who is a volunteer, who put his life on the line to save lives and property, I think that is key in our engagement in our local communities,” Khairullah said.
“People need to know us for who we are as individuals rather than what the media tells them about us. And that is what elevates us within our local communities.”
Khairullah won his election after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, which was very close to New Jersey.
“You have to be a global citizen. One of my mottos is act locally, think globally. What goes on around the world definitely pertains to us. So, when we act like we live in our own tower and what happens is not going to affect us, it definitely does affect us,” he said.
“It is definitely important that you do attach to your heritage. But that doesn’t make you less patriotic. That doesn’t make you less of a person that wants to serve the local community.”
Khairullah makes his five children speak Arabic at home and he doesn’t allow them to speak English in the home, to strengthen their bond to their Arab heritage, but he said that they needed to engage in American society fully.
“What positive contributions do you add to your local community and to the larger society as a whole? What impressions do you leave in the world after you are gone? Did you raise good children who are going to serve their communities and their humanity?” Khairullah asks.
“When I was first elected 21 years ago, I think you could count the Muslim or Arab officials on one hand. Now New Jersey, one of the smallest states in the country in terms of geography size, has probably the most number of Muslim elected officials pound-per-pound compared to any state. We have over 30 right now at many levels. We just broke the glass ceiling of having Muslim elected officials in the State House.”
Khairullah said that he has a simple but important motto by which he conducts his life.
“Politics is the art of who gets what, when, how and why. Your taxes are being collected by the government that is run by people who either represent or don’t represent your values,” Khairullah said.
“So, if you want people who represent your values, you need to get engaged, you need to vote or you need to run yourself. Otherwise, they are going to make decisions that may not please you and then all that you are going to do is sit down and complain about it, and complaining about it is not going to get us anywhere.”
- The Ray Hanania Radio Show is broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News live every Wednesday at 5 p.m. EST in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Washington D.C. on WDMV AM 700. It is rebroadcast on Thursdays at 7 a.m. EST in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 radio and in Chicago at 12 noon on WNWI AM 1080. Listen to the Ray Hanania podcast here.