BOSTON >> The Bay State Muslim community on Thursday sought to assert itself at the State House in the areas of housing, schools and criminal justice.
"We are numerous, we are well-resourced, and we are involved in the highest levels in social justice organizing, so it makes sense that we would also be showing up at the State House," Nadeem Mazen told the News Service.
In the first annual Muslim Day on the Hill, members of the religious community pushed for bills to boost housing production (H 1111), bar the arrest of students for non-violent classroom disruption (H 1623/ S 842), and an omnibus bill (H 1429/ S 64) aiming to reduce the prison population through sentencing reform and job training.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors on Thursday backed federal criminal justice reform legislation that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said would give judges "greater discretion at sentencing for lower-level drug crimes."
The state bill seeking to decriminalize disruptive classroom behavior, filed by Rep. Benjamin Swan, a Springfield Democrat, and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, cleared the House last session.
That legislation is currently in the Judiciary Committee, and Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who attended the beginning of the lobby day's rally in Nurses Hall, told the News Service he did not know enough about it to have an opinion on it.
Sawsan Berjawi, the principal of Alhuda Academy in Worcester, said she deals "with a lot of misconduct," but believes classroom discipline should be under the jurisdiction of the school rather than the police.
"They're schoolkids and they're still growing up," Berjawi told the News Service.
Berjawi said Muslim students in public schools also need protection. She said at a public school in Brighton school this year, a cafeteria worker called the police on a Muslim student who had requested a meal conforming with the halal dietary restrictions against pork.
Imam Taymullah Abdur-Rahman, who teaches at the Harvard Divinity School and worked as a chaplain in the state prison system from 2002 to 2012, said he had seen the consequences of imprisoning non-violent offenders and recalled an incident early in his life when he was "a young kid who made a mistake" and was granted a second chance by a judge.
"It could have been the beginning of my undoing," said Abdur-Rahman, who said he was a "Bostonian before I became a Muslim."
The housing bill, sponsored by House chairman of the Housing Committee, Rep. Kevin Honan, and backed by his Senate co-chairwoman, Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, would require multifamily zoning in each community, while leaving it to local officials where to zone for that type of construction, according to the Citizens' Housing and Planning Partnership Association.
"The housing that is being built is not affordable. The housing that is being built is geared towards a certain income level," said Malika MacDonald-Rushdan, director of the Massachusetts field office of ICNA Relief USA, a Muslim organization that "seeks to alleviate human suffering by providing caring and compassionate service to victims of adversities and survivors of disasters."
Last week, Mazen topped the ticket in his run for re-election to the Cambridge City Council, according to unofficial results. He said he is the only Muslim city councilor in the state and said there are no state elected Muslims, though he suspects a town office may contain a Muslim elected official.
"We say that. We've never been corrected yet, so I think that's probably accurate," Mazen said.
Across the globe, Muslims and others fleeing conflict in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are collectively part of what the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and others have termed "the largest refugee crisis since World War II."
Mazen said that while the Muslim community in the State House Thursday has more local concerns, he will be pushing for Massachusetts, other states and the country as a whole to welcome more refugees.
In a Sept. 10 briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the nation is "on track" to take in about 1,500 Syrian refugees in the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30 and President Barack Obama has pushed for preparations to accept "at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year," a number Mazen described as "paltry."
"I think we'll have a huge say in the number of people who make their way into this state versus others, and I think they'll have a huge say in the number of people who make it into this country in general," Mazen told the News Service. "And 10,000, I think is widely seen as a kind of paltry attempt to approach the issue. We really need to be talking in numbers that are much closer to European numbers."
Mazen said people are "willing to give," and he said progressives, no matter their religious affiliation, want an alternative to the "weird post-colonial nation-building exercise" in the Middle East and North Africa.
"Why do we have to have disaster after disaster?" Mazen asked.
Ahead of Monday's event, Charles Jacobs, the president of the Boston-based Americans for Peace and Tolerance, took aim at one of the rally's organizers - the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Massachusetts - calling it a "radical organization."
Jacobs said an interfaith group advised lawmakers about CAIR, stating it is designated as a terrorist group by the United Arab Emirates and that the U.S. Justice Department censured other federal bodies "for speaking with CAIR," which he said had been linked to the terrorist group Hamas.
"We're the most vocal critic of Islamophobia and practices that are against the civil rights of Muslims around the world, so it's not surprising that we attract groups such as Mr. Jacobs's, who receives funding from groups that also fund hate groups," said John Robbins, executive director of CAIR Massachusetts. Robbins said CAIR works with the FBI on civil rights issues.
CAIR has a section of its website devoted to responding to dispelling rumors, and a lengthy CAIR report on Jacobs's group, says, "Media outlets and political figures should be highly suspicious of their claims, which have been misleading or outright fabricated in the past."
Last November in response to the designation from the United Arab Emirates, CAIR stated, "We are seeking clarification from the government of the United Arab Emirates about this shocking and bizarre report. There is absolutely no factual basis for the inclusion [of] CAIR and other American and European civil rights and advocacy groups on this list. Like the rest of the mainstream institutions representing the American Muslim community, CAIR's advocacy model is the antithesis of the narrative of violent extremists."
The U.S. Census Bureau "does not collect data on religious affiliation in its demographic surveys or decennial census," it wrote on its website. The Pew Research Center reported in May that Muslims have grown as a part of the American population, reaching nearly 1 percent. CAIR's Robbins said he has heard there are about 60,000 Muslims in the Greater Boston area, but he said he could not vouch for that number.