Muslim mayor focuses on bread-and-butter issues

Mohammed Hameeduddin is not the first practicing Muslim mayor of a U.S. city. That was Charles Mustafa Bilal, who presided over Kountze, Texas, in the 1990s. Nor is Hameeduddin the first Muslim to become a mayor since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Wayne Smith was elected in Irvington, N.J., in 2002.

But Hameeduddin, in office since July, is no doubt the only Muslim mayor who on a recent Sunday could be found in a bagel shop crowded with Jewish constituents chatting about Islam and the Teaneck mosque’s expansion, as touchy a topic as anyone — much less a politician in a New York City suburb — could tackle nowadays.

But Teaneck might as well be across the world, not across the Hudson River, from Manhattan, where plans for an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site have fueled national debate and set the stage for a tense day Saturday as New Yorkers mark the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Teaneck officials will hold a short ceremony outside the municipal building, where a plaque honors the eight local residents killed on Sept. 11. About 15 miles away, in Lower Manhattan, opponents of the proposed Islamic center plan to hold a rally aimed at revving up opposition to the mosque and to Muslims in general.

“Everybody’s looking for someone to blame,” said Hameeduddin, who blames a fear of the future for some Americans’ current obsession with trouncing Islam. “You have an economy in very bad shape. You have an oil well that we couldn’t cap for months. Everyone is looking for a wedge issue.”

He accuses politicians of using religion, particularly Islam, to galvanize support for their campaigns.

That’s not to say that Teaneck, a leafy community of six square miles, has not had its share of bitterness. In 1990, riots tore through downtown after a white policeman fatally shot a black youth. Hameeduddin and the seven-member City Council faced public wrath for refusing to spend city funds to save a giant old oak tree, and for not backing down on school budget cuts. There were murmurs among some residents of racism and sexism in July when the council, which selects the mayor, voted for Hameeduddin over Lizette Parker, a black woman who had been deputy mayor.

“Teaneck is not Disneyland,” said Councilwoman Barbara Ley Toffler, who supported Parker over Hameeduddin.

The fact that the issues have not created crippling divisions among Teaneck’s diverse population of about 40,000 speaks to its history and to the socioeconomic equality of its residents.

“A Muslim family lives in the same kind of house as a black family, which lives in the same kind of house as an Orthodox Jewish family,” Toffler said. That diversity carries over to Teaneck’s local leadership, a mix of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, blacks, whites, Asians and Muslims, many of whom were childhood playmates in a community more tolerant than many.

In 1965, Teaneck became the first mainly white city in America to voluntarily desegregate its schools. Eight years later, Hameeduddin’s uncle bought a house in the town, one of the first Muslims to settle here. The first mosque went up in 1985 and now has a congregation of about 500 families. In February, the planning board voted 9-0 to approve its expansion. The population is about 56% white, 27% black, 10% Latino and 7% Asian.

Hameeduddin, a first-generation American of Indian descent, prays five times a day. A devout Muslim, he has traveled to Mecca for the Hajj, and he fasts during Ramadan. As he talked in the bagel shop, surrounded by people sipping coffee and sinking their teeth into fluffy rolls smeared with lox and cream cheese, Hameeduddin maintained his fast. When a local resident phoned him to request a meeting — not unusual in a city where local politicians’ e-mail addresses and cellphone numbers are posted online — Hameeduddin replied, “After Ramadan.”

He doesn’t restrict his religious commitment to Islam.

“He encourages me to be a better Jew,” joked city councilman and former mayor Elie Y. Katz, whom Hameeduddin sometimes reminds to go to synagogue. Katz, who ran Hameeduddin’s campaign, said the collective youth of Teaneck’s leaders has helped the city avoid the nationwide debate on Islam and immigration. The council is dominated by 30- and 40-somethings with young children, mortgages and jobs to supplement their $7,000 annual stipend for city service. Katz became Teaneck’s youngest mayor in 2006, when he was 31. His successor, Kevie Feit, was 37 when he left office this year. Hameeduddin, boyish and clean-shaven, also is 37.

Perhaps more than their elders, the leaders are consumed by the recession and more worried about saving money than about someone else’s prayer habits, Katz said.

In fact, when Katz and Hameeduddin discuss what they consider the key issues facing Teaneck and the rest of the country, they talk about taxes, budgets, housing and jobs. Not once do they mention immigration or religion. “That should be the topic of every politician: jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Hameeduddin, who says he was nudged into running for the two-year term by Katz.

At first, Adam Gussen, the deputy mayor, worried about the reaction of his Orthodox Jewish constituents when they were asked to sign a petition to put Hameeduddin on the mayoral ballot. “The question in my mind was, are we really going to get the Orthodox Jewish community to vote for a guy named Mohammed?” Gussen said.

But Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on Islamic-American Relations, said it is not surprising that Hameeduddin has Jewish fans. “The Jewish community has been targeted in the past and is still targeted in the same way that Muslims are targeted,” Hooper said. “There should be natural alliances there.”

Given his stature as one of a handful of Muslim mayors in the U.S., and Teaneck’s proximity to New York City, Hameeduddin has been called on to comment on the debate over Islam and the Lower Manhattan mosque. He appeared recently on CNN and on PBS’ “NewsHour.”

Hameeduddin says he has no desire for higher office. Between keeping his insurance business going, finding time to eat dinner with his wife, and answering e-mails and phone calls from constituents, this city keeps him busy enough.

Even Hameeduddin’s critics say race and religion never played a part in their opposition, and they’re surprised at the attention Teaneck has received for having a Muslim mayor. Some worry that Teaneck’s problems will be glossed over as people trumpet the city as a model of tolerance. Others fret that Hameeduddin’s newfound fame will make it harder for him to focus on local issues.

One such constituent is Art Vatsky, a local political gadfly who hopes that with the national spotlight on Teaneck, Hameeduddin will be more sensitive to the way local issues are handled. But getting an appointment with Hameeduddin is proving difficult for Vatsky, who has yet to meet with the mayor he calls Mohammed.

“When he’s in session, it’s Mayor,” Vatsky said. “But when we’re having coffee, it’s Mohammed.”