Young, Muslim and progressive: is another AOC-style upset brewing in New York?
Steinway is a bustling and noisy street in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria. The area locally referred to as “Little Egypt” is brimming with people grocery shopping and bicyclists rushing in and out of shawarma shops to deliver their next order. It’s a north African, south-west Asian neighborhood made up of small businesses like halal butcher shops, hookah lounges and Middle Eastern restaurants.
For Rana Abdelhamid, this neighborhood is home. On 14 April, Abdelhamid announced her run against the incumbent Democratic congresswoman Carolyn Maloney to represent New York’s 12th congressional district, a region made up of a significant portion of Manhattan’s East Side, Astoria and north Brooklyn. It ranges from the fantastically wealthy penthouse apartments that line Manhattan’s Central Park to the struggling working-class areas where Abdelhamid grew up.
If elected, Abdelhamid would be one of the youngest members to ever serve in Congress and the third Muslim woman ever elected to the House.She has received the endorsement of Justice Democrats, a powerful progressive activist group that was instrumental in the victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman in their respective New York primary elections.
Just as AOC and Bowman beat long-established Democrats and then rapidly ascended to prominence on left of the party, so Justice Democrats hope Abdelhamid will continue the trend of a leftwing revolution sweeping across New York City that has already had a major impact on national American politics.
“My history in this district is rooted in my organizing, in my community, in my spirituality, in my education. I feel really connected. It comes from a place of love. This is why I’m doing it,” she told the Guardian in an interview at an outdoor cafe in Astoria.
Abdelhamid is confident she can win too.
“[Justice Democrats] know we can win this. It gives me, my team and my community a lot of confidence. It makes me feel like I’m a part of a broader movement – a movement for progressive politics in this country,” she said.
In Maloney, Abdelhamid faces a formidable appointment. Maloney, who has been in office since before her opponent was born, is one of the most senior Democrats in the House. The chair of the powerful oversight committee, Maloney has called herself a progressive in the past but Abdelhamid said that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“This is someone who voted yes on the Iraq war. Quite frankly, leadership isn’t just a word. It’s a practice. It’s outcomes. It’s how you’re connected to communities. It’s how people who are represented experience life. If she’s calling herself a progressive, it’s because she understands the tide is turning. People want to elect progressives. She recognizes that,” she said.
Twenty twenty-one is shaping up to be a busy year for the 27-year-old political hopeful who began her campaign just one day after the start of Ramadan. On top of hitting the campaign trail and planning a wedding, Abdelhamid is now also fasting. The young candidate has already had to break her fast in the middle of meetings, but she called the chaotic timing of her political debut “actually kind of beautiful”.
Abdelhamid’s father ran a highly sought after halal deli, one of the first of its kind in the community. When he couldn’t make the rent to keep the shop open, the business closed and he drove a taxi cab to make ends meet.
Born to Egyptian immigrant parents, Abdelhamid grew up in a one-bedroom apartment alongside her three siblings in the 12th district. Now, she’s looking for a chance to represent it.
“A lot of working-class immigrants came here in the 80s and early 90s, like my father and my mom. They basically built this neighborhood from scratch. There were no shops like this,” she said, pointing to Duzan, the quick and casual Middle Eastern shawarma restaurant behind her. “There was one Greek pastry shop. There was definitely no mosque. I saw growing up how aunties and uncles built these institutions, built these small businesses with so little. Mothers selling their gold as Egyptian women to be able to fundraise to build these walls.”
Steinway is now home to the Al-Iman Mosque, a tall, bright pink center point in the street. The grand building replaced a smaller version nextdoor due to a growing demand for a place of worship for Muslims in the area. For Abdelhamid, it served as a community center where she could make friends and take karate lessons, in which she now has a first-degree black belt.
In the years following the attacks of 9/11, she recalled her mosque being surveilled by the FBI and NYPD advertisements for voluntary informants.
“Overnight, I was seen as a Muslim. They would make terrorist jokes [at school] and so I felt a deep sense of isolation. People were very scared. They would change their name if they could. For me, this neighborhood was so important because I went to the mosque every single week. It was the only place where I felt not ashamed of my identity as a young girl. Where people said my name right. I felt comfortable in hijab and didn’t feel the need to take it off as soon as I walked down the street,” she said.
At a time when Muslim American women were removing their hijabs out of fear of being profiled or harassed, Abdelhamid decided to embrace one. Two years later, she was attacked by a man who tried to rip off her headscarf.
“Right after that incident, I just remember not speaking. I remember that because I talk a lot. I didn’t tell my parents for such a long time. My parents were scared and heartbroken but also defiant. That gave me strength. They’re not scared and I shouldn’t be scared either. For a lot of Muslim women post 9/11, it was a reclamation of identity. Definitely early on, when I wore my hijab, it was an act of ‘I‘m not gonna be ashamed. I’m going to be proud. I’m not going to fall to these narratives that are vilifying people that I love the most.’ ”
Maloney was criticized for a 2001 stunt in which she donned a burqa on the House floor in an attempt to garner support for the United States invasion of Afghanistan. In her speech, she said: “I salute the Bush administration for balancing war with compassion, for dropping food as well as bombs,” which struck a chord with Abdelhamid who said she feared for her and her mother’s life at the time.
“This is someone who wore a burqa on the House floor as a costume. When you look at the time in which she did that, as hijab-wearing women, we were afraid to walk down the street,” Abdelhamid said. “To this day, women who wear hijab, burqa, niqab are criminalized across the world. She was wearing it to justify a narrative that we are oppressed. My activism and organizing started both because of my class identity and because of my ethno-religious identity growing up Muslim in post-9/11 New York. They are both connected to this neighborhood.”
At the top of Abdelhamid’s agenda is housing justice. Abdelhamid herself has been priced out of her neighborhood, along with her family, which means she does not live in the district – a fact the New York State Democratic Committee was quick to point out.
“Right now, my family and I live a couple of blocks outside of the district. Like many working-class people, you don’t base where you live off district lines, it’s based off of community and where you can afford to live,” she said.
A staunch supporter of AOC’s Green New Deal for public housing, Abdelhamid blames gentrification and soaring rent prices for her family’s living situation which forced them to move several times throughout her childhood.
“I remember the first time we received an eviction notice. Our landlord sold the business to a developer and just kept increasing the rent. They were really trying to push us out. Oftentimes, it happens when there are massive real estate developers that don’t take into account the cultural needs, the economic needs, the needs of working-class communities, the needs of communities that built neighborhoods,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman won their elections while Trump, who served to galvanize progressives, was in office. Asked if she was worried about energizing leftwing support post-Trump, Abdelhamid said: “I’m not concerned. I feel really strongly that we’ll be able to excite young people, people of color, Black folks, working-class people, immigrant communities across this district. Anyone who is really excited about a progressive ideology who wants to see something different is going to rally behind this campaign. People understand that progressive movement and progressive change is a long fight that is not going to happen overnight. The change that we’re seeking is going to require sustained levels of organizing, and this is part of that.”
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