Columns DIY Faith Opinion Simran Jeet Singh: Articles of Faith

Meet Sadaf Jaffer, America’s first female Muslim mayor

Sadaf Jaffer, center, is sworn in as the mayor of Montgomery, N.J., for 2019 as her husband and daughter look on. Her mayoral oath was administered by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. Photo courtesy of Montgomery Township

(RNS) — Last month, Sadaf Jaffer was sworn in as mayor of Montgomery Township, N.J., a bucolic, if rapidly growing, municipality of about 25,000 just north of Princeton. In that moment, Jaffer became the country’s first female Muslim mayor, first female Pakistani-American mayor and first female South Asian-American mayor.

She might also be the first American mayor with a doctorate from Harvard who specializes in Islam, gender studies and South Asian history. Mayor Jaffer also serves as a postdoctoral research associate in South Asian studies at Princeton University, where she teaches courses on South Asian, Islamic and Asian-American studies.

I had the opportunity to speak with Jaffer about her journey, including what it means to be a political trailblazer and how her unique academic background contributes to her new role. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you decide to run for mayor?

I decided to run for public office because I didn’t see my values reflected in my elected officials. I’ve been a scholar and activist for some time. If you keep advocating to people who just don’t share your values, you eventually hit a wall. I also believe we shouldn’t ask others to do something we’re not willing to do ourselves. If I want people from diverse backgrounds to run for office, I should also be willing to do it myself.

How does your faith inform your work?

Growing up as a Shia Muslim, I always had this sense that we should fight injustice wherever we find it. Since I decided to pursue research on Islam in South Asia for my Ph.D., I’ve also come to see the ways in which religion and culture have always been intertwined and I find much hope in how cosmopolitan societies have functioned in the past. They certainly weren’t perfect, but I see the Islamic past as one of great beauty and cultural efflorescence. That inspires me for the future.

It’s rare for someone in U.S. politics to have your academic background. Can you talk about how your training as a scholar of Islam, gender and South Asia might bolster your work?

I think the greatest challenge we face in the United States right now is the fraying of our social fabric, so my background in arts, literature and cultural studies has proved especially useful in bringing people together. When an anti-Muslim bias crime happened in my town, I was able to tap into my experience teaching a course on South Asian-American literature and film to provide resources to government officials about Islamophobia as racism.

I’ve also started a monthly discussion group called Montgomery Mosaic, which is affiliated with the national Not in Our Town movement. This has been very impactful in bringing people together in order to understand our common humanity.

You’re not the only Muslim woman to be blazing a trail this year in politics. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are now the first Muslim women to serve in Congress. What does it mean to you to be the first female Muslim mayor in the U.S.?

I’m proud to be an example of what is possible for Muslim women in our political system. We stand on the shoulders of generations of activists who have made these opportunities possible. I hope my example helps provide a different vision of what it means to be a Muslim woman in America today and the diversity of perspectives and skills we bring to the table.

I would also say that I hope this helps people understand the importance of getting involved at the local level. Too often, people are so focused on the national and the international that we forget about the local. I hope more people will volunteer and run for local office. We all win when more members of our society are informed and active in their communities.

About the author

Simran Jeet Singh

Simran Jeet Singh is a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary and senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition. He is also the host for "Spirited," a new interview-based podcast on faith, spirituality, and activism.

11 Comments

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  • Sadaf Jaffer wrote a note [Ref 1]. An excerpt from that note:

    “… the similar understanding of the essence of Islam among violent Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim bigots. For both groups, Islam is a narrow, rule-bound entity that has an unchanging core.”

    It’s good that she is thinking in this way. It’s a sign of breaking free of the colonial mentality that the social sciences shove on subjects of the former British Raj.

    I speculate this is why she does not wear the hijab. I have a strong suspicion that the hijab is an index that your understanding of Islam is mediated via the social sciences.

    Ref 1

    https://www.fpri.org/article/2017/12/finding-hope-islamic-history/

  • Very proud yet very humble lady. You don’t hear the name Sadaf Jaffer being promoted nor even mentioned within the Islamists’ circles in the USA. I am a recovered Islamist ex”Sunni.” Shia Islam is the only antidote to Islamists’ corrupt dogma of violence and terrorism.

  • “I decided to run for public office because I didn’t see my values reflected in my elected officials.” No wonder. This is America. I would not expect to see my values reflexed in Pakistan.

  • So like London, which also has a Muslim mayor, we expect to see weekly beheadings, closure of places selling pork and alcohol and all women are required to wear head scarfs or burkhas. /s

    Christians in public office have a far worse record for attacking the rights of their citizens in this country than any other religious group.

  • Of course in your eyes. There have been mostly Christian representatives, Tater Tot. That’s a duh statement.
    You just have to give islam a chance.

  • Bloomberg isn’t Christian, and he did a pretty fair job of attacking the rights of citizens in NYC.

  • I’ve noticed the people most likely to be afraid of politicians of a minority faith are the ones least likely to respect rule of law and our constitution.

  • Nothing I said has been denied or refuted.

    But I have noticed the people most afraid of “creeping Sharia” are the ones with the least respect for the first amendment. What would protect us from intrusions of religious dogma into our laws.

  • “What would protect us from intrusions of religious dogma into our laws.”

    You mean things like making murder and theft illegal?

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