Five candidates competing to become Sugar Land’s next mayor shared a stage on Saturday for a final debate before early voting this week. Candidates Harish Jajoo, Joe Zimmerman, Myatt Hancock, Kyle Stanley and Sarwar Khan hail from diverse backgrounds, ranging from car sales and logistics analysis to mortgage banking and civil engineering. The Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center in the greater Houston area opened up its space for this stirring debate attended by over 200 locals and live streamed on abc13.com.
Why did a Muslim place of worship host a political debate?
While the event was a debate for the candidates, the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center’s purpose for hosting it was to create dialogue. This Center is one of many sites across the country that incorporates spaces for spiritual contemplation and reflection, as well as for social, cultural and intellectual engagements. While a mosque or masjid is the religious building most often associated with Muslim piety, a range of spaces for worship and practice of the faith can be found throughout the Muslim world. For Ismailis, jamatkhana is the main space for social and communal gatherings, as well as for worship.
Led by His Highness the Aga Khan, a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, commonly known as the Ismailis, live in over 25 countries around the world. In 2002, the Aga Khan and Governor Rick Perry inaugurated the Center as a place for fostering an appreciation of pluralism and for enhancing relationships among faith communities. Over the years, the Center has become a focal point for events that stimulate the intellect, encourage dialogue, and celebrate cultural diversity in the greater Houston area.
“With programs such as today’s mayoral debate, we are proud of the potential the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center has in advancing the pursuit of learning and building trust across all communities that call Houston home,” said Murad Ajani, President of the Aga Khan Council for Southwestern United States. “We hope that today’s event shows that together we can facilitate dialogue and understanding, and thereby help create a truly pluralistic community.”
For Muslims, the spiritual and material aspects of life are intertwined. At the Center’s inauguration, the Aga Khan said, “Islam does not deal in dichotomies but in all encompassing unity. Spirit and body are one, man and nature are one. What is more, man is answerable to God for what man has created. Since all that we see and do resonates on the faith, the aesthetics of the environments we build and the quality of the interactions that take place within them reverberate on our spiritual lives.”
While the debate was political, the agenda wasn’t.
As the Aga Khan Council does not endorse a particular candidate, the purpose of the debate was simply to educate and inform — so the local residents can responsibly engage in their civic duties by learning about the candidates and their plans.
Sugar Land’s infrastructure, traffic and water resources were three topics where two of the five candidates, Jajoo and Zimmerman, both being engineers and current city council members, used their occupation and council experience to their advantage.
“Ours is a town that embraces family life, volunteerism and quality of life,” said Jajoo as he leaned towards a view that infrastructure plans should support the quality of life of Sugar Land’s residents. “I always pushed for a robust infrastructure as a council member,” he said.
A Sugar Land resident for three decades, Jajoo has a long record of public service and civic accomplishment. Similarly, Zimmerman, who is completing his fourth year on the Sugar Land City Council, benefits from the relationships he has created along the way.
“I am the only candidate to receive the endorsement of current mayor James Thompson,” said Zimmerman before he moved on to include that his business experience is also what sets him apart. “If we run the city like a business, it’s the business experience that will make a difference,” he said.
Though not a council member, Hancock has been active in the Sugar Land community for the last 16 years. Knowing the city as an active citizen and serving on boards, he expressed what it’s like to be engaged as a citizen.
“It’s not enough for the city to just post city council meetings online,” Hancock said as he talked about how the residents have families and lives that making it to a city council meeting or reading its minutes isn’t sufficient. “It’s not enough to just say that you had your chance to attend…the city should actively reach out for active engagement,” he said.
While some candidates can use their track record and past experiences to their benefit, Stanley, the youngest candidate, doesn’t have years of experience to share, but brings a fresh perspective to the table.
“We take great pride in our diversity,” said Stanley, who added that in order to involve diverse viewpoints, “I would have an open door policy as a mayor.” Then, he took it a step further by adding the importance of diversity in economic and socio-economic decisions as well.
The final candidate, Khan, is a family man and a resident of Fort Bend County for the past 28 years. He supports bringing more corporations to Sugar Land.
“Strength of local economy depends on its current corporate citizens,” he said. “We need to invite corporations to Sugar Land.”
While the debate surfaced several disagreements on policy issues, the candidates did agree on the strong opinion that Sugar Land’s cultural diversity is an advantage. Thus, it was fitting for the debate to be held at the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center — a trusted meeting point for dialogue among diverse communities and faiths.
Four civic-minded partners, including the Aga Khan Council for the Southwestern United States, ABC Channel 13, The League of Women Voters Education Fund Of Houston, and the University of Houston Student Government Association, came together to produce the debate.