Samier Dandan is pretty clear about what he wants for Australian Muslims. Sydney’s growing Muslim community has been ignored for too long, he reckons, and needs to unite and become a political force to be reckoned with.
So far, Dandan’s biggest power play was at last year’s NSW state election, where the savvy operator publicly threw the Lebanese Muslim Association’s support behind Liberal candidates in south-west Sydney — where the Muslim population is as high as 17%.
Based out of the Sunni Lakemba mosque, one of the biggest in the country, the message for the ALP was loud and clear: you’ve ignored us for too long.
“We’re a growing community, so where are the services? Our youth get no services, our elderly no services, employment, no service, hospitals atrocious, our schools — don’t even talk about it, go and have a look at our schools,” he told The Australian last year in the lead-up to the NSW poll.
“Are we not getting the services because we’re Muslim or because these are safe Labor seats?”
The swing may have been on, but even in Labor’s heartland there was devastation. Of the seats targeted by Dandan, Granville changed hands with a 13.8% shift to the Liberal Party, while Bankstown (13.9% against Labor), Lakemba (27%), Canterbury (17.7%) and Auburn (20.5%) all recorded higher swings than the state average.
“Until what Samier accomplished in the last NSW state election, no one had previously ever attempted to galvanise the ‘Muslim vote’,” says Ahmed Kilani, editor of MuslimVillage.com. “If you do galvanise it, it is quite powerful — more so on a state level, but it can also be very influential on a federal level in a number of seats.”
Kilani says there has been a “dramatic” shift in political attitude towards Sydney’s Muslim community from before the election and afterwards. He puts this down in part to the efforts of Dandan, who he says does not support either party: “He’ll back whoever can give the best deal for the community.”
“Before they didn’t return phone calls, didn’t want to see you. Now it’s like ‘can we come to this, can you give us advice on this and advice on that’,” he tells The Power Index.
A computer engineering graduate with corporate connections across the Middle East, Asia and the Gulf, Dandan approaches his role at the LMA in the same practical manner you would imagine he runs one of his many businesses.
”We are moving to corporatise this organisation,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald last year. “That depends on donations from the community … This is the type of image we need to provide to access these funds.”
A member of the Arabic Chamber of Commerce, he also sat on John Howard’s Muslim Reference Group. He also has responsibility for the Lakemba mosque, which drew media attention when a top al-Qaeda recruiter was revealed to have allegedly addressed a youth group. Controversial imam Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilaly is based at Lakemba.
Still, Dandan’s political push does not seem to be overtly religious, otherwise we’d have him a bit higher up the list. He has stated that the community “do not want any more mosques”; they want services.
“We’re not just supporting Muslims, we’re supporting anyone who will add value in those seats,” he said last year. “We need to unite this community so we can be taken seriously politically.”