PATERSON, N.J. » At the Islamic Center of Passaic County, which draws about 2,000 people each Friday for communal prayers, the talk is about how this year is different.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, people of other faiths in the surrounding community were generally able to see the difference between the radical perpetrators and American Muslims, said Omar Awad, president of the center. But he suggested that distinction seems to be blurring in the public mind amid the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the presidential campaign and growing anger over terrorist strikes in Europe and the United States, the latest allegedly plotted by a New Jersey Muslim.
“They’re trying to strike fear between neighbors, between the very fabric of society that we spent so much time trying to make sure that we knitted,” said Awad, a New Jersey native, sitting in the offices of the 27-year-old Paterson mosque.
Like Muslims around the country, New Jersey’s have been slogging through a particularly painful year.
On the campaign trail, the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, falsely claimed that Muslims in Jersey City celebrated when the World Trade Center fell, as he sought to promote a proposed national database for Muslims and increased surveillance of mosques.
Gov. Chris Christie, who once sharply dismissed those who questioned the loyalty of a Muslim judicial appointee, has endorsed Trump.
And now New Jersey Muslims are facing the broad scrutiny that follows when someone in their community is suspected of being a militant. Ahmad Khan Rahami, a U.S. citizen born in Afghanistan, who worked at his family’s chicken takeout restaurant in Elizabeth, has been charged by federal officials in two states with planting bombs in New York and at a military charity run and a train station in New Jersey. Federal authorities said he praised Muslim extremists and prayed he’d be martyred.
“I don’t want the stigma to go out that there’s some kind of issue in Elizabeth, that it’s a hotbed for people with radical ideas, because it’s not,” said Hassen Abedellah, an attorney and Elizabeth native, who is president of the Darul Islam mosque in the city.
Abedellah said he was “in shock” when he learned that Rahami was being sought by police. Abedellah could not say for sure whether Rahami had ever worshipped at Darul Islam, but said the suspect could have passed through, since many Muslims in the community at one time or another have attended Friday prayers there.
It is the latest difficulty for one of the larger Muslim communities in the United States. Muslims comprise about 1 percent of the U.S. population, but make up about 3 percent of the residents in New Jersey, according to the Pew Research Center. New Jersey Muslims are predominantly African-American, Arab or South Asian, plus Muslim asylum seekers from the Balkans and elsewhere. Several Muslims serve as state judges and mayors, among other public positions.
In Elizabeth, Muslims have had a presence since at least the mid-20th century, developing mainly from a community of African-American Muslims and eventually growing to encompass immigrants from around the world, Abedellah said. Friday prayer at Darul Islam can draw as many as 500 people.
The Sept. 11 attacks hit hard in New Jersey. Hundreds of victims of the suicide hijackings came from the state. In the aftermath, Muslim leaders joined with other religious and community leaders to quell any backlash. Mohammad Ali Chaudry, a Pakistani-born economist who had lived in New Jersey since the 1970s, ran for public office in 2001 in Basking Ridge and said he encountered no bias.
“Not a single person during that walking campaign, going door to door, asked me what my religion was,” said Chaudry, who went on to serve on the township committee and, eventually, as mayor. “They were concerned about what am I going to do about the deer problem. We have a lot of deer. How am I going to keep taxes down?”
Still, suspicion followed the community. Reports by The Associated Press revealed that the New York Police Department had been monitoring the daily life of Muslims in New Jersey, New York and beyond, including monitoring the Muslim Students Association at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and Muslim businesses and mosques in Newark. New York City has since settled lawsuits accusing the department of waging a covert campaign of religious profiling and illegal spying.
“People felt very uncomfortable knowing that they are part of society but not really accepted as being part of the society,” said Mikal Nash, a professor at Essex County College in Newark and author of “Muslims in Newark, New Jersey: A Social History.”
New Jersey also found itself at the center of movement against Islamic law, or Shariah, in the U.S., after a state judge denied a woman a restraining order against her husband, who she said beat and sexually assaulted her. The judge said the husband’s Islamic religious views meant he believed he was entitled to sexual relations at any time with his wife — legal reasoning that Muslim law experts rejected and a ruling an appellate court later reversed. Yet, the case was seized on by advocates for bans on Islamic law in other states.
In New Jersey, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported to the government remains low but is increasing, rising from four in 2014 to 14 last year, according to researchers at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, Bernardino. But tensions can be seen in the vocal resistance to building mosques in some communities, with an ongoing fight in Bayonne and another in Basking Ridge that has stretched over four years and is now in court.
Christie’s political pivot has been especially disheartening for New Jersey Muslims. They had viewed the governor as a reliable ally. Five years ago, he drew notice for slamming critics of his decision to appoint an American Muslim, Sohail Mohammed, to the Superior Court. “They’re criticizing him because he’s a Muslim American,” Christie said, condemning conspiracists who argued Mohammed would bring Islamic law into state courts.
“This Shariah law business is crap. It’s just crazy. And I’m tired of dealing with the crazies,” Christie said.
Chaudry, a longtime Republican, said he was stunned when the governor backed Trump this year. Chaudry had worked with the New Jersey attorney general’s office on Muslim outreach and was appointed by Christie to a state commission on public service. But because of Trump, he left the GOP to join the Democrats, and has since been heavily involved in registering Muslims to vote, conducting outreach after Friday juma, or communal prayers, and surrounding the recent celebration of the Eid al-Adha holiday. He is also coordinating public speaker training for young people at his mosque.
“You have to be at the decision table,” Chaudry said.
Despite the tumult, and the glare from the Rahami case, New Jersey Muslims are persevering. The Islamic Center in Paterson is encouraging families to attend a holiday celebration called “Great Muslim Adventure Day” at the Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey. And next weekend in Elizabeth, where Rahami lived, more than 300 people are expected to attend the sixth annual meeting of the American Muslim Consumer Consortium, on marketing to Muslims and commemorating their achievements in the business world.
“I encourage Donald Trump and his supporters to come and see what the real American Muslim community in the U.S. is all about,” said Sabiha Ansari, a co-founder of the conference. “We are just as patriotic, proud and American as anyone else.”