Bomb case is latest hardship for NJ’s large Muslim community

Published 10:30 am Friday, September 30, 2016

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.

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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.