Muslims in New York live under shadow of fear as hate crimes rise

Community members gather during funeral prayers for shooting victims Imam Maulama Akonjee and friend Thara Uddin on Aug. 15, 2016 in New York. [Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images]

Imam Ali Mashhour walked through rows of more than 2,000 congregants attending a Friday afternoon prayer service at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York in September. From the pulpit later, he cast his eyes at the audience that sat before him in anticipation of what the he would say.

In his sermon, Mashhour talked about the climate of anxiety among his congregants as a result of the spike in assaults against Muslims in New York.

“We are now in a very, very difficult time,” the imam proclaimed in the sermon, called khutbah. “And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it will be silly for us not to come to terms with the fact that it is going to get much, much worse.”

“Do not try to change and compromise yourselves,” Mashhour told the worshipers. “To our sisters, do not try to take off your hijab.”

Fifteen years after Sept. 11, Muslim Americans say it is like they are living under a shadow of suspicion and fear at a time when the 2016 presidential campaign was filled with anti-Muslim political rhetoric.

Since he announced his candidacy up until his election on Nov. 8, President-Elect Donald Trump has created a toxic environment for Muslims. He called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, surveillance of mosques, and even putting Muslim Americans on a “watch list.”

“It’s a scary environment for us right now,” said Salma Mousa, a hijab-wearing teacher at the Islamic Cultural Center School in Manhattan. “I don’t go out at nights.”

In the summer, at least six Muslims, who all wore religious attire, were either killed or assaulted in New York City streets. On Sept. 8, a man set fire on the clothes of a veiled Muslim woman as she stood outside a shopping store on the Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The incident came just a few days after two Muslim mothers in Brooklyn were attacked while pushing their children in strollers. And in August alone, three Muslims of Bangladeshi descents were killed in Queens, one of the New York’s most diverse boroughs.

Afar Nasher, executive director of the New York chapter of the Council on Islamic-American Relations, said the backlash against Muslims after Sept. 11 was systematic, more individualized and “the hatred wasn’t acceptable.”

Just days after Sept. 11, former President George W. Bush went to a mosque in Washington, D.C., and called for unity and tolerance, declaring that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.”

“But with this election year,” Nasher added, “[the hatred] has been legitimized, It’s been more acceptable to say what you say without broad accountability.”

Whenever there’s an incident involving terrorist attacks, Nasher said, Muslims find themselves under scrutiny and see a spike in hate crimes. The data agrees with Nasher.

In 2015, hate crimes against Muslim Americans increased 67 percent, an unprecedented level not seen since the aftermath of Sept. 11, according to a new data released by the FBI.

“The insanity of it is mindboggling,” Nasher said. “And you have to wonder why the frequency.”

Mousa, the school teacher who converted to Islam four years ago, said her Christian mother advises her to take off her hijab because she’s concerned for her daughter’s safety. But Mousa said she is not bowing to fear.

“I’m a Muslim,” Mousa tells her mother. “This is what I believe. I’m not going to change it for anyone.”

About two years ago, Mousa was walking from a class at Hunter College when a man called her a “terrorist.” She said she chose not to engage with the man.

Hostility towards Muslims is “coming out so much stronger now,” she said. “It saddens me because I feel like maybe these are people’s true feelings and [Trump] has brought them forward.”

Without mentioning a specific candidate’s name, the imam said the 2016 presidential climate fueled hatred against Muslims.

“I don’t think it takes a lot of ingenuity to come to the conclusion that a lot of hate speech of late has begun to manifest in a very public and acceptable way,” imam Mashhour said in an interview. “It’s becoming very acceptable and people are starting to act on it.”

In the days following the June attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, California that left at least 49 dead, Mashhour said the gay community came to the Islamic Cultural Center’s other branch on 72nd Street and staged “unruly, unlawful protest.” And a few months ago, someone spray-painted over some of the mosque’s signage, the imam said.

On Friday, after the congregants finished the prayers, they slowly trickled out of the mosque and headed back to their businesses. Some, like Mohamed Hilou, a 24-year-old college student, idled around to chat with their friends.

Amid the smile and the exchange of the Muslim greetings, Hilou poignantly conveyed what most of the worshipers felt after the imam’s sermon.

“It’s scary out there,” said Hilou. “InshaAllah,” — God willing — “one day people will see the beauty of Islam.”