SHAFAQNA – Muslims living in Westchester and Rockland are in agreement that those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam are corrupting their religion.
The terror attacks in Brussels — and the anti-Muslim backlash that followed — have intensified fear and anxiety among Muslims in the Lower Hudson Valley, who say they struggle to explain to their children the suspicion and anger directed at their community.
“I’m worried about the children as to what they’re trying to figure out by themselves, and are they afraid,” said Azeem Farooki of Pomona, a trustee at the Islamic Center of Rockland, who said congregants had been urged to talk to and reassure children. “I’m sure they’re not taking it lightly. I’m sure they get negative comments in the schools.”
Eesha Uddin, 13, a student at Chestnut Ridge Middle School, said that following the Paris attacks in November, she has been called a terrorist by boys on the school bus. “They tease me a lot. Sometimes it gets to the point where it hurts me, but I don’t sit there silently,” she said. “I talk back to them and say that they shouldn’t talk to me that way.”
Fatima Faroq, 17, a junior at Clarkstown South High School, said while she hasn’t experienced anything overly hostile from classmates, she has been teased. She senses a general misunderstanding of Muslims by her peers, and recalled hearing a freshman remark that “all these problems in this country are because of Islamic people.”
To counter anti-Muslim sentiment, Shahab Uddin, Eesha’s father, said he urges Muslims to model their faith. “The most important thing is to tell your children that they need to believe in what Islam really teaches, and educate their neighbors by their actions.”
A check of law-enforcement and human-rights agencies in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam revealed no bias crimes reported against Muslims. In interviews following the Paris attacks and those in San Bernadino, California in December, Muslim residents said they experienced intimidation and bullying. The Islamic State, or ISIS, claimed responsibility for these attacks and for the bombings in Brussels.
Ola Nosseir Rafeh, 57, of Briarcliff Manor, has been so unnerved she has considered hiding her hijab — the traditional Muslim head covering — under a larger hat.
Shortly after San Bernardino, Rafeh said that while driving on route 9A in Briarcliff, a motorist pulled his car up to hers and flashed his middle finger at her before driving off. On another occasion, while walking into a Ossining supermarket, she said a man stopped his car, rolled down his window, and shouted anti-Muslim epithets.
Rafeh said that even before these incidents, she offered presentations to church congregations and other groups to teach non-Muslims about what she calls “my peaceful Islam.”
Politics plays a role in fostering anti-Islamic sentiment, said Khusro Elley of Chappaqua, a trustee at the Upper Westchester Muslim Society in Thornwood. “The average Muslim still feels intimidated, still feels scared, still feels insecure,” especially in a political climate where it has become common to depict Muslims as terrorists.
Syed Ali, administrator and treasurer at Iqra Dural Ehsan, a mosque in Suffern, said presidential campaign rhetoric — Donald Trump has called for banning Muslims from entering the United States and Ted Cruz for police to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods” — inflames anti-Islam sentiment and inflicts trauma in the Muslim community.
“When somebody who is the leading candidate of a political party stands up in front of mass media and says that we’re not going allow any more Muslims back into the country, that obviously sends a very big sense of insecurity to the community,” he said. Ali said “[ISIS] is not a representation of Islam in any shape or form. It’s a representation of extremism.”
Yasser Alsafadi, of Ossining, a former president of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society, said such rhetoric “makes it socially acceptable for some to openly express their bigotry, and for that bigotry to become acceptable.”
Saleem Mir, 72, a nephrologist who lives in Cortlandt Manor and attends prayers at the Mid-Westchester Muslim Center in Ossining and at the Upper Westchester Muslim Society in Thornwood, said there is need need for Muslims to speak up to counter such bigotry and let people know “who we are, and what we do, and show that we are a part of the fabric of American Society.”
Mohammad Ziaullah of Congers, a trustee at Islamic Center of Rockland, said better communication with non-Muslims is not only imperative, but religiously mandated. “On the day of judgment,” he said, “God will ask if we reached out to those who don’t know about Islam,” not to convert, but to foster understanding. “We have to make an effort to know each other.”