JERSEY CITY, New Jersey — The country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization on Thursday condemned the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, while at the same time urging Americans to not jump to conclusions that the attack was the result of radical Islamic terrorism.
Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke at the Islamic Center of Jersey City, where he was joined by more than two dozen New Jersey Muslims, interfaith leaders and local politicians. The group had initially gathered to denounce Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s repeated claims that Muslims in the state celebrated the 9/11 terror attacks.
With a handmade blue banner that read “Our sincere condolences for the people of San Bernardino” in the background, Awad said American-Muslims were “heartbroken and horrified” by the attack, which killed 14 people and was allegedly carried out by U.S.-born Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and wife Tashfeen Malik, 27, who was Pakistani. The couple were both Muslim, and and law enforcement sources have told NBC News that evidence suggests Farook had been radicalized before the attacks.
Awad also said he had concerns that his community would face unfair backlash as a result of the massacre.
“There’s a lot of anxiety among American Muslims because we’ve see it in the past. We’ve seen what jumping to conclusions mean,” he said, noting CAIR had received calls from parents who were worried about sending their children to school on Thursday out of fear they would hear anti-Islamic rhetoric from their teachers.
Awad made reference to Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted. Cruz, who suggested the shootings could be the result of “Islamic radical terrorism” even though officials have not yet announced a motive. The FBI is treating the case as a counterterrorism investigation.
Cruz isn’t the only White House hopeful blaming extremism for the latest attacks. Trump said the attack was “probably” related to “radical Islamic terrorism.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, “This is not about gun control,” but rather “two people who have bought into an ideology that is absolutely insane in nature.”
Nadia Kahf, the chairwoman of CAIR-NJ, skewered what she called unfair coverage of the suspected shooters’ religion, including the New York Post’s cover with the headline “MUSLIM KILLERS.” Only when suspected mass shooters are Muslim, she suggested, is religion such a core part of the story. “You cannot paint all Muslims with the same brush,” said Kahf.
Separately, CAIR and local leaders zeroed in on Trump, arguing he should be held at least partially responsible for an increase in Islamophobia (which Awad said included incidents of vandalism and bomb threats across the country) following last month’s terror attack in Paris, which the terrorist group known as ISIS has claimed responsibility for.
The billionaire business mogul has floated the idea of closing mosques, registering all Muslims into a national database and most recently claiming “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey “celebrated” the 9/11 terror attacks, although officials and fact-checkers across the country have denounced that account as blatantly false.
Awad described the rhetoric as “reckless, unfounded and dangerous,” called on Trump to provide proo and invited the Republican to come out to New Jersey and meet with Muslim-Americans there firsthand. “Trump is not only a bigot but a liar,” said Awad.”
Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, a Democrat, also condemned Trump’s remarks, insisting there was no record of people celebrating by police or media to substantiate the accusations. “We stand together with our Muslim community,” he said, noting that as the Jewish grandson of Holocaust survivors he is particularly sensitive to hate rhetoric.
William McKoy, council president of Paterson, New Jersey, said of Trump, “We are all entitled to our own opinion. We are not entitled to our own facts.”
A request to comment from Trump’s campaign on if he’d be willing to meet with New Jersey Muslim-Americans was not immediately returned.