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Anti-Muslim panic threatens to cause lasting damage

In Paterson, N.J. -- where Donald Trump falsely claimed thousands cheered the 9/11 attacks -- Arab-Americans are afraid his rhetoric will do lasting damage.
People pray inside of the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson, New Jersey, Sept. 21, 2015. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
People pray inside of the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson, New Jersey, Sept. 21, 2015.

PATERSON, New Jersey — Nour Obeidallah didn’t know how to react when someone called her “Osama bin Laden.” The insult made little sense, said under the breath of a person who felt they’d been slighted while waiting in line for the bus. But it still stung.

That same weekend, customers at a bagel shop did little to veil their suspicious looks toward Obeidallah’s family, she said. In voices just loud enough for her sister to hear, they wondered whether her head scarf meant that she was a terrorist.

“We don’t know what’s in her purse,” one whispered loudly to the other.

Who knows, maybe they thought her sister was carrying around a bomb while ordering breakfast, Obeidallah later recalled, only half-jokingly. The 24-year-old frequently escapes this small New Jersey city where she was born and raised for New York City, a short trip away on public transit. But things are different these days.

Those small episodes—the side glances, sneering comments and veiled threats — have grown more common, Obeidallah said, ever since the Paris terror attacks unleashed a fierce current of anti-Islam sentiment across the U.S. Many Muslim Americans have reported instances of discrimination, even attempted violence. Others have opted to stay home. Even for an Arab-American community here that is already conditioned to these racially charged slights, the hysteria is having a profound impact.

GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has played a key role in fanning the flames. This week it got personal for Obeidallah after the celebrity real estate mogul claimed that Paterson, the place where she was born and raised, was the site where “thousands and thousands” of Arabs and Muslims were seen cheering after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s not true. And it’s just insulting,” she said.

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For years, residents of this small New Jersey city with a large Arab-American community 20 miles outside of Manhattan have tried to fight off unfounded rumors about their response to 9/11—a task that has faced them with the near-impossibility of proving a negative. That two of the 9/11 hijackers had temporarily stayed in Paterson before the attacks didn’t help. Many residents had friends and loved ones killed in the attacks. Like all Americans—and maybe even a little more than most—they were grieving.

"We were devastated. We were surprised. And also, almost ashamed. The fact that it was Arabs who committed these attacks really depressed the community,” said John Abdelhadi, a Paterson lawyer.

Now, the city's residents fear that even though Trump's claims rest largely on rumors and unverified reports, they'll cause lasting harm. 

“Something that’s really damaging is that people are going to start being too afraid to come to the mosque,” Obeidallah said.

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director at the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said many people across the country have come forward in recent weeks, particularly Arab and Muslim women, saying they’re too afraid of the public backlash to leave their homes.

“I don’t think we’ve seen this kind of siege mentality since 9/11,” Hooper said. “People are really frightened for their families.”

Hooper says presidential elections campaigns, when discussion of potential terror threats plays a prominent role in the public debate, tend to stir Islamaphobia. But this year has been different, he said. Even before the Paris attacks, Ben Carson, another Republican presidential candidate, suggested that a Muslim could never be fit to serve as president, and lately he has referred to Syrian refugees as "rabid dogs". Beyond his 9/11 claims, Trump has said he might support a database to track Muslim Americans (he later backed away). And the entire Republican party has united around a pledge to block new Syrian refugees from entering the country.

Some leaders of the Islamic community are afraid that the fear and distrust being stoked by Trump and others among anti-immigrant nativists will spill over into violence.

RELATED: Christie doesn’t ‘recall’ Trump’s version of 9/11 response in NJ

“He’s going to get somebody hurt,” Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and one of two Muslim members serving in Congress, said of Trump in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes Monday. “Invariably, the people who are mentally unstable or are motivated by hate come out of the woodwork, and you see desecrations of buildings that are associated with those groups, you see assaults, you see murders."

Indeed, things already appear to have gone beyond fiery rhetoric.

In the last week and a half, a Virginia man was charged with leaving a fake bomb at a mosque. Two Muslim women claimed they were spit on in Brooklyn. Two Philadelphia men were initially told not to board their flight home from Chicago after a fellow passenger, who had overheard them speaking Arabic, told the airport gate agent that he did not feel safe flying with them—one of several incidents involving Muslims who were held up in various airports. In Connecticut, bullet holes now line the walls of a mosque. A pregnant Muslim woman told San Diego police that she was assaulted and verbally harassed with racially charged threats.

FBI statistics released last week reveal that anti-Muslim crimes have increased by 14% in the last year, compared to an 8% drop in all other hate crimes nationwide. 

Muslim leaders hope that flashes of violence remain outliers and that the anti-Islam rhetoric will eventually die down.

“It’s just another phase of Donald Trump’s hate,” said Al Abdelaziz, an Arab American running for city council in Paterson.  “We’re like any American city. We live our lives as Americans. For many, it’s the only country we’ve ever known.”