Susie Abdelghafar was a junior in high school the first time her Muslim identity was used as a weapon against her. A typical lunchtime full of teenage banter at the cafeteria of New York’s prestigious LaGuardia High School quickly turned into a defining experience when a classmate made an ill-advised joke about Abdelghafar’s mother, who had passed away from breast cancer. Upon hearing that her mother was deceased, Abdelghafar’s classmate retorted, “was she a suicide bomber? Did she blow herself up?”
“At that moment I was in complete shock. My heart stopped, I just completely froze,” said Abdelghafar, 19, now a sophomore at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “To have even my mother’s death used to stereotype Muslims, it just taught me how far people will go to put Islam and terrorism together.”
Like most young New Yorkers, Abdelghafar has only really ever known a post-Sept. 11, 2001, New York, a city that has since seen both hate crimes and institutionalized forms of discrimination leveled against its Muslim and Arab communities. And in the aftermath of last week’s terror attacks in Paris, many young Muslims in New York fear that the stigma they already face will only get worse.
“I knew the minute I heard that Muslims — or so-called Muslims — were responsible for the attacks that people would start blaming Muslims as a whole and Muslim communities internationally for them,” said Abdelghafar, who was born and raised in Harlem to an Egyptian immigrant family. She expects there “definitely” will be anti-Muslim backlash within the U.S.
France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, has seen a spike in anti-Muslim reprisal attacks in recent days, including attacks against mosques and Muslim-owned businesses throughout the country. But long before the Charlie Hebdo shooting last week, New York’s Muslim community complained of feeling marginalized and targeted. There was a triple-digit increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the city in 2014, according to the New York Police Department, which cited high-profile news events like the emergence of the Islamic State terror group earlier this year as a reason for the surge.
The NYPD’s now-disbanded “Demographics Unit” began gathering extensive intelligence on Muslim neighborhoods in 2002, eavesdropping on Muslim-owned businesses and infiltrating Muslim Students Associations at colleges across the tri-state area, according to a series of reports from the Associated Press. Muslim residents of New Jersey were in court Wednesday to try to reverse a ruling that said New York police could legally monitor their activities.
For Muslims across New York, grappling with others’ misconceptions about Islam is not unusual. Alexandrea Mohamed, 23, graduated from one of the city’s private Muslim schools, the Al-Razi School, in Woodside, Queens. The Queens native was 10 years old in September 2001 and recalled the toxic atmosphere around the school in the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers. “There were bomb threats against the school,” she said. “But even just walking on the street after school, we would have our scarves on our heads and people would yell racial slurs and say things like, ‘go back to your country.’ It was scary.”
That level of public hostility is less obvious now, said Mohamed, who works at a pharmacy in Ridgewood, Queens, the neighborhood where she was born and raised. Mohamed conceded that she is probably less aware of anti-Muslim animosity now because she is unveiled, and people often don’t realize she is Muslim. But sometimes that has the consequence of giving people a false sense of security as they unknowingly bash Muslims right in front of her. “Last week a woman in the pharmacy started a conversation about the Muslims and how they are destroying people,” she said. “I couldn’t even respond. It would have been unprofessional.”
Working in a Muslim-owned business in New York exposes you to frequent verbal references to terrorism by non-Muslim clients, said Gamil Hamod, 24, a Yemeni-American shop clerk who works in a deli on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. These customers rarely make direct reference to his Muslim background, Hamod said, instead preferring to refer to events in the news to gauge his feelings about issues like terrorism. The clerk, who was born and raised in New York but traveled frequently back and forth between the U.S. and Yemen throughout his childhood, shrugged this off as normal.
“I don’t think that’s discrimination,” he said, as he served coffee to a non-Muslim customer who jokingly interjected that she was the only person allowed to discriminate against Hamod. What really worries Hamod is the kind of treatment his sister, who is veiled, will face from “ignorant people.” His demeanor turned serious as he recalled an incident from two years ago, in which his sister was forcibly removed from a clothing store in Jamaica, Queens, after other customers complained that they felt threatened by her.
After incidents such as the Paris attacks, it’s common for a woman wearing an Islamic headscarf to sense additional scrutiny while in public, said Sara, a 22-year-old Brooklynite of Syrian descent who declined to give her last name because “in my family talking politics in public is a no-no.” “The day after the attack, I definitely felt like more people were staring at me and my hijab on the subway,” she said Monday while pausing with her shopping bags on a stretch of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn full of Arab specialty stores. “But I don’t really think anything serious like what’s been happening in France will happen here,” she said.
But some are taking precautions all the same. The private Muslim Al-Noor school in Brooklyn has recently implemented lockdown procedures in response to growing fears of reprisal attacks, an administrator at the school told International Business Times. The school, which has students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, has taken a number of steps to make their security measures more robust, said the school official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the Al-Noor administration’s sensitivity to public exposure. The administrator said the school was very comfortable within its Brooklyn community and that the extra precautions were mainly a result of concern over the possibility of a “random” attack.
Muslim Students Associations at colleges across the city have recently ramped up efforts to create public forums for discussions about misperceptions involving Islam, said Hamza Halam, 20, a student at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and the president of the school’s Muslim Student’s Association. He pointed to a recent event hosted by St. Francis College to discuss the Islamic State group, which he said generated a lot of interest on campus. But Halam said he disagreed with the notion that it was the responsibility of all Muslims “to clear up misperceptions” about their faith. “They don’t represent us,” he said.
Hamza noted that Muslims in the U.S. are not as segregated as their co-religionists in France. “I feel like New York is more open and more liberal than Paris in that regard. We tend to communicate more, we’re more united,” said Halam, a Kashmiri Muslim who was raised in Leeds, England. He has lived in New York for the past three years and said his outlook after the Paris attacks was actually very “positive” because of the show of “unity and mutual respect” across faiths in recent days.
For some young New York City Muslims, however, dealing with any stigmatization of Muslim identity remains a significant concern. “So many people come up to me as a Muslim and ask me how I feel about what’s been going on in Paris as if they expect an apology, as if they expect me to be ashamed,” said Abdelghafar, the college student. “The problem is, in their head, these are my people.”