BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — In the shock and horror that besieged the country after the attacks by Islamic terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, many American Muslims — like everyone, mourning a lost sense of peace — withstood abuse, even assaults, and felt suddenly thrust into defending their 1,400-year-old religion.
Across the country, Muslim men were attacked, some fatally. Women in headscarves were harassed, and mosques and Muslim businesses were vandalized.
That sense of dread, reinforced by renewed bias attacks and a new, freely expressed distrust of Islam and its adherents, has returned 15 years after al-Qaida dramatically changed American culture and politics. While many political leaders decry such attacks and voice support for Muslim neighbors, others are using language that critics say stokes fear and makes Muslims feel they are not welcome here.
Yet if the climate sometimes feels uncomfortably similar to those trying days after 9/11, something else has changed 15 years later: Muslim Americans from diverse backgrounds and nationalities are more organized, more involved in their communities and in politics, and more outspoken in calling out bias.
That kind of mobilization has helped to steadily improve relations since 9/11, especially in New Jersey, said Mohamed Younes, a Franklin Lakes resident and president of the American Muslim Union. In 2001, people knew little about Islam, he said. Now, at least in the state, there are stronger bonds and more understanding.
Still, civil rights groups around the country are reporting an uptick in hate crimes targeting Muslims that, while not as numerous as attacks in the aftermath of Sept. 11, are stoking new unease in a growing American Muslim population.
There were 174 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence last year, including shootings and bombings, up about 13 percent from the year before, according to a report published by The Bridge Initiative, a Muslim-Christian relations center at Georgetown University. The FBI in 2001 tallied 481 bias incidents against Muslims.
Khitam Mustafa, a 43-year-old Clifton woman, is convinced she was the target of spontaneous hatred in an incident in a strip mall parking lot in December. Mustafa, wearing a hijab, the headscarf Muslim women wear in an expression of modesty, was pulling into a parking space when a man she’d never seen before peered into her window. When she rolled down the window to ask what was the matter, he unleashed a torrent of verbal abuse, cursing her religion and shouting “go back to your country,” she said.
She was so rattled she called police, though no charges materialized. Mustafa reflected recently on that incident and put it into a larger context.
“All the things on TV and the way they’re making us seem — I feel like it’s a horrible nightmare,” she said. She lamented the freely spoken distrust and misinformation about Muslims and Islam — singling out Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, from doubts he has raised about their loyalty to his discredited claims that they celebrated in New Jersey on 9/11.
Making matters worse, the rhetoric comes amid a series of horrific new terrorist attacks carried out in Islam’s name in the U.S. and worldwide, from San Bernardino, to Orlando, to France.
“Everywhere you go, people look at you,” Mustafa said “It’s different. Now we have Trump bashing us on TV. We have Trump claiming he saw Muslims cheering after the Sept. 11 attacks.”
In the days after 9/11, when some Americans turned their anger toward Muslim neighbors, elected leaders came to their defense. Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, declared his respect for the city’s Muslim communities and urged residents “not to engage in any form of group blame or group hatred.”
President George W. Bush, in a speech at a mosque days after the attacks, said Muslims had made “incredibly valuable contributions to our country” and urged that they be treated with respect. Those who lash out at them, he said, “represent the worst of humankind.
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” Bush said. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”
A decade and a half later, some politicians are adopting a different tone in discussing Islam. In March, Trump told CNN that “I think Islam hates us.” He has repeatedly called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. Also-rans in the Republican primary followed suit, with one, Ben Carson, saying a Muslim would be unfit to serve as president, and Ted Cruz calling for police patrols of “Muslim neighborhoods.”
That kind of speech has broken down taboos about expressing fear and distrust of Islam, potentially making Muslims more vulnerable to acts of violence, said Engy Abdelkhader, a professor and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative.
“[Trump] does so in such a public way that’s amplified, perhaps inadvertently, by news media, and it is impacting people around the country,” said Abdelkhader. “It falls on people’s ears in different ways. Some find it repulsive, but for others it may give them a green light that what he’s saying is right.”
There may be an unexpected consequence for purveyors of anti-Muslim speech, one expert said.
James Sues, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said harsh political rhetoric can have a reverse effect: He said he’s received reports about people “who are reaching out to Muslims they see in public with a helping hand, saying hi and being friendly.”
Those people, he said, are “hearing that kind of talk from someone running for president and are embarrassed by it and feeling empathy with Muslims.”
After 9/11, some Muslim Americans said they were so fearful that they ventured from their homes only when they had to. Not so anymore. With the scrutiny of Muslims, the diverse faith group has become organized and outspoken.
Muslim civic and religious groups are holding news conferences, staging anti-terror prayer vigils and interfaith events, and meeting with law enforcement to act against bias and show that they are as American as the next person. They’re bombarding media with condemnations of terrorism after all attacks, including those in the U.S., France, Iraq and Pakistan that targeted non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
Groups have held voter registration drives. Some have run for office. In North Jersey, both Teaneck and Prospect Park have Muslim mayors, and Muslims serve or are seeking seats on councils and school boards in Paterson, North Bergen, Passaic, Paramus and Clifton.
Americans this summer cheered a Muslim American fencer for the U.S. Olympic team, who wore a hijab beneath her wire-mesh protective mask.
The most well-known rebuke of anti-Muslim political speech came last month, when Khizr and Ghazala Khan spoke at the Democratic National Convention about their son, a United States Army captain who was killed in Iraq trying to protect other U.S. soldiers.
“Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims,” Khizr Khan said. “Let me ask you: Have you even read the U.S. Constitution?”
When Trump criticized his wife’s silence and suggested she wasn’t allowed to speak, she fired back in an op-ed, and thousands of Muslim women launched a social media campaign with the hashtag “can you hear me now.”
The Khans’ speech summoned tears of pride among many American Muslims, but it also brought tremendous national empathy. This time the backlash was against Trump — even from members of his own party — as people decried his criticism of a Gold Star mom.
Some people also are more likely to say something about bias incidents. Mustafa, the woman who said she was the target of a stranger’s wrath at a Clifton shopping center, called police and visited headquarters several times to file a complaint. When police ultimately determined there was no probable cause to file charges, Mustafa complained to city officials.
Although the incident was upsetting, Mustafa said it hasn’t changed how she lives.
“Sept. 11 we had to stay home because it was so bad,” she said. “People were scared to go out of the school, especially people who wore hijab.”
She added: “[Now] I’m not scared. I go anywhere.”