Following Hate Crimes And Trump's Election, Muslims Remain Resilient

Nov 15, 2016
Originally published on November 15, 2016 4:46 pm

Election night was complicated for Azra Baig.

She's a school board member in suburban South Brunswick, N.J. Baig was running for reelection this fall. She had just put out yard signs with her name on them when a friend from her mosque called.

"Someone wrote 'ISIS sympathizer' on the sign," Baig says.

That caught Baig by surprise. She's the only Muslim on the school board. But there's a sizable Muslim population in South Brunswick and the surrounding towns. And this didn't just happen once or twice.

"The next day, we found another sign that was vandalized," Baig says. "So multiple times, basically the same signs were vandalized. Miss ISIS. Anti-American. Raghead."

Baig told the police. But otherwise, she kept quiet until after the election. She didn't want to encourage copycats. And Baig says she didn't want to win reelection to her school board seat because of what she calls a 'sympathy vote.'

"That's not me," says Baig. "I put in a lot of hard work over the years, and I wanted to get it on my own merit."

Baig won reelection to the school board. But her elation didn't last long. "When they announced that Donald Trump [as the] president-elect, I started crying," she says. "I was in shock."

Since Trump's election, there's been an increase in the number of hate crimes reported against immigrants and minorities, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and others. Muslim-Americans in particular are on edge. They haven't forgotten that Trump talked during the campaign about banning all Muslims from coming into the country. And his election is prompting the members of Baig's mosque, the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, to think about their place in the community, and the country.

"I was just left with the feeling that we have elected hate as a society, and that's not who we are," says Shahnaz Naeem, who was picking up her children from the Noor-Ul-Iman School, which is run by the mosque. She says it was hard explaining the election to them.

"My little five year old, like every day she would ask me, who are you voting for? Because she wanted to make sure I was voting for the right person," says Naeem. "So it was tough telling them what happened. But we talked about it. And they didn't fall apart. I feel like there's a lot of resilience in our kids. And that's what we need in them, to help our country move forward, instead of backwards."

In Sunday's interview with 60 Minutes, President-elect Trump discouraged his followers from attacking Muslims and other minorities. And not everyone at this mosque thinks Trump's election will trigger a rise in Islamophobia.

"Whether we had Trump, or didn't have Trump, the people's feelings were going to be the same," says Mazen Oudeh, who was picking up his son Yusuf after school. "Yeah, he's not saying very nice things about Muslims. And I've just told Yusuf that these things are not true. That we're gonna be kicked out of the country. These things are not gonna happen."

The Islamic Society of Central Jersey was founded more than 40 years ago. It's in the process of expanding the mosque building it has since outgrown.

"It's our country. We live here. We expect our grand kids all to grow up over here," says mosque member Babar Saeed. He says Trump's election might turn out to be a good thing for Muslim-Americans.

"There is racism, bigotry, in some part of the country," says Saeed. "So it's out there, and we have to deal with it."

That echoes something the mosque's president Arif Patel said, based on a verse from the Quran.

"You know, we might not know what's good for us in what we think is a bad situation," says Patel. "And we might not know what's bad for us in what we perceive to be a good situation, right? Only God knows."

God has a plan, says Patel. Even if it's not easy to see right now.

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Since Donald Trump won the presidential election, advocacy groups say there's been an increase in reports of hate crimes against immigrants and minorities. Many people have been on edge, especially Muslim Americans. NPR's Joel Rose reports on a New Jersey mosque where members are trying to figure out their place in the community and in America.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Election night was complicated for Azra Baig. She's an elected school-board member in suburban South Brunswick, N.J. Baig was running for re-election this fall. She had just put out yard signs with her name on them when a friend from her mosque called.

AZRA BAIG: Someone wrote ISIS sympathizer on the sign.

ROSE: Baig was surprised. She's the only Muslim on the school board. But there's a pretty big Muslim population in South Brunswick and other towns around here. And this didn't just happen once or twice.

BAIG: The next day we found another sign that was vandalized. So multiple times basically the same signs were vandalized - you know, Miss ISIS, anti-American, raghead.

ROSE: Baig told the police, but otherwise, she kept quiet until after the election. She didn't want to encourage copycats. And Baig says she didn't want to win re-election to her school-board seat because of what she calls a sympathy vote.

BAIG: That's not me. I put in a lot of hard work over the years, and I wanted to get it on my own merit. So I found out on election night that I won. And, yes, I was happy. And then when they announced that Donald Trump - president-elect - and I started crying. Like, I was in shock.

ROSE: Baig says that's how a lot of people felt at her mosque, the Islamic Society of Central Jersey. These are doctors, lawyers, professionals, people who are deeply involved in their communities. Shahnaz Naeem was listening during the campaign when Donald Trump talked about banning all Muslims from coming into the country.

SHAHNAZ NAEEM: You know, I was just left with the feeling that, you know, we have elected hate as a society. And that's not who we are.

ROSE: Naeem was picking her kids up at the day school run by the mosque. She says it was hard explaining the election to them.

NAEEM: My little 5-year-old - like, every day, she would ask me, who you voting for? Who you voting for? 'Cause she wanted to make sure I'm voting for the right person (laughter). So, you know, it was tough telling them what happened. But we talked about it. And they didn't fall apart. I feel like there's a lot of resilience in our kids. And that's what we need in them to help our country move forward instead of backwards.

ROSE: In an interview, President-elect Trump discouraged his followers from attacking Muslims and other minorities. And not everyone at this mosque thinks Trump's election will trigger a rise in Islamophobia. Mazen Oudeh was picking up his son Yusuf after school.

MAZEN OUDEH: Whether we had Trump or didn't have Trump, the people's feelings were going to still be the same. Yeah, he's not saying very nice things about Muslims. And I've just told Yusuf that these things are not true - that we're going to be kicked out of the country. These things are not going to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Praying in Arabic).

ROSE: Hundreds of people pack into the mosque sanctuary for afternoon prayers. The Islamic Society of Central Jersey was founded more than 40 years ago. It's in the process of expanding the mosque building it outgrew a long time ago.

BABAR SAEED: It's our country. We live here. We expect our grandkids all to grow up over here.

ROSE: Mosque member Babar Saeed says Trump's election might turn out to be a good thing for Muslim Americans.

SAEED: There is racism, bigotry in - you know, on some part of the country. So, you know, it's out there. And we have to deal with it.

ROSE: That echoes something mosque president Arif Patel said, based on a verse from the Quran.

ARIF PATEL: You know, we might not know what's good for us in what we think is a bad situation. And we might not know what's bad for us in what we perceive to be a good situation, right? Only God knows.

ROSE: God has a plan, says Patel, even if it's not easy to see right now. Joel Rose, NPR News, Monmouth Junction, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.