'A very bad four years': 'Muslim ban' spurred hate but inspired activism in NJ
First Muslim woman to become Mayor in the US Sadaf Jaffer of Montgomery Twp, NJ talks about the challenges she faced. NorthJersey.com
When President Joe Biden repealed the “Muslim ban” on his first day in office, many celebrated the end of a policy that had divided families, derailed visas and uprooted lives.
The reality, however, is that the xenophobic sentiment that many saw in the travel ban remains a raging problem in the United States, according to Muslims in New Jersey. Hate speech, bullying and bias crimes have soared during the Trump era, while Muslims in public office have faced repeated slurs and threats.
Montgomery resident Sadaf Jaffer, who became America’s first female Muslim mayor in 2019, knows this firsthand. As mayor, she faced bigoted speech daily, with strangers accusing her of being part of a Muslim invasion and infiltrating the government to impose Islamic law.
Some of the comments were so threatening she called police. One Twitter user called for eradicating Muslims and for “illness and death plague [for] you and your family of pigs.” Another commenter wrote “over my dead red, white and blue body and with a gun in my dead hand” about her election.
“Hearing that stuff is very demoralizing,” said Jaffer, a researcher and lecturer at Princeton University who was born in Chicago. “Twitter was a cesspool, and I got some very inexplicably hostile emails. It was definitely disheartening, and it took a lot out of me.”
Yet Biden's repeal of the travel restrictions last week has also given the community hope.
Hamid Imam, who was born in Syria and now lives in Bloomfield, said he was thrilled when the ban was lifted. His wife has a 10-year-old daughter from a prior marriage whom she has been trying to bring from Syria.
After four years, that finally seems possible, he said.
"It's absolutely been a relief," Imam said. "I'm still celebrating."
Advocates are now pushing for Congress to pass the No Ban Act, which imposes limitations on a president's authority to suspend or restrict immigrants from entering the country.
While Islamophobia has reached heights not seen since 9/11 — and some feel it’s even worse today — the legacy of the ban may also be more political activism among those it targeted. The rise in bias and hate speech has inspired Muslims to get involved in voting drives and election campaigns and to seek office themselves.
Still, Jaffer, 37, said the climate has gotten worse, even as more Muslim Americans become engaged in civic life and politics. Each victory, it seems, has been met by a reactionary backlash or attack.
Jaffer and others say former President Donald Trump ratcheted up the level of hate in both his rhetoric and his policy. From saying “Islam hates us” to regaling with a debunked story about a general shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pig blood, he has made families feel unsafe and anxious, they said.
Islamophobia hits home
Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries in January 2017, just a week after taking office. The ban went through multiple iterations before it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.
Trump officials said the ban was needed for national security reasons and was not based on religion. But the former president had singled out the faith in his public comments, at one point calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” during his campaign.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations linked the ban to a spike in bias incidents in a 2018 report. Nationwide, 2,599 anti-Muslim incidents were reported to CAIR in 2017, including 464 related to the travel ban, according to the report.
New Jersey has had its share of harrowing incidents.
In 2017, 14 women wearing hijabs were pulled off a security line at Newark Liberty International Airport and searched for two hours in public view. Headed to a conference, most did not know each other but were apparently singled out for their Islamic headscarves.
In April, Nutley police said a man harassed a Muslim woman over her faith while she was buying ice cream in town, then purposely slammed his SUV into her car.
On the same day, New Jersey congressional candidate Amani al-Khatahtbeh received calls at her parents' home in East Brunswick from a man spouting slurs and threats of violence against her and her family.
Online, hate speech and harassment exploded — shared even by people in leadership in New Jersey. In 2019, the Sussex County Republican Committee had a Twitter page with hateful messages including a call to "eradicate Islam from every town, city, county and state in our homeland."
And in Toms River, a school board member was posting comments smearing Muslim congresswomen as terrorists and writing "my life would be complete if she/they die" above a photograph of U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat and Muslim from Michigan.
'A very bad four years'
While Islamophobia didn't start with Trump, he gave it fuel and emboldened supporters to freely express their own prejudices.
Mussab Ali, the 23-year-old president of the Jersey City school board, said anti-Muslim rhetoric from the White House had a huge impact on children and that he has heard increasing complaints about bullying in schools.
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"They talk about how the president doesn’t want you here or how you need to go back to your country,” said Ali, who is Muslim.
Poopak Mohajer, 49, of Paramus said the ban traumatized her family. Her brother had done paperwork, medical checks and interviews in preparation to emigrate from Iran. She first applied for him in 2003, she said. Everything was upended when the ban was imposed, although he eventually obtained a rare waiver to travel.
“He finally made it with only week left on his visa,” she said. “I thought it would expire. I don’t wish this on my worst enemy. It was very exhausting emotionally,”
For Mohajer and others, the message sent by Trump’s ban was that Muslims were unwelcome and suspect.
“We had a very bad four years,” Mohajer said. “The climate, the way people looked at us as immigrants. I didn’t feel that I belonged here, although I have been here for 20 years.”
More than 20 Muslim Americans were newly elected to office in New Jersey in the past four years, with many citing Trump as part of their inspiration to run. Another half-dozen were reelected to offices they had held before 2016.
That's not about to change. Jaffer, who dealt with barrages of hate, did not seek reelection to the Montgomery council last year. But she is considering a run for state Assembly in Central Jersey's District 16 this year.
Jaffer, who has degrees from Harvard and the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, had envisioned a career in diplomacy. But politics called to her; she felt it was a way to represent her community and build bridges.
"It's always going to be hard for minorities, for women in general, to get into these positions," she said. "It's not fair that we have to go through a lot more, but it's just a fact. If I want to see a more representative government, I have to play my part."
Hannan Adely is an education and diversity reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.