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'We Do Not Feel Free:' Muslim Leaders Say Fear Heightens Under Trump

By Allegra Hobbs | February 3, 2017 5:00pm | Updated on February 5, 2017 5:31pm
 Abu Sufian is Imam of the Madina Masjid on East 11th Street.
Abu Sufian is Imam of the Madina Masjid on East 11th Street.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

LOWER EAST SIDE — When Donald Trump was elected president on Nov. 8, Imam Abu Sufian of the East Village's Madina Masjid hoped he would abandon his Islamophobic rhetoric and prayed he would be a successful leader for all Americans.

But the neighborhood faithful said they watched in fear as the new president seemed not only to double down on his campaign rhetoric, but to enact accompanying policies.

Trump on Jan. 26 signed an executive order barring refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, leaving dozens detained at John F. Kennedy Airport and spawning protests and rallies throughout the city. More than 100,000 visas were reportedly revoked after the order, according to CNN.

"After the election, we hoped that he would become the president of everyone, and he didn't do anything to improve the situation," said Sufian. "And the day he took the oath of office and after that, I really made a prayer for him on Friday, from the bottom of my heart...but what I saw, he put me down.

"Personally, I felt that he's put me down and has continued to put me down."

The ban was temporarily suspended nationwide by a Seattle federal judge Friday, and would be in effect until a district court judge considers a lawsuit filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, according to an NBC News report. The Department of Homeland Security on Saturday said it had suspended all actions to carry out Trump's order, according to CNN. The Department of Justice's request to immediately restore the ban was shot down by a federal appeals court.

But prior to the temporary suspension, Muslim religious leaders noted the ban had a marked effect on their community.

Fear of persecution among Muslim community members had already heightened after Nov. 8, noted Sufian, who said he himself had been a target of vitriol in the following days. A stranger driving by as Sufian dropped off his young daughter at school yelled "assimilate" out of his window, he said.

Anxiety among Muslims has increased since the ban, he said — some fear family members will be deported, while others are considering leaving the country out of fear of the anti-Muslim climate they feel the new administration has emboldened. 

“I see regardless of whatever situation you are in terms of your residency here, everyone is panicking,” he said.

A worshipper at the Assafa Islamic Center on Eldridge Street in the Lower East Side said his family had been afraid to travel since the ban — though he is a citizen, some family members have green cards.

“If they get stuck over there, do you think I’m going to like it?”  said the congregant, a taxi driver from Pakistan who declined to give his name, noting that although Pakistan was not on the list of banned countries he feared it may be added. 

“It’s very simple — we want to be together.”

The president of the center said a “paranoia” has hung over the community ever since the ban went into effect.

“We don’t feel free, that we have the freedom that has been given by the constitution,” said Dr. Nurur Rahman, who said he had discussed the possibility on Friday of having a member stand watch outside the Islamic center.

“We have been working, we have been productive, we have been paying taxes in the same way — we should feel free, but…we don’t feel that way. 

“We feel targeted,” he said. “We feel a general sense of paranoia.”

New York City saw a roughly 30 percent spike in hate crimes last year, including a surge in the week of the election — many were anti-Muslim crimes, stats show.

Rahman noted he found it difficult to discuss the ban with children who attend the center’s youth programs. 

Sufian said the same, noting his daughter in second grade — the oldest of three — is now absorbing the news and expressing trepidation about the future.

“If I turn on the TV, she will watch CNN, what they’re talking about, what’s going on, and she also worrying what’s gong to happen,” he said.

“That’s very striking to me. I cannot explain sometimes what’s going on. My daughter was born here, they’re from here, and they’re thinking ‘What’s going to happen to me because I’m Muslim?’”

Despite the climate of fear, watching thousands turn out for protests and rallies against the immigration ban has been extremely heartening, religious leaders say.

“I feel stronger than before when I see these rallies, when I see my neighbors coming and dropping letters, flowers, just to support us, comfort us that we are with you,” said Sufian. “That’s really given me so much courage.”

Rahman said his congregation is especially grateful for the protestors, “because Muslims don’t know what to do,” he said — many are afraid of personally joining the demonstrations, he said, because they fear Islamophobic attacks. 

Sufian said he feels roughly “90 percent” of the community harbors a similar fear — but he feels taking action is worthwhile.

“I’m not scared of anything,” said Sufian, who on Monday spoke at an interfaith rally in Tompkins Square Park condemning the ban. “Whatever happens, happens. But have to do my duty, my job."