Soon after Heba Macksoud, 52, posted an image stating “I stand with Palestine” in a local Facebook group for residents of Marlboro, New Jersey, she began receiving an onslaught of abuse.

Members of the group wrote negative reviews for her family-owned pharmacy, calling her a “Jew hater”, and sent death threats to her niece’s car detailing business in nearby Manalapan. Someone even posted a YouTube video of her at a pro-Palestine protest in the group.

Macksoud, who wears a hijab, is now using a hat to cover her hair when she goes out. She has also stopped going out in public unaccompanied. “I feel people staring at me like I’m inferior,” Macksoud, told the newsletter Central Desi. “I felt this way after 9/11.” Macksoud, however, is undeterred. I’m going to keep speaking up,” she said.

New Jersey has seen a 733% spike in acts of bigotry against Muslims in the four weeks after the October 7 attack by Hamas militants on Israel and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations of New Jersey.

Dina Sayedahmed, spokesperson for Council on American Islamic Relations of New Jersey, says the organisation typically received two to four reports of anti-Muslim bigotry. But since October 7, the council has been receiving about 25 calls per week.

Muslims in the United States have reported seeing similar patterns of hate as in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack and in the lead up to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ripped Quran, called ‘terrorist’

One Friday morning in October, a Southasian restaurant owner in South Jersey woke up to a Quran being ripped apart and scattered in front of her restaurant, Council Director Selaedin Maksut said during a press conference on October 16.

At Rutgers University, an educational institute with one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States, Muslim Chaplain Kaiser Aslam said Muslim students have filed dozens of reports of bias, including being spat on or called “terrorists” since early October. A university spokesperson said that the Office of Student Affairs reviews and considers all individual claims of bias.

On November 25, three Palestinian college students were shot at in Burlington in Vermont. One of the students has suffered paralysis chest-down and is undergoing treatment. The three students were speaking Arabic and wearing keffiyehs, a checked scarf that symbolises Palestinian identity and resistance. Law enforcement is investigating if the incident was a hate crime.

Last month, a six-year-old Palestinian child, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was stabbed 26 times by his landlord.

New Jersey has one of the largest Southasian populations in the US. Many Southasians are Muslim, and anti-Muslim bigotry and hate affects the Southasian community as a whole. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Balibir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, was murdered in a hate crime.

Anti-Semitism has also been on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The League reported a 316% increase in antisemitic incidents nationally in the month following October 7. It did not respond to an emailed request for state-specific figures.

Illustration by Kaycee Nwakudu for Central Desi, via Sapan News.

Activists targeted

Much of the current spate of Islamophobic hate has been focused on those speaking out against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Members of the Jewish communities and others are also among those targeted.

Aslam of Rutgers University said students fear being targeted or losing job prospects if they speak out in support of Palestine. Fatima Ahmad, a Southasian senior at Rutgers University, said Muslim students feel as if their “voices are continuously being silenced”.

Ahmad said that when she and her friends attended a pro-Palestine protest on Princeton University’s campus, some passers-by called them “terrorists”.

Other youngsters who expressed support for Palestine have also faced threats and harassment, says Sayedahmed of the Council on American Islamic Relations of New Jersey. Students at Cherry Hill Public High School who brought Palestine flags to school or wore keffiyehs have faced online and in person harassment by peers and their parents, she told Central Desi. One student is reported to have ripped off another’s hijab in the school.

Cherry Hill Public School did not respond to a request for comment. Sayedahmed said that the Council has also received reports of people losing their jobs for posting online about Palestine.

Keeping faith

Despite the risks, many members of the New Jersey community are firm in their resolve to speak out against the assault on Gaza – like Renée Steinhagen, director of a law firm in New Jersey. Steinhagen, who called herself a “Holocaust Jew”, said that as the child of survivors, she stands firmly against the “horrors and grave injustice” that Israel is perpetrating on Gaza. Speaking on behalf of the Jewish Voice for Peace, Steinhagen said she is committed to “never again for anyone”.

Anam Raheem, a freelance writer from New Jersey who worked for an international development tech startup in Gaza between 2017 and 2021, has been vocally supporting the Palestinian cause. Raheem, who writes for news outlets, said she would continue writing about Palestine.

“If this bars career opportunities for me, those career opportunities weren’t aligned for me,” she said Raheem. Muslim leaders in New Jersey say the community is coming together and bridging connections across cultures and religions.

On November 13, the Northern New Jersey chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, of which Steinhagen is a part of, organised an interfaith rally outside the office of Senator Cory Booker’s Newark office on November 13 demanding a ceasefire.

“I’ve seen some beautiful expressions of vigils and prayers being organised as a result of this,” said Aslam. “For certain students, it’s pushed them towards their outward expressions of religiosity. I’ve heard women say, ‘I’m now wearing a hijab’, because they want to express their solidarity more.”

Rutgers student Ahmad said it had strengthened her belief in her faith. “When one part of the ummah [Muslim community] is hurting, the rest of the ummah is hurting,” she said. “It’s a humanitarian crisis, not a religious war, but it’s increasing our faith.”

Sofia Ahmed is a multimedia journalist reporting on immigration, equity and race in New York City. She was trained at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and is a 2023-’24 reporting fellow for Central Desi, a newsletter covering the South Asian community in New Jersey.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature, produced in collaboration with Central Desi where the piece was first published.

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