In Fight Against Islamophobia, Muslim Americans Focus On The Ballot Box

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There was a spike in hate crimes against Muslim-Americans after September 11, 2001. Now on the 15th anniversary of those terror attacks, Muslim leaders say that Islamophobia is rising again. In New York, a string of recent murders has left the city's Muslim residents on edge, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In the last month, three Bangladeshi immigrants wearing traditional Muslim dress were killed on the streets of Queens. One of them was the imam of a modest storefront mosque in a working-class neighborhood called Ozone Park.

BAZLUR RAHMAN: This neighborhood is still scared, you know, everybody's scared.

SIMON: Bazlur Rahman and a few dozen other men gathered for afternoon prayers at the mosque this week.

RAHMAN: A lot of Muslim people don't come to the Masjid because they are scared, you know?

ROSE: Imam Maulama Akonjee and an associate were walking home from this mosque on a Saturday afternoon when they were both shot from behind, execution-style, on a busy street. The suspect is facing murder charges though prosecutors declined to charge him with a hate crime, which can be difficult to prove. But to Bazlur Rahman, it's hard to see this any other way. The imam had an iPhone and a significant amount of cash in his pockets when he was killed. The alleged killer didn't take either.

RAHMAN: He have, like, $1,000 in his pocket. If you say it's mugging, you know, money is there, phone is there and somebody come behind just shoot, you know, two people in Muslim dress. And it - so I will say absolutely hate crimes.

ROSE: Last week, in another Queens neighborhood, a Bangladeshi woman in traditional Muslim dress was stabbed to death on her way home from work. Prosecutors say the suspect confessed to committing the crime, quote, "in the course of an attempted robbery," unquote. But, again, community leaders are skeptical because none of her possessions were taken. Ali Najmi is a lawyer in Queens.

ALI NAJMI: In the last month there have been three murders of people who were visibly Muslim and we don't know why. Whether we can prove it in court or not, we think that there is a causation. That's what a lot of people on the ground are feeling - that it's related.

ROSE: Related, Najmi says, to the heated rhetoric of the presidential race. Republican nominee Donald Trump says he saw, quote, "thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on September 11, 2001." There's no evidence that Trump's claim is true, but Najmi says those words can still have real effects.

NAJMI: He's the one beating the drum. He's one riling people up. He's the one that's saying he's going to ban Muslims. He's the one that's saying we can't trust these people.

ROSE: But some Muslim leaders say there may be another consequence of Trump's rhetoric, one the candidate himself probably did not intend.

AZRA BAIG: Assalamu alaikum, are you registered to vote?

ROSE: Azra Baig hands out voter registration forms after Friday prayers at Masjid Al-Wali, a large mosque in central New Jersey. Politics hasn't always been a priority for Muslims here. Many are first- or second-generation Americans whose families came from countries where voting may be just a token exercise. Mahmood Alam is a board member at the mosque.

MAHMOOD ALAM: They are going through their own struggles, getting acquainted in this country and working hard for their children who are born here. So getting into the politics is the last thing in their mind.

ROSE: But Muslim leaders hope this year will be different. In New Jersey, they're making a push to register voters ahead of the November election. And they're using Donald Trump's words as motivation.

SHARIQ AHMAD: He's having the opposite effect of, I guess, what was intended by using all this hateful rhetoric.

ROSE: Shariq Ahmad is one of the organizers of the New Jersey Muslim Voters Project.

AHMAD: I think what you're going to see this time around is a political awakening for the Muslim-American community.

ROSE: But that awakening can only happen one new voter at a time. At Friday prayers in Edison, Azra Baig was busy.

BAIG: And as you see, I gave out dozens of voter registration forms. So I think we still have a lot of work to do.

ROSE: Baig and others are planning a registration push across New Jersey on Monday during the Eid al-Adha. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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