New Jersey sees over 700% rise in Isamophobia since Oct. 7

Despite threats since the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 followed by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, community members across religious divides say they feel compelled to speak up

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

Members of the group started giving her family-owned pharmacy negative reviews, calling her a “Jew hater,” and sending 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 and Macksoud, who wears a hijab, is now using a hat to cover her hair when she goes out.

“I stopped going out in public without somebody with me. I feel people staring at me like I’m inferior. I felt this way after 9/11,” said Macksoud, 52, told Central Desi. “It definitely has not made me want to be quiet. I’m going to keep speaking up.”

New Jersey saw a 733% spike in acts of bigotry against Muslims in the four weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, the Council on American Islamic Relations of New Jersey  (CAIR NJ).

Anti-Semitism has also been on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The organization which takes up cudgels on behalf of Jews in the United States reported a 316% increase in antisemitic incidents nationally in the month following Oct. 7. They have not responded to an emailed request for state-specific figures.

Sharp spike

Dina Sayedahmed, spokesperson for CAIR NJ, says the organization typically received two to four reports of anti-Muslim bigotry in a week before Oct. 7, says spokeswoman. Since then, they’ve been receiving about 25 calls per week.

A ‘Desi’ (Southasian*) restaurant owner in South Jersey woke up on a Friday morning in October to a Quran being ripped apart and scattered in front of her restaurant, CAIR NJ Director Selaedin Maksut, said during a press conference.

At Rutgers University, a school with one of the largest Muslim populations in the country, 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.

Gaza’s population is predominantly Muslim, with a small Christian community.

Muslims in the United States have reported seeing similar patterns of anti-Muslim hate as in the aftermath of 9/11, and in the time leading up to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Most recently, three Palestinian college students were shot in Burlington, Vt., last week while speaking Arabic and wearing keffiyehs, a checkered scarf that symbolizes Palestinian identity and resistance. Authorities are investigating whether the incident was a hate crime. 

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

New Jersey has one of the largest Southasian populations in the U.S. Many South Asians are Muslim, and anti-Muslim racism impacts the Southasian community as a whole. In the aftermath of 9/11, Balibir Singh Sodhi, who was Sikh, was murdered in a hate crime.

Activists targeted

Much of the current Islamophobic hate has been focused on those speaking out against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, including members of the Jewish and other communities. Gaza’s population is predominantly Muslim, with a small Christian community.

Aslam said students are expressing concern about 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 out, terming them “terrorists.”

Other young people in the state who expressed support for Palestine have also faced threats and harassment, says Dina Sayedahmed of CAIR 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 says that CAIR New Jersey has also received reports of people losing their jobs for posting online about Palestine.

Community remains resolute

Despite the risks, many New Jersey community members are continuing to speak out against the violence in Gaza.

They include people like Renée Steinhagen, director of a law firm in WHICH CITY. Like many Holocaust survivors and their descendents, she is determined to commit 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 vocal about speaking out in support of Palestine. Raheem writes for various news outlets, including her own Substack, and said she would continue telling stories about Palestine.

“If this bars career opportunities for me, those career opportunities weren’t aligned for me,” Raheem said in an interview.

Muslim leaders in New Jersey say their community is coming together in this trying moment and bridging connections across cultures and religions.  Muslims took part in an interfaith rally for a ceasefire organized by the Northern New Jersey chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace outside Sen. Cory Booker’s Newark office on Nov. 13.

“I’ve seen some beautiful expressions of vigils and prayers being organized as a result of this,” Aslam said. “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 described herself as “unapologetically Pakistani Muslim.”

“It’s made me stronger in my faith,” Ahmad said. “When one part of the ummah [Muslim community] is hurting, the rest of the ummah is hurting. 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 Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and is a 2023-24 reporting fellow 2023-34 for Central Desi, a newsletter covering the South Asian community in New Jersey.