In Paterson, where an estimated 20 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, comments like those made by 2016 GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country hits close to home.
Paterson’s Ward 6 is a Muslim enclave in the city. Al Abdel-Aziz is challenging sitting councilman Andre Sayegh in 2016 for the council seat in what appears to be an increasingly contentious battle. According to Abdel-Aziz, Trump’s comments have had a negative impact on the ward’s residents.
“I am a Muslim and what I am hearing from the constituents and the people in our area in general is that they are fearful,” Abdel-Aziz said. “They are fearful that the rhetoric and the hate that Donald Trump is spewing is going to lead to someone getting hurt. It is very sad.”
According to Abdel-Aziz—who seems to have the support of Paterson Mayor Joey Torres as he pursues election—people in the 6th ward are trying to continue living as they normally would despite incendiary remarks like those made by Trump.
“The people in our area are just continuing in the life that they live,” Abdel-Aziz said. “Fortunately, the ward that I am in is extremely diverse and people accept us. Our neighbors know what we are and who we are, that we practice a religion and we are regular Americans.”
Though Councilman Sayegh is a Christian, he represents the 6th ward and the many Muslims who call it home. Like his challenger, he said that Trump’s words were unacceptable and “ignorance at it’s worst.”
“When I say it is ignorance at its worst, it is not just Donald Trump’s ignorance, it is the people that are supporting him,” Sayegh said. “The audiences are applauding his ignorance. That is probably what concerns Muslims the most, that he has a receptive audience and that it is striking a chord.”
Like Sayegh, Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman is a sitting councilman who supports another heavily Muslim district in Paterson: Ward 2. Like Abdel-Aziz, Akhtaruzzaman identifies with the Islamic faith.
“He has no respect for humans in general,” said Akhtaruzzaman of Trump. “Our identify is human, second is religion. First, you have to love people. You cannot segregate people.”
According to Akhtaruzzaman, the statements have sparked “outrage” with Muslims both in and outside of Paterson. However, he feels that the outrage may actually be a good thing.
“I am glad he is saying this now because, God forbid, he becomes the president and then he says ‘I hate Muslims,’” Akhtaruzzaman said. “The truth is coming out and he is not going to win.”
Former Paterson Councilman Aslon Goow is also a Muslim. He last held office in 2012 but lost a bid for reelection to the council. He ran for mayor in 2014 and lost. According to Goow, though anti-Muslim statements are troubling, the support from those who have come out to denounce those negative comments is more telling than the comments themselves.
“This whole thing, this whole anti-Muslim movement is really minimal,” Goow said. “I think the Muslim community is getting more support at-large especially by higher-profile officials announcing that Muslims are not the problem. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s statements were right on.”
For Abdel-Aziz, that this discussion is being had in 2015 is a sad reality considering that “our country is built on immigrants.” “This is something that our country and our city were built on,” he said.
Though they don’t agree politically, both Abdel-Aziz and Sayegh did agree on one thing: that Donald Trump should visit Paterson and see how Muslims there are prospering and pursuing the American Dream.
“I will welcome Donald Trump to come to downtown Paterson and come walk with us, to see that there aren’t violent people here,” Abdel-Aziz said.
Sayegh echoed those remarks: “If he wants to see how productive Muslims can be as Americans, let him come to Paterson.”