SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A fire at a mosque in Southern California last night is being investigated as an intentional act and possibly a hate crime. Heightened Islamophobia in America has prompted feelings of fear, anger and disappointment among Muslims. But it's also left Muslim leaders determined to find a way forward. NPR's Joel Rose reports from northern New Jersey, home to the nation's second largest Muslim population.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: One of the state's oldest and biggest Muslim neighborhoods is on the south side of Paterson. Main Street looks like a classic New Jersey town, only dozens of shops and restaurants have signs in Arabic, as well as English.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).
ROSE: At Abu Rass restaurant, the big topic of conversation all week has been Donald Trump and the Republican presidential candidate's plan to block all Muslims from entering the country.
ABDELLAH ISA: It makes me deeply hurt.
ROSE: Abdellah Isa (ph) immigrated to the U.S. from Jordan 30 years ago. Now he owns a business delivering pita bread to stores and restaurants across New Jersey and New York City.
ISA: I consider this as a country - my country. I'm American citizen and I have a lot of love for this country because the opportunity that I got here I never found anywhere.
ROSE: There are roughly 30,000 Muslims in Paterson, with tens of thousands more scattered across suburban North Jersey. Their families came from Bangladesh, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian territories. But many were born here, like Al Abdel-aziz, who's running for City Council in South Paterson.
BILAL ABDEL-AZIZ: I constantly tell people we practice a religion, regardless of what religion it is, and we are regular Americans. I don't know no other country in the world.
ROSE: For many Muslims here, the American dream has actually worked. They've become doctors and lawyers and business owners, raising their families in comfortable middle-class suburbs, which may be one reason why Trump's comments and the flood of Islamophobia they've unleashed continue to rattle these communities, says Mohamed El-Filali of Elmwood Park.
MOHAMED EL-FILALI: We are shocked. We're not surprised of Islamophobia, but the openness and how it's conducted and how it's condoned by certain elements of our society is just very, very sad.
ROSE: Muslim leaders say there have been just a handful of documented incidents of harassment in New Jersey. But people talk about personal interactions that are difficult to report, like bullying in the school locker room or lingering suspicious glances at women who wear the headscarf known as hijab.
BAYAN ABBASI: I'm so scared. I get scared to leave the house at night.
ROSE: Bayan Abbasi (ph) lives in Hackensack.
ABBASI: So I get so scared. I think that I can't drive alone with my daughter. If I want to - if I'm driving and I want to switch a lane, I'm extra careful in case if the person in the car sees me wearing the hijab and gets very angry.
ROSE: Donald Trump has claimed repeatedly that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating on September 11. Community leaders here say that simply didn't happen and local law enforcement officials agree. But even without evidence, the rumor persists.
SALAHUDDIN MUSTAFA: I think it tells a lot of us that we have to work a lot harder.
ROSE: Salahuddin Mustafa (ph) is a member of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, a prominent mosque in Paterson.
MUSTAFA: It's very frustrating when it's framed as if the Muslim community either has one of two choices. It either has a choice of being a good American or supporting ISIS. That's such a false characterization. It's a fringe of a fringe of a fringe that has nothing to with who we are.
ROSE: Mustafa is confident there will be a time when U.S. Muslims aren't constantly asked to prove that they are loyal Americans, that they'll be fully accepted like many other immigrant groups before them. But that seems further off than he hoped. Joel Rose, NPR News, Paterson, N.J.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.