Shama Haider from Tenafly took a milestone in New Jersey politics last week, becoming the first Muslim to win a seat in the state legislature. Soon she may not be alone in this historic feat: Sadaf Jaffer, the former mayor of Montgomery Township, is now leading in a tight race for the Central Jersey State Senate.
Yet as Muslims applauded the rise of the two women, both Pakistani Americans, they also learned that another candidate surrounded by more fanfare had written sectarian comments on Islam online.
Republican Ed Durr, who defeated the powerful Democratic leader of the State Senate, denigrated the religion followed by more than 300,000 state residents as a “cult of hatred” and a “false religion” in the comments on social media that garnered attention after his upset victory.
In New Jersey, home to more elected Muslims than any other state, Durr’s remarks sparked a storm, leading the Gloucester County Truck Driver to apologize. He is due to meet with Muslim leaders on Wednesday, said Jacqueline Vigilante, GOP chairperson for Gloucester County.
Muslims win elected office and Durr’s swift apology might seem like a sign of progress for a population that has long faced Islamophobic sentiment in politics, especially in the 20 years that have passed since the September 11 attacks.
But such insults remain all too common, said Selaedin Maksut, executive director of the New Jersey section of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which arranged the meeting with Durr.
In other cases, officials have not apologized or expressed regret that seem insincere, Maksut said.
“There is a deep-rooted hatred for the other and especially for the religion of Islam,” he said. “Some hid it. Others, unlike Durr, did not apologize. We cannot forget that the last president literally said ‘I think Islam hates us.’ “
Durr, a little-known contender who defeated State Senator Steve Sweeney on a shoestring, did not respond to a request for comment. The Associated Press declared Durr the winner, although Sweeney has yet to concede.
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In a statement last week, Durr said he sometimes said things “in the heat of the moment.” He added: “If I have said things in the past that have hurt someone’s feelings, I sincerely apologize.”
“I support the right of everyone to worship however they want and to worship the God of their choice,” he said in the statement. “I support everyone and I support everyone’s rights. That’s what I’m here to do, to work for people and to defend their rights.
Wasique Narvel, president of the Islamic Garden State Center, which includes a campus in Bridgeton, which is part of the New Durr District, said he had not heard from the Republican until last week’s surprise results. He was unsure whether the comments came from “ignorance” or “meanness,” he said.
“The beginning of a process”
“Fanatical statements are not welcome by anyone,” Narvel said. “They need to be educated on the reality of who we are. It is definitely the start of a process.”
Durr’s apology showed that people have a lot to learn about Islam, said former Teaneck mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin. He noted that Durr’s statement underscored support for people “to worship the God of their choice.”
Islam, Judaism and Christianity are all Abrahamic, meaning they have their roots in Abraham and all believe in the same God revealed to the Biblical Patriarch, Hameeduddin said.
Haider called Durr’s comments “heinous” and “out of touch with the state of New Jersey.” She hoped Durr “could come out of his hatred and learn that serving public service is about serving all communities, not just the one you come from,” she said.
Haider, a Bergen County Democrat who won a race for a free seat in the Assembly, has served on the Tenafly Borough Council and local councils and commissions. She said she did not face prejudice because of her faith.
“I think because I had been active,” she said. “I was involved in the parents’ association when my children were at school. We used to have an active League of Voters. I was a member of the environmental commissions and the Planning Council.
“I did a lot of door to door, so people knew my name,” she added. “I was considered a resident of Tenafly more than anything.”
The same is not true of Jaffer, who gained national attention after becoming the country’s first female Muslim mayor. After news reports about her election, she was bombarded with hate messages from across the country, most online.
Her desire to build bridges between communities was a factor that pushed her to run for local and state offices, she said in an interview.
Jaffer claimed victory in the race for the 16th Legislative District and had a lead of around 2,100 votes on Tuesday. The Associated Press has yet to declare a winner in the race.
Eric Naing, director of communications at Muslim Advocates, a Washington, DC-based rights group, said events in New Jersey reflected the national Muslim experience.
It is heartwarming to see Haider and Jaffer “running around and claiming spaces in public life,” he said. On the other hand, Naing added, Durr’s old messages are a reminder “that anti-Muslim forces are still strong.”
Still, the Republican’s willingness to meet with Muslim leaders is a sign of progress, he said. Durr also deleted his Twitter page; his Facebook page is no longer accessible to the public.
“His openness to responding to criticism from Muslims has been encouraging,” Naing said. “We hope he will listen to and build on the community. “
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, prejudice and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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