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

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Men attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Edison, N.J.

After Sept. 11, 2001, there was a spike in hate crimes against Muslim Americans. Now, on the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks, Muslim leaders say Islamophobia is cresting once again. A string of recent murders in New York City has left the city's Muslim residents on edge.

In the last month, three Bangladeshi immigrants wearing traditional Muslim dress were killed on the streets of Queens. One of them was the imam at Al-Furqan Jame Masjid, a modest storefront mosque in a working-class neighborhood called Ozone Park.

"This neighborhood is still scared, everybody's scared," says Bazlur Rahman, one of a few dozen other men gathered for afternoon prayers at the mosque this week. "A lot of Muslim people don't come to the Masjid because they are scared."

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.

"He had like $1,000 in his pocket," Rahman says. "If you say it's mugging, money is there, phone is there. And somebody comes behind and just shoots two people in Muslim dress. So I will say absolutely, hate crimes."

Just over a week ago, a Bangladeshi woman in traditional Muslim dress was stabbed to death on her way home from work in Jamaica Hills, Queens. Prosecutors say the suspect confessed to the committing crime "in the course of an attempted robbery."

But again, community leaders are skeptical because none of her possessions were taken.

"In the last month, there have been three murders of people who are visibly Muslim, and we don't know why," says Ali Najmi, a lawyer in Queens. "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."

The killings are related, Najmi and others say, to the heated rhetoric of the presidential race.

Republican nominee Donald Trump says he saw "thousands" of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on Sept. 11, 2001. There's no evidence that Trump's claim is true. But Najmi says those words can still have real effects.

"He's the one beating the drum," Najmi says. "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."

But some Muslim leaders say there may be another consequence of Trump's rhetoric — one the candidate himself probably didn't intend.

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

"They are going through their own struggles, getting acquainted in this country and working hard for their children who are born here," says Mahmood Alam, a board member at the mosque. "So getting into the politics is the last thing in their mind."

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.

"He's having the opposite effect of, I guess, what was intended by using all this hateful rhetoric," says Shariq Ahmad, one of the organizers of the New Jersey Muslim Voters Project. "I think what you're going to see this time around is a political awakening for the Muslim American community."

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

"I gave out dozens of voter registration forms," Baig says. "So I think we still have a lot of work to do."

Baig and others are planning a registration push across New Jersey on Monday during the Eid al-Adha holiday.

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