Secaucus residents turned out in force this past week to take a stand against intimidation. Hundreds of residents filled Town Hall for the council meeting on Wednesday when two students from the Junior State of America (JSA) and their chapter adviser, teacher Michael Gehm, spoke out after a troubling incident in town.
“Last Thursday, two men, who were around the age of 50, approached my 25-year-old sister in front of the Laundromat in the center of town and [allegedly] verbally harassed and nearly attacked her,” said Fedah Mohammed, a 17-year-old student at Secaucus High School who was born and raised in town as a Muslim-American.
The reason for her sister’s verbal assault: she was wearing a hijab, or head scarf, prompting a rain of “derogatory terms and racial slurs” from the two men, both Secaucus residents, who told the woman to “go back to your country” and “you’re not welcome here, you Muslim terrorist,” according to Mohammed.
“They didn’t physically do anything to her but it sounded like they were in her face,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli at the meeting.
Gonnelli said he believed the incident may have been prompted by the arrest days earlier of half a dozen Secaucus residents of Pakistani descent as part of a credit card fraud scheme busted by federal and state investigators. The residents were unrelated to the victim.
The alleged bias incident took place on Front Street in the center of town. The men were both arrested and bail was set at $2,500 with a 10 percent option. Both men posted bail.
Speaking to the Town Council and assembled residents, Mohammed described the climate of fear and threat fomented by intolerance and misunderstanding.
“A simple trip to the Laundromat while she waited for my mom to finish cooking dinner turned into a traumatizing experience that [my sister] will remember forever,” she said. “This is only one incident out of the hundreds that have been happening all around the world against Muslims. Although no other traumatizing experiences have occurred in our town here, I have heard endless stories about Muslims being discriminated against, or worst, attacked and violated, simply because of their religion. People at malls are being verbally attacked; people walking the streets of their own town are being screamed at; people are scared to even walk outside without being screamed at or worse, hurt. Mosques all around New Jersey are being threatened with letters. People are writing letters to these mosques, threatening to bomb them or set them on fire.”
“I completely understand that non-Muslims are afraid of the hate crimes being committed by extremist groups like ISIS,” she added, but, “Just because ISIS is supposedly a ‘Muslim’ group does not mean that they are a representation of all Muslims around this world. Saying every Muslim shares the same beliefs as ISIS is just like saying all Germans share the same beliefs as the Nazis; it’s like saying that all white people share the same beliefs as the Ku Klux Klan; it’s like saying that if a Chinese man, an African American man, or a Spanish man committed a horrid crime, then all Chinese, African, or Spanish men are like that one man. Oftentimes, the actions of the radical few are used to determine those of an entire race, religion, etc.”
Also speaking at the meeting was Iqra Ahmed, chapter president of the Secaucus High School Junior State of America, announcing the JSA initiative promoting “Stand for Reason: Intelligence over Ignorance.”
“These are our top students,” said Gonnelli, noting that several residents contacted him to express their fear to even leave their homes in the wake of the bias incident. “These kids are the best of the best. And they shouldn’t have to live one day worried.”
“We need to learn how to realize that generalizations are wrong,” said Mohammed. “We cannot generalize an entire race or religion based on a select few who are a part of that race or religion. We cannot keep overlooking the peaceful and loving Muslims who live their lives everyday spreading peace and kindness, just to focus on these violent extremist groups, such as ISIS.”
Chapter Advisor Michael Gehm also spoke at the meeting to offer a cogent commentary on the confused state of tolerance in our society, and the need to accept people but not behavior.
“My students in the Junior State of America never cease to amaze me and even humble me,” he said after the event. “They truly are awesome young men and women, mature beyond their years.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.