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As war rages in Middle East, US Muslims battle Islamophobia

With tensions on the rise, Muslims in the United States must stay vigilant in the face of bigotry, advocates say.

Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, executive director of the Center for American-Islamic Relations Massachusetts, was photographed in 2018 as she met voters during an unsuccessful run for the US House of Representatives.Suzanne Kreiter

Muslim Americans and organizations supporting them are bracing for an uptick in Islamophobic incidents as war rages between Israel and Hamas, and a 6-year-old Muslim boy in Illinois was killed over the weekend in an apparent hate crime.

On Saturday, 71-year-old Joseph M. Czuba was charged with fatally stabbing the boy and seriously wounding his mother, who rented their home outside Chicago from Czuba. Police declared the attack a hate crime after relatives of the landlord said he targeted the victims because of their faith, in response to the war between Israel and Hamas. The boy was described as Palestinian American.

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Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, executive director of the Center for American-Islamic Relations Massachusetts, said its helpline has received a record number of calls in the last week, and its three-person staff has been working 12-hour days answering phones and hosting emergency webinars with community members and activists.

“We’ve just been working non-stop,” she said.

Part of the center’s work is helping Muslims stay safe, especially during periods of increased Islamophobia. Amatul-Wadud said it is important for Muslims to be aware of their surroundings, use the buddy system, and know that there are threats out there.

Amatul-Wadud said the three most common targets for Islamophobia are Muslim women wearing hijab, mosques, and Sikh men. Though Sikhism is different from Islam, Amatul-Wadud said brown people of many religions are at risk “when anti-Muslim bigotry starts flying.”

It’s important that Muslims be both proactive and reactive, she said. Gathering to pray and support each other within the Muslim community is essential, as is developing interfaith relationships and leaning on neighbors, she said.

“People are nervous, and rightfully so,” Amatul-Wadud said. “They need their communities for reassurance.”

Amatul-Wadud called on those of other faiths to refocus their views of the conflict in Gaza on people and to “humanize everyone involved.”

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Speaking of the child killed outside Chicago, she said, “That sort of radicalism happens when people are looked at as animals, which is some of the language used against Muslims.”.

Ali Chaudry, who lives outside Boston, said fellow Muslims should take steps to protect themselves from potential hate crimes.

“We have a duty to ourselves to be more vigilant about our surroundings and take steps to secure our safety,” Chaudry said.

Chaudry, who previously worked in the pharmacy industry, was trained to navigate active shooter situations and has taken those trainings to his local mosque, where he started a security program of volunteer officers and hired local police officers to protect the place of worship. While these precautions won’t solve Islamophobia, they help protect Muslims from falling victim to it, Chaudry said.

When out with his wife and their daughters, Chaudry said he stays vigilant and aware of his surroundings, and uses tracking devices to keep tabs on his children. While he generally feels safe in his neighborhood, he said he installed security cameras and rewatches the feed daily to pick up on potential threats.

“We have technology at our hands that we can take advantage of to make sure we’re not victims,” Chaudry said.

He added that while reactivity is essential for keeping Muslims safe during periods of violence, being proactive can help stop harmful mindsets from forming. Educating about Islam is just as important — but for a different time, he said.

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“Anybody can listen to Fox News and say, ‘I hate Islam,’” Chaudry said. “You need to meet a Muslim to see what we do on a daily basis. We have our prayers, we have gatherings, holidays, events.”


Vivi Smilgius can be reached at vivi.smilgius@globe.com. Follow her @viviraye.