European Eye on Radicalization
Sayed Elnakib, the imam of a mosque in Paterson, New Jersey, in the United States, is in a stable condition after he was stabbed during a prayer service as part of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on 9 April.
Elnakib was stabbed during the first prayer of the day, around 5:30 a.m., at Omar Mosque in south Paterson while the congregation was kneeling for prayer, mosque spokesperson Abdul Hamdan told CNN.
The suspect, who was unknown to congregants prior to Sunday’s incident, was performing prayers and “lunged forward with a knife and stabbed Imam Sayed multiple times—at least twice,” Hamdan said.
After the incident, the suspect attempted to flee from the mosque but congregants “were able to bring him down and apprehend him and hold him” until police arrived and arrested him, he said.
There were more than 200 congregants in the mosque at the time of the stabbing, Hamdan said. The spokesperson said he strongly believes that this was an isolated incident and assured all congregants “that the mosque is safe and to practice their faith, it is open.”
The attacker has been identified as Serif Zorba, 32: he has been arrested and “charged with first-degree attempted murder, third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon … The maximum sentence for his alleged crimes is around 26 years”.
Zorba’s motivations are not yet clear. There is some evidence the incident was not quite so “isolated”, however.
A day earlier, a sign had been defaced at the Dr. Hani Awadallah public school in Paterson, and a local activist group was calling for a “hate crimes” investigation, claiming that anti-Muslim activities reached a new high last year, especially “during Ramadan, in part because Muslims are more visible and take up more space—physically and metaphorically.”
Paterson—a city of 150,000 people—has one of the largest Muslim communities in New Jersey, and the state overall has the highest proportion of Muslims of any state in America.
There was an uptick in anti-Muslim attacks and other incidents after Al-Qaeda attacked New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. Prejudice, leading to Muslims being smeared as “terrorist” or otherwise stereotyped has in some ways increased in the years since, partly as a backlash to Muslims becoming more prominent and politically active in the U.S., which has occurred in tandem with the rise of a populist far-Right symbolised by Donald Trump becoming President.
While the increasing visibility of the far-Right in the West—and the access to guns that movement has in the United States—are alarming, there are some signs of optimism for Muslims in America. American public opinion has been growing more favourable to Muslims: it is now split roughly fifty-fifty between favourable and unfavourable, as compared to sixty-forty unfavourable a decade ago. Mormons and even more so atheists are in a similar position to Muslims. In terms of hate crimes, Muslims are the third-most victimised group in the U.S., below Sikhs and way below Jews. As is true elsewhere in the West, Jews are the single most targeted religious group.
The social tensions caused by failed integration policy and misdirected responses to jihadist terrorism are not unique to America. Similar dynamics can be seen across the West, including in very liberal countries like Canada and Sweden. Finding ways to educate publics, facilitate cross-community dialogue, and isolate extremists on all sides—Islamists and the far-Right—who thrive on, and deliberately promote, these divisions, remains an important part of government counter-extremism policies.
At this time of year, when the three great monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have their holiest festivals it is an opportune time to focus on ways to promote tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to counter those who would use societal diversity to promote hatred.