The days following the terrible March terror attack in Brussels, when an ISIS cell planted bombs that killed at least 35 people injured more than 300, was a tense time for the whole world, but especially for Chris Rodriguez, director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.
By coincidence, Rodriguez was presiding over a regular quarterly meeting of his department’s Interfaith Advisory Council, a meeting I was invited to observe. The Muslim representatives on the council — about a quarter of the total — were, of course, horrified by the attack. But they had another concern as well: the proposal by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, then a leading Republican candidate for president, for “law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” The idea had been praised by Cruz’s rival, Donald Trump, who had already declared that “Islam hates us” and announced a plan for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
The month before, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rodriguez’s boss, had endorsed Trump for president.
Imam Mustafa El-Amin, of the Masjid Ibrahim mosque in Newark, N.J., had some questions for Rodriguez. Would there be increased security for Muslims in the state to guard against retaliatory attacks? And what was he supposed to tell members of his congregation who asked why the state’s governor was supporting a man who seemed to delight in taunting and making enemies of fellow Muslims?
The questions required another iteration of the delicate balancing act Rodriguez, 38 — a New Jersey native, the son of a Guatemalan immigrant, and a former CIA counterterrorism analyst — has been performing since Christie named him to the post in 2014. His job is to help keep the state safe from terrorists, including allies and followers of ISIS. But he also must protect New Jersey’s 400,000 Muslim residents from attacks that might be directed against them — and earn their trust and cooperation in the larger struggle. It’s a difficult job, made more so by the political climate. Some terror experts, such as Josh Cohen, senior adviser at the Rutgers University Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security, worry that divisive rhetoric from “highly visible individuals … drives a wedge between those who are trying to address these issues and the very communities they need to work with.”
So he works tirelessly to keep open lines of communication, holding both regular and ad hoc briefings on terrorism, issuing regular podcasts, email newsletters and Facebook postings that make the New Jersey office a model for state homeland security departments. An expanded youth outreach program, which over the next year will enlist educators and mental health professionals, aims to identify for possible intervention those who may be at risk of radicalization. And Rodriguez makes himself available at all hours. Most of the members of the Interfaith Council, he said, “certainly the Muslim members, have my personal cellphone number and they can get in touch with me at any time they want.”
The next 10 days are expected to be crucial, because by a quirk of the calendar the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will likely overlap with the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid el-Adha. The nightmare scenario is that Muslims observing Eid will be mistaken for terrorist sympathizers celebrating the attacks, leading to a confrontation — which is why the OHSP has been conscientiously spreading the word about the holiday to everyone in the state. “This is consistent with what we see as our role in the state,” Rodriguez explains, “providing the public with the awareness that, if there are Muslims celebrating during September 11, that it is important for them to celebrate their high holiday freely and securely.”
The issue is particularly touchy in light of Trump’s assertion that “thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center, publicly celebrated the collapse of the Twin Towers — something he claims to have personally witnessed, although apparently no one else did. His remarks were cited in anonymous threats received by a Jersey City mosque and Islamic Center, and the New Jersey branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, an antidiscrimination group, says it regularly hears from Muslim residents who have been threatened or harassed. National statistics show that hate crimes against Muslims — everything from harassment to murder (12 cases in 2015) — are on the rise.
Christie’s endorsement of Trump has inflicted a severe case of cognitive dissonance on many New Jersey Muslims, who generally praise the governor as fair and open-minded. The Interfaith Advisory Council on which El-Amin sits grew out of a Muslim outreach program the state initiated in 2012, in the wake of disclosures that the New York City Police Department had been conducting undercover surveillance of mosques, including some in New Jersey. Christie condemned the spying program, appointed an attorney named Sohail Mohammed as a Superior Court judge (and defended him against suspicions he would rule by Sharia), and even hosted a dinner at the governor’s mansion to mark another sacred Muslim holiday, the end of the Ramadan fast.
The result, says El-Amin, who supported Christie both in his run for governor and his presidential campaign, is that “a lot of trust” that was broken after the spying program “has been rebuilt.” But it made Christie’s endorsement of
Trump even more of a shock. “[Trump’s] language, this demagoguery, puts a lot of people at risk,” he said. “For the governor to stand up and say, ‘this is the best man for president,’ that makes it difficult for me as a leader.”
Wasim Muhammed, a minister at Nation of Islam Muhammad’s Temple of Islam No. 20 in Camden, N.J., said that while he too was “quite surprised” by the endorsement, “I can only go by what my personal conversations and personal interactions with the governor have been, and it’s been totally different from his endorsement of Donald Trump.”
After all, he asked, just because someone endorses a candidate, does that mean they agree with everything the candidate might say?
“I can separate that baby from the bathwater,” he said.
Mohamed Younes, president of the American Muslim Union in Paterson, N.J., and a longtime member of the Interfaith Advisory Council, shook off Christie’s endorsement just as easily, saying that the governor is merely “looking for a job.”
“I know the guy personally,” he told me in March. “I know how he feels about Muslims. That’s not his feeling.”
Meanwhile, Rodriguez is working day and night to keep open communications with the Islamic community and to reassure Muslims of his commitment to keep them, and the rest of the state, safe. He discreetly steers clear of discussing national politics, but recently admitted that the Muslims he deals with are perplexed and concerned about the direction the Trump campaign is taking. Whenever possible, he steers the conversation back to facts.
The increase in attacks on Muslims throughout the U.S. over the past year, he says, “that’s a fact, that’s quantifiable.” But it is also true that a majority of Americans — not an overwhelming majority, but “60 to 65 percent … believe that Muslims contribute meaningfully to American society.”
Tensions rose after a prominent New York City imam was shot to death, along with a friend — although the police have not yet ascribed a motive to the alleged gunman, who has been arrested and charged with murder.
“Rhetoric is always going to be out there,” Rodriguez continues. “This is not the first time that people have spoken out against a minority group or political candidates have done it. But my concern mostly is for the security of the people who I serve. At the end of the day, they also have to know that we’re there for them.”