ELIZABETH, N.J. — Nawaz Sheikh, president of the Muslim Community Center of Union County, says he never knew bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami, though his father, Mohammad, has been a regular at the Elizabeth mosque for years.
“His father was our member, he attended the mosque on a normal basis,” Sheikh told reporters at a press conference outside Elizabeth City Hall on Tuesday.
Sheikh and several other Muslim leaders from Elizabeth and other parts of New Jersey gathered here to condemn the bombings that took place in New York City and Seaside Park, N.J., over the weekend, and to emphasize that violence is not condoned by the Muslim faith.
“In Elizabeth, which is our city, we don’t have a radical Islamic problem,” said Hassem Abdellah, president of the Darul Islam mosque in Elizabeth. “And we don’t have imams who teach radical Islam. So it was important to us that the country understand that in our city, we have law-abiding Muslims who love America, who serve in the military, who go to schools, who are police officers and law enforcement.”
Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, talked about how the local Muslim community rallied to help in the hunt for Rahami, who was taken into FBI custody after a shootout with police officers in Linden, N.J., on Monday.
“I sent out an email about a little bit after 9 o’clock, once we saw the picture, to over 100 organizations that are a part of the New Jersey Muslim Coalition,” he said “We immediately felt that we needed to get every member of our community to play a part in helping law enforcement.”
Few details have emerged about Rahami, an Afghan-born U.S. citizen who lived in Elizabeth, in the hours since he was identified as the lead suspect in the weekend’s bombing incidents, including the fact that he’d traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years.
Asked about reports that Rahami appeared much more devout and conservative after returning from these trips, Sheikh said, “I’m just finding out from the media that he went to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“We are a community center, it’s a mosque, thousands of people come. We have like 200, 300 people come on a Friday,” Sheikh added, when pressed on whether or not he’d ever met the 28-year-old. “Probably he came to our masjid, he come, pray and leave. I cannot keep track of everyone, people come and leave. But we cannot just say that we met him.”
Chaudry interjected that he and other members of the New Jersey Muslim Coalition regularly work closely with the state’s top law enforcement officials to try to “prevent incidents like this.”
“And the way to do that is to reach out to folks who don’t generally come to a house of worship,” he said.
“The issue of radicalization is not new,” he continued. “And we are not the only community where radicalization becomes an issue. But in the recent times, when it is an issue, community leadership has recognized the importance of challenging that.”
“We are committed to weeding out terrorists,” he added.
In addition to members of the mostly local media, the press conference attracted a few Elizabeth residents, including one local man who asked “Do you think maybe it would be a good idea if the people knew the difference between the different sets of Muslims? Because they hear the word Muslim and they put them all in the same category.”
Chaudry replied that educating the public on the realities of Islam is indeed a challenge his community faces, taking the opportunity to explain why he and the other Muslim leaders present felt compelled to speak out against one individual’s alleged actions.
“The problem is that the overwhelming message in the media, and especially now from the politicians, is so negative that if we don’t speak out,” he said, misconceptions will prevail.
Abdellah added that he felt it was especially important to reassure the people of Elizabeth that their Muslim neighbors do not support terrorist activity.
“We want our residents to know that we are the same Muslims that they have grown up with, went to grammar school with, went to high school with, went to college with, go to football games with,” he said. “We are this Muslim community.”
“The person that’s responsible for whatever happened in New York and these other bombs is not part of the Elizabeth fabric and did not get that information or was not motivated by any imam or Islam that’s taught in the city of Elizabeth.”