It’s an expression of faith twisted into a terrorist battle cry: “Allahu Akbar. In Arabic, it means “god is great.” These are the two words police say the suspect shouted during the Lower Manhattan attack on Tuesday, and it’s now the phrase putting communities on edge.
Aziz Junejo is the host of “Focus on Islam,” a weekly show on public access. He says he fears the toll on the Muslim community may be worse than before.
KING 5: What goes through your head the moment you hear about a violent attack?
Aziz Junejo: Right away you go into defensive mode: Has a Muslim been involved in something like this? We live in fear every day that something like that comes up -- what happened in New York today -- and a Muslim will be implicated. It’s a terrible feeling.
K5: And when you hear the suspect’s name: Sayfullo Saipov?
AJ: You freeze. And you say, “Oh my god, what’s next?” Girls tell me all the time: “Sometimes I just want to take my scarf off.” So definitely for all of us, we freeze for a moment because we know what’s coming. It’s the worst feeling because people don’t know about Islam and the teachings of Islam. They only know terrorism.
K5: What was your first thought when you heard police say Saipov yelled "Allahu Akbar" during the attack?
AJ: Oh, that was it. This is going to be even worse. The fact that he got out and he yelled in Arabic, Allahu Akbar. Right away, people are going to think in their minds he’s a fundamentalist Muslim. It has such a negative connotation that definitely it’s going to be worse this time.
K5: Has there been a time since 9/11 Muslim community members felt they could drop their guards?
AJ: I suppose when you get home and get into the confines of your home, there is a downtime where you feel I’m safe. But you’re not really safe because your neighbors know you’re Muslim. Your coworkers know where you live. You’re on the internet. You’re Facebooked everywhere. So you really don’t feel like there’s a downtime where you’re safe. It's taking a toll on our senior citizens, on our mothers, children. When people are threatened, when people are pushed, shoved, when people are given bad stares, it's really hard to come out and be a good example of a Muslim, it really is.
K5: It sounds frustrating.
AJ: Here we do all this good work and here one guy does something stupid like this today. So it’s got to be frustrating on both parts. People are saying, “Look, we’re giving you all the benefit of the doubt. But look at this guy; look what he did. He’s a Muslim. He got out and starting saying "Allahu Akbar.” It’s terrible. It’s horrible. We’re trying our best. We really are.
K5: Non-Muslim communities seem to have reached out and stood in solidarity in recent years, right?
AJ: Sadly, I think we’re forgetful. When an issue comes up like this, that people reach out and say, “Let’s have an interfaith dialogue. Let’s embrace our Muslims.” It happens for a week or two, but then it fades out. I think the term "new normal" unfortunately resonates with many Muslims. We’re in this mode. I think perhaps the Japanese citizens went through this 50 years ago, maybe the Italians and maybe the Catholics went through this, but this is our time. And god willing, we’ll learn from what happened to them, and we’ll be better for it.
K5: In the meantime, what do you think will make it better for both Muslim and non-Muslim communities?
AJ: There was a time 15 years ago where they said, “We need to hear you say that it’s wrong.” For the last probably 16 years, we have been saying that. It’s not enough. And I really don’t know what folks want.