PATERSON, N.J. — Yaser Al-Basha was at his restaurant when he heard the news of the terrorist attack across the river. Rami Abadi was hanging out with his friends at a local hookah bar. Salah Mustafa was in his office at Citibank in midtown, talking to colleagues on the phone downtown when they heard the sirens.
And one by one, in their separate places, the reactions were nearly identical. "Please don't let it be a Muslim," Abadi said.
"I literally work in that area — my family was literally walking on that bike path three weeks ago. That part of New York City is part of our lives. It could have been any of us," said Mustafa, who said he felt a surge of anger upon hearing the news. "But your mind doesn't immediately just go 'I hope everyone's okay.' It also goes 'I hope he's not an Arab or a Muslim.' "
It quickly emerged that Sayfullo Saipov, the man who is accused of plowing a rental truck into bikers and pedestrians, killing eight people and wounding 12 along a Manhattan bike path Tuesday, is, indeed, a Muslim. Saipov isn't Arab — he's an immigrant from Uzbekistan — so at least one of Mustafa's prayers was answered. But then came the other news, possibly worse than any vague association-by-
ethnicity: Saipov lived in Paterson.
An industrial city of 147,000 set on the rolling hills of northeast New Jersey, 15 miles west of Manhattan, Paterson is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States. On a normal day, the city's cultural diversity and the hard-won success of its working-class immigrant community is visible in the dozens of locally owned businesses and mosques and on the campaign signs for upcoming elections, branded with the names of Arab Americans eager to play a role in shaping their society for the better.
But Paterson was also notoriously the place where two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers rented an apartment in the year leading up to their attack, a fact that drew swarms of FBI agents, journalists and television news crews to the city in the aftermath of 9/11 and that swept up its mosques — along with many others — in a wide-scale surveillance operation by the New York City Police Department. It's a past that no one wants to revisit.
"When we figured out he was from Paterson, we knew trouble was coming," said Abadi, a 32-year-old graphic designer who attends the mosque next to the apartment building where Saipov was living. "All eyes are going to be on Paterson now. Because of one psycho," he added.
American Muslim leaders and civil rights advocates say the past two years have seen a spike in anti-Muslim rhetoric, hate crimes and harassment across the United States, fueled in part by terrorist attacks such as those in San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, carried out by Muslims who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, and in part by the broad condemnations of Islam and immigrants by President Trump and his allies — responses that many American Muslims consider racist.
The day after the truck attack, Trump tweeted that the United States "will be immediately implementing much tougher Extreme Vetting Procedures." Trump also said he wanted to send the attacker to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and called for the attacker to receive the death sentence.
"Trump has taken this horrific act and used it as an excuse not just to attack the Muslim community and immigrant Americans but also to attack some of the most fundamental rights this country holds," said Albert Fox Cahn, the legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations's New York chapter.
There was no similar call to action by Trump in the aftermath of last month's Las Vegas shooting, in which a white Christian man, Stephen Paddock, killed 58 people — the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. "The hypocrisy is jarring," Cahn said.
As law enforcement officers and journalists zeroed in this week on the neighborhood where Saipov most recently lived, the anxiety of a community was palpable.
"Clearly now there's a fear of backlash," said Mustafa, who also serves as the spokesman for the Islamic Center of Passaic County, the largest mosque in the Paterson area. "There's a fear of tarring."
"We've struggled and worked so hard to make this area an example of how successful American Muslims can be," he said. "So there's now a fear: Will we be less trusted? Will we be able to do these things with this specter hanging over us, with this A-hole who was living a couple blocks away, who none of us know? . . . It just feels like every time one of these things happens, it sets us back."
Saipov's home abutted the Omar Mosque, and speculation that Saipov had also prayed there had drawn a crowd of television news cameras to the mosque's gates by Wednesday afternoon, even as worshipers leaving the midday prayer said consistently that they had never met the man who lived next door, never heard of him.
"I've never seen him in my life. I've been coming here for 13 years, and I've never seen him," one man told a TV reporter who suggested that he looked about the same age as Saipov, 29.
Three other mosques in the area also said that they had never seen Saipov.
For many, there was an immediate desire to distance themselves — not just from Saipov's alleged actions but from his identity, his ethnicity and his brand of Islam, whatever that might be.
Saipov has a bushy beard, and a neighbor said his wife was always clad in niqob — a deeply conservative form of dress that veils the face, head and body, leaving only the eyes visible.
"People like that don't come into restaurants like this," Al-Basha, whose Al-Basha restaurant and sweets shop are Paterson mainstays, said, pantomiming Saipov's long beard.
A Turkish restaurant owner nearby performed the same motion. He remembered seeing Saipov at the grocery store a few months back, he said, but added: "I don't talk to people like that."
"That is not a Muslim. This is a Muslim," he said, pointing a thumb to his chest.