PATERSON, New Jersey (Reuters) - The working-class town of Paterson, New Jersey, with ties to September 11, 2001 both real and imagined, has its own jihad.
Because of his name, 15-year-old Jehad Faleh knows there are many usages for the Arabic word jihad, and many Arabic speakers say the one meaning holy war is a distortion.
Jihad, sometimes spelled jehad, literally means struggle, and is commonly meant to struggle in the way of God to improve one’s self or society.
“I thank my parents for naming me that,” Faleh said from the Islamic Center of Passaic County, one of the biggest mosques in Paterson. “I like the definition of struggle with one’s self. You come across obstacles and overcome them.”
As a sixth grader on September 11, 2001, Faleh said he lowered his head in shame. Now he engages his classmates, even when they taunt him about his “Uncle Osama.”
“I listen to rock, to hip-hop. I gel my hair like they do. During lunch, they ask me questions,” he said.
Paterson, too, is overcoming its obstacles, struggling to promote tolerance across religious lines.
About 20 miles northwest of New York, it is home to one of the largest and most diverse U.S. concentrations of Muslims, with immigrants from across the Arab world plus Turks and home-grown Muslims from the African-American population.
During Friday prayers at the Islamic Center, men in traditional robes bow in prayer next to young boys wearing the jerseys of their American sports heroes. Women, seated in the back, are dressed in all manner of abayas, chadors and tunics.
In a city of 150,000 people, there are about 10 mosques. Town leaders estimate there are at least 25,000 to 30,000 Muslims, many of whom can relate stories about threats or harassment or ignorance expressed by non-Muslims.
There is also an interfaith movement in which Christians and Jews have joined forces with Muslims to promote unity.
“Paterson I’m glad to say is one of the most progressive Muslim communities. They’ve made an effort to become part of the interfaith movement, to reach out,” said Afsheen Shamsi, spokeswoman for the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“They are an example for the rest of the community.”
Paterson was shaken by the September 11 attacks. On that day, a report circulated on some radio stations and Internet sites that Muslims in Paterson had demonstrated in celebration.
Paterson officials promptly issued a statement denying the report, and Muslim leaders insist it was pure fabrication.
Less well known is Paterson’s real if unwitting link to the attacks. At least two of the hijackers who commandeered American Airlines 77, the flight that crashed into the Pentagon, had rented an apartment in Paterson, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, the official U.S. inquiry.
“The Arabs here were sad after 9/11. Believe me, nobody in this community supports bin Laden. He is a criminal. He makes our life difficult here,” said Walid Rabah, chief editor of Paterson’s Arab Voice newspaper.
By many accounts, relations between Muslims and non-Muslims have improved since 2001 as interest in Islam has grown.
“I didn’t know my neighbor for several years. After 9/11, I visited his house and he comes to my house,” Rabah said.
Black Muslims in Paterson didn’t suffer in the same way.
Paterson native Hamza Abdus-Salaam, a former Christian who is imam at the Masjid Ansar As-Sunnah, said his mosque has a trusting relationship with non-Muslims.
“After 9/11 we gave out hundreds of Korans. People wanted to know (about Islam),” Abdus-Salaam said from his storefront mosque, sandwiched between a fish market and a grocery.
“When we walk by sometimes they will hide their beers. They’ll say, ‘How you doing, Muslims.’ Or they will tell their friends, ‘Stop cursing, can’t you see the Muslims there’.”
Christians and Jews in turn have reached out.
“I gave my pulpit to an imam in November 2001. But for 9/11, I’m not sure I would have had the impetus to do that,” said David Wolf, the pastor at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church.
Earlier this year, St. Paul’s hosted an event with the Islamic Center of Passaic County and Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in which teenagers from all three faiths banded together to cook for homeless people.
“It was eye-opening for them. They had never really had personal contact with Muslims,” said Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein.
The teens shared a meal of kosher chicken. When ice cream came out for desert, some Muslims were shocked to learn that observant Jews don’t eat meat and dairy products at the same sitting.
“And one of the Muslim girls said, ‘Oh, if you’re not going to have the ice cream, we’re not going to have it either’,” Finkelstein said. “It was a beautiful sign of solidarity.”