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Ramped-up racist talk makes area Muslims wary

They came to the Niagara Square rally because this is how you fight back.

You fight back not with guns or bombs. You fight back by extending a hand, declaring love of country, asking for civility and condemning violence.

This is what decent Americans do. Even when – especially when – they wear a hijab or a kufi.

It is not the best of times to be a Muslim in America. An Islamic extremist couple this month shot dead 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. The Republican debate last week struck me as a fear-stoking exercise in tough-on-Muslims one-upmanship. Donald Trump wants to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country. Ted Cruz doubled-down with a vow to “carpet-bomb ISIS,” as if Islamic extremists live in terrorists-only villages. Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives, who undergo a two-year vetting process before entry to America, would, in many a Republican candidate’s administration, hit a brick wall at our border.

The more hysterical the rhetoric, the more wary grow some 3 million patriotic, law-abiding, peace-loving Muslim-Americans. With, apparently, good reason.

Abdul is 16, goes to Williamsville East High School, and told me he commonly hears taunts of “ISIS” and “terrorist” in the hallways and cafeteria.

“You feel like you have to defend yourself,” Abdul said. “They’re like, ‘I want to knock the Muslim blood out of you.’ It’s not like I’m laughing with them. I take offense.”

His mother fears the taunts might lead to violence.

“It started with Osama bin Laden, and escalated with ISIS,” said his mom. “I pray every day he goes to school that he comes back safe. This is hitting us close to home.”

It’s a sign of the times that they spoke only on condition I would not use their real names, fearing retribution. I met Abdul and his mom at Thursday’s Muslim pro-America solidarity rally at City Hall – itself a reflection of the Muslim community’s anxiety. Local Muslim leaders say they feel tension in the air.

Granted, throwing shade at school is nothing new. Teenagers are notoriously insensitive and often ignorant. It’s not a huge surprise to me that Abdul and his cousin, 14, get taunted. (Repeated calls Friday to a Williamsville East administrator were not returned). But Abdul’s aunt, Sara – who was greeted by her nephews with affectionate hugs at the rally – has also been verbally targeted.

She was driving on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Tonawanda soon after the San Bernardino attacks when a man in a passing vehicle, seeing her wearing the traditional Muslim hijab, turned and shouted “you terrorist.”

“Every day, it seems like things get more heated,” said Sara, who asked me not to use her full name. “One of my friends, who also wears a headscarf, was almost run over in a Tim Hortons parking lot. It’s like people are looking at us differently now.”

Irrational fear can unearth our uglier instincts. Among the inglorious episodes in American history was internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Among the first casualties of paranoia is perspective.

Casting blanket suspicion over Muslims because of Islamic extremists makes no more sense than condemning all Christians because of the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s ironic that, for all the Republican candidates’ talk about keeping our kids safe, Muslim parents feel the overheated political rhetoric is putting their kids at risk.

“They’re stirring people up, they’re making things worse for us,” Sara said. “That Donald Trump, he’s escalating it.”

Abdul’s mother nodded in agreement.

“They’re filling people’s heads with this hate talk,” she said. “It’s against our religion to hurt a person or an animal. We condemn terrorist attacks, just like everyone else.”

Indeed, the Muslim-American reality in Buffalo contradicts any extremist notions. Many of the Burmese, Somali and Bangladesh immigrants who are reviving the city’s East and West sides are Muslims. They are helping the city, not hurting it.

I understand the need for vigilance. There are people who want to harm America. A Rochester restaurant owner last week admitted to recruiting for ISIS overseas. But instilling irrational fear is a key aim of terrorism. Casting a suspicious eye at every kufi-wearer makes us weaker, not stronger.

Fewer people have died in post-9/11 terrorist attacks on American soil than perish daily in motor vehicle accidents across the U.S. I’m in no way minimizing the horror in San Bernardino, the Fort Hood shootings or the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The point is, ISIS isn’t winning – not here. Listening to some of the Republican candidates, you’d think there’s a terrorist cell in every mosque.

The fear, to my mind, is disproportionate to the threat. And Muslim-Americans, the vast majority of whom are nonviolent, are paying for the paranoia in anxiety, verbal abuse and – potentially – worse. It hurts them, and diminishes the rest of us. We can’t make a casualty of common sense.

That’s the challenge of the domestic War on Terror: Keep our eyes open, without closing our hearts and minds.