Shama Haider of Tenafly notched a milestone in New Jersey politics last week, becoming the first Muslim to win a seat in the state Legislature. Soon, she may not be alone in that historic feat: Sadaf Jaffer, the former Montgomery Township mayor, now leads in a close state Senate race in Central Jersey.
Yet while Muslims cheered the groundbreaking rise of the two women, both Pakistani Americans, they also learned that another candidate surrounded by even more fanfare had written bigoted comments about Islam online.
Republican Ed Durr, who beat the powerful Democratic leader of the state Senate, denigrated the religion followed by more than 300,000 state residents as a "cult of hate" and "false religion" in social media comments that gained attention after his upset win.
In New Jersey, home to more Muslims in elected office than any other state, Durr's words sparked a storm, leading the trucker from Gloucester County to apologize. He is scheduled to meet with Muslim leaders on Wednesday, said Jacqueline Vigilante, the Gloucester County GOP chair.
Muslim wins to elected office and the quick apology from Durr might appear to signal progress for a population that has long faced Islamophobic sentiment in politics, especially in the 20 years since the Sept. 11 attacks.
But such slurs remain all too common, said Selaedin Maksut, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who organized the meeting with Durr.
In other cases, officials either have not apologized or have issued expressions of regret that seem insincere, Maksut said.
"There is a deep-seated hatred for the other and especially for the religion of Islam," he said. "Some have concealed it. Others, unlike Durr, were unapologetic. We can't forget that the last president literally said 'I think Islam hates us.' "
Durr, a little-known contender who vanquished state Sen. Steve Sweeney on a shoestring budget, did not respond to a request for comment. The Associated Press has declared Durr the winner, though Sweeney has not yet conceded.
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In a statement last week, Durr said he sometimes says things "in the heat of the moment." He added, "If I said things in the past that hurt anybody’s feelings, I sincerely apologize."
“I support everybody’s right to worship in any manner they choose and to worship the God of their choice," he said in the statement. "I support all people and I support everybody’s rights. That’s what I am here to do, work for the people and support their rights.”
Wasique Narvel, president of the Garden State Islamic Center, which includes a campus in Bridgeton, part of Durr's new district, said he hadn't heard of the Republican until last week's surprise results. He did not know if the comments came out of "ignorance" or "viciousness," he said.
'The beginning of a process'
"Bigoted statements are not welcomed by anyone," Narvel said. "They need to be educated about the reality of what we are. Certainly, it's the beginning of a process."
Durr's apology showed people have a lot to learn about Islam, said former Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin. He noted that Durr's statement highlighted support for people "to worship the God of their choice."
Islam, Judaism and Christianity are all Abrahamic, meaning they trace their roots to Abraham and all believe in the same God revealed to the biblical patriarch, Hameeduddin said.
Haider called Durr's comments "abhorrent" and "out of touch with the state of New Jersey." She hoped that Durr "can step outside of his hate and learn that serving public office is about serving all communities, not just the one you came from," she said.
Haider, a Bergen County Democrat who won a race for an open Assembly seat, has served on the Tenafly Borough Council and on local boards and commissions. She said she has not faced bias because of her faith.
"I think because I had been active," she said. "I was involved in the parents' association when my kids were in school. We used to have an active League of Women Voters. I was on environmental commissions and the Planning Board.
"I did a lot of door-to-door, so people knew my name," she added. "I was viewed as a resident of Tenafly, more than anything."
The same is not true for Jaffer, who gained national attention after becoming the first female Muslim mayor in the country. After news articles about her election, she was bombarded by hate messages from across the country — most of them online.
Her desire to build bridges across communities was a factor that drove her to run for local and state offices, she said in an interview.
Jaffer has claimed victory in the race for the 16th Legislative District and on Tuesday had a lead of about 2,100 votes. The Associated Press has not yet declared her a winner in the race.
Eric Naing, communications director at Muslim Advocates, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said the events in New Jersey reflected the national Muslim experience.
It’s heartening to see Haider and Jaffer “running and claiming spaces in public life," he said. On the other hand, Naing added, Durr's old posts are a reminder "that anti-Muslim forces are still powerful.”
Still, the Republican's willingness to meet Muslim leaders is a sign of progress, he said. Durr has also deleted his Twitter page; his Facebook page is no longer publicly accessible.
“His openness to responding to criticism from Muslims has been encouraging,” Naing said. “We hope he will listen to the community and build on it.”
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, bias and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ election results: Likely wins for Muslims, but also Ed Durr