Story and photos by John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – Marlboro Township Councilman Jeff Cantor felt he had to do something to respond to the recent presidential executive order travel ban on people from seven primarily Muslim nations, which he saw as discriminatory and un-American. The response he got on Friday surprised him – in a good way.
“This is amazing,” said Cantor as he stood outside the Islamic Society of Monmouth County at 496 Red Hill Road, the area’s mosque. A crowd had gathered there to join Cantor in solidarity with Muslims in response to President Donald Trump’s recent executive order, currently being contested in the courts.
Cantor and others put the estimate at approximately 300 who gathered prior to the 1 p.m. prayer service at the mosque. Hazim Yassin, who serves as the spokesman for the mosque, said he was amazed by the outpouring of support. “We didn’t expect anything like this,” Yassin said as he witnessed the crowd. “Standing here with more than 200 people,” he observed, “I never felt more like an American.”
“We’re here to show we’re one,” as Americans, said the Rev. Zaniel T.M. Young, pastor of the Shrewsbury Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church, Red Bank.
“This outpouring of support is indicative of our support of any opposition to intolerance and bigotry,” Young said.
Young was one of a number of clergy from various faiths on hand offering their encouragement in opposition to the controversial travel ban.
“The reality is this country is great because we support each other,” offered Rabbi Marc Kline, with the Monmouth Reform Temple, Tinton Falls.
“The reason I’m here is to remind some people we have freedom of religion for all because of our Constitution,” explained the Rev. William Carl Thomas. Thompson is priest-in-charge of Christ Episcopal Church, 90 Kings Highway, in Middletown, who served as a U.S. Army chaplain in the early 1990s at Fort Monmouth. “It’s too bad I have to remind some people of it.”
In addition to being a member of Marlboro’s governing body, Cantor ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Monmouth County sheriff last year. He is a 30-plus-year U.S. Army veteran, having served in the active military and as a reservist. He has been deployed to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, specializing in military intelligence and anti-terrorism training.
Following Trump’s executive order on Jan. 27, suspending admittance to the U.S. from countries alleged to provide safe haven for those plotting terrorism (Iran, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Sudan) for 90 days with a 120 day-prohibition on all refugee entrances, Cantor said he felt he had to do something. While serving in Iraq, “Muslims protected me and my troops,” he said. “They were willing to take a bullet for me. So the least I could do is show my support for them, show I have their back.”
Cantor put word out on social media, primarily on Facebook, and with the cooperation of the Monmouth County Democratic Committee to help spread the word.
The crowd was a diverse one, with seniors – some relying on canes and walkers – to millennials, who were asked by Cantor to join arms, forming a symbolic protective wall around the mosque.
“We all have different beliefs but we’re all American,” Cantor said, as some began to sing “God Bless America” and “This Land is Your Land.”
Nagwa Awad, a Lincroft resident and mosque member, was touched by the display and wanted people to realize she’s really no different than others. “We all love this country,” she said. “We want to uphold the true American values that made this country great.”
“You should be able to pray any way you wish,” said Red Bank Borough Councilman Erik Yngstrom.
Sue Fulton, who was one of the two Democratic candidates who ran unsuccessfully for the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders, said she attended because, “For me, as a veteran, I’m concerned about our Constitution under threat.”
Fulton is a former U.S. Army officer and West Point graduate. “I’m here to say to my neighbors I stand with you,” she added.
Fulton’s running mate from last year, Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty, joined the group. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to show support for those who want to practice their religion,” said Doherty about his motivation for attending.
Ron Horan, Middletown, was wearing a baseball cap with “We’re Still Here” on it. “It’s a rebuttal to ‘Make America Great Again,’” he explained about the hat.
“No one debates we need protections from those who would harm us but ‘extreme vetting’ is a blanket rejection of all foreigners,” Horan said, explaining he was here today because, “it’s incumbent upon me to push back,” against what he said were excesses of power.
Athar Siddiqui lives in Somerset, but given he works locally, he attends weekly prayer services at this mosque.
When he drove up to the location and saw the crowd of supporters, “I can’t describe how I felt. My heart missed a beat,” in surprise and joy, he said. “I’m an American and proud to be an American. And because of the Constitution I know I can walk proudly on any street and be protected.”
President Trump’s executive order, which the administration has maintained is necessary for national security and safety considerations, was stayed by a federal district court. And this past weekend, the federal 9th U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, upheld that stay.
The Trump administration said it would continue to seek to have the travel ban reinstated.
The Islamic Society of Monmouth County is the county’s largest mosque and functions as the area’s center for worship and education for the faith. According to spokesman Yassin, it has approximately 2,000 members from around the state, of which about 200-300 attend weekly prayer services.
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