Not long after jihadist extremists slaughtered 130 people in Paris earlier this month, recent nursing school graduate Maria Estrada began receiving dirty looks in New Orleans.
It happened as she entered an Uptown university’s cafeteria after she had finished a study session in the library.
“You could just feel it. There was a tension; everybody was staring at me,” she said.
That day, as she has almost every day for the past four years, she was wearing her hijab, a head scarf many Muslim women wear in public to symbolize modesty and their faith. She believes people were staring at her because she had it on.
Since then, she hasn’t gone back to the library.
Estrada is a Muslim woman and Mexican immigrant who moved to New Orleans in July.
She, her husband Haroon Waseem and six other Muslim or Arab-Americans who spoke with The New Orleans Advocate said they believe anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-Syrian sentiments have grown locally and nationally since the Paris attacks and since President Barack Obama said the United States would welcome 10,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war.
They said they are disappointed in many of those who hold and seek public office, who they say have fanned the flames of fear and hatred by calling for restrictions and outright bans on Syrian arrivals.
Included in that number are dozens of governors and other politicians — including Gov. Bobby Jindal, Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards and U.S. Sen. David Vitter — and the millions of voters who endorse their views.
Those leaders say they are simply looking out for the American public’s safety, and they point to reports that one of the Paris attackers may have entered Europe by posing as a Syrian refugee. The attacker was carrying the passport of a dead Syrian soldier, 25-year-old Ahmad al-Mohammad, The New York Times reported.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. The jihadist extremist group, which fancies itself as overlord of Muslims everywhere, has established a stronghold in war-torn Syria.
Mixed reactions to refugee resettlement aside, a Wednesday report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations seems to confirm rising anti-Muslim fervor in the U.S.
The council, the nation’s largest Muslim civil-rights group, said it received more reports about discrimination or threats against Muslims or those thought to be Muslims in one recent week-and-a-half span than in any other comparable time period since the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States. The reports included a dozen threats against mosques in Texas, Oregon, Connecticut and other states, as well as attacks or threats against individuals, council government affairs manager Robert McCaw said.
He largely blamed politicians such as Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump, who have made what he considers inflammatory statements regarding Muslims in recent months. Such declarations — Trump has called “certain segments” of Muslims “a problem,” while Carson has suggested no Muslim should be president — pander to “the lowest common denominator” of voters, McCaw said.
“If you want attention, attack Muslims. If you want money when you are not getting it, attack Muslims. This is starting to become a chapter in the Republican playbook,” he said.
While local politicians generally have used less controversial language, some have latched onto the refugee resettlement issue. Vitter, for example, recently decried “radical Islamic terrorism,” called upon Obama to block Syrian refugee arrivals and introduced a Senate bill to halt refugee resettlement unless specific safety measures are put in place.
Also denouncing the idea of Syrian refugees coming to Louisiana were Edwards and Jindal; the latter issued an executive order seeking to keep such refugees out of the state.
Asked about claims that the ban has increased Islamophobia, Jindal spokesman Mike Reed said the Obama administration has kept Louisiana in the dark about Syrian resettlement plans.
“Their refusal to provide state authorities with critical information regarding resettlement efforts in our state, along with security concerns, led Gov. Jindal to issue his executive order directing state agencies to utilize all lawful means to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees here,” Reed said.
Jindal’s order likely means little in practice because the federal government generally handles refugee resettlement. At least 13 Syrian refugees reportedly are already in the state.
What would have more weight is if Congress passes Vitter’s legislation or a separate House bill that would suspend refugee admissions, task the FBI with oversight of refugee background checks and make top security officials individually certify that each refugee poses no threat. That bill has already passed the House.
Though it’s not clear whether such legislation could pass in the Senate, Obama has pledged to veto it if it does.
After governors began clamoring to block refugees, his administration took pains to outline the government’s procedures for vetting those arrivals, saying they undergo more scrutiny than any other group seeking entry into the U.S.
Of local Muslims who spoke to The New Orleans Advocate, Estrada was the only one who said she felt discriminated against after the Paris terror attacks.
But Syrian-American woman Sarah Slamen, a Houston-based political consultant who was in town working with the mostly Vietnamese-American advocacy group VAYLA-NO ahead of the gubernatorial election, said she doesn’t wear a veil at all precisely to avoid the treatment Estrada said she experienced.
“I would love to have the strength to don hijab. But I don’t want to be pushed on subway tracks when I’m in New York. I don’t want to be punched in the face,” Slamen said, referring to reports of Muslim women being assaulted in New York and elsewhere.
She and others said attempts to ban Syrians were unconscionable, pointing to the government’s current procedures for screening out potential terrorists, and said politicians were stirring up trouble for Muslims already here.
“I think it’s absolutely wrong, and it’s uncalled for. It’s political posturing,” said retired engineer Ma’Moun Sukkar, who settled in the United States from Damascus, Syria, in the 1950s.
Ahmad Suleiman, a Southern University professor who is originally from Palestine, agreed.
“I don’t condone the action of (Islamic State), but 30,000 people do not make up the actions of all Muslims,” he said.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.