Police in Melrose are investigating an incident last weekend in which a Muslim Melrose city councilor was allegedly the victim of racist harassment at a gas station in the city. The Massachusetts branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations is calling for a hate crime probe into the incident.

According to CAIR Massachusetts, Maya Jamaleddine, who wears a hijab and is the first Muslim person to serve on the council, was sitting in her car with her two children when a woman in a nearby car rolled down her window and told Jamaleddine to “go back to your own country.”

In a press release on the incident, CAIR Massachusetts said Jamaleddine’s husband began speaking with the woman after the comment, and that she allegedly shoved him several times.

Barbara Dougan, legal director for CAIR Massachusetts, said her organization is providing legal advice and moral support to Jamaleddine, who is not speaking to the press.

Melrose City Councilor Maya Jamaleddine
Courtesy of Council on American-Islamic Relations

“We've advised her to only discuss the facts of what happened with the police and the district attorney's office,” Dougan said. “There's a live and pending criminal investigation.”

Dougan said they're asking that police consider whether a hate crime was committed.

The Middlesex District Attorney's office confirmed that the incident is being investigated in a brief statement but provided no further details.

In a statement in the CAIR press release, Jamaleddine said she's advocated for marginalized communities as a city councilor and member of the city’s human rights commission.

“I have encountered racism in the past, but never to this extent, where my kids witnessed it and felt unsafe in their own community,” Jamaleddine said. “Since then, my family and I have been trying to process what happened. One thing that has been helpful is the amount of love and kindness that people poured on us. Please know I’m not the only Muslim who is encountering racism and Islamophobia, but I chose to speak up while others are still suffering in silence.”

Dougan said that in Massachusetts, incidents of religious bias “happen far more often than most people would like to believe” and frequently go unreported.

“For every one that's reported, I think there’s another dozen at least — that’s probably really minimizing it — that aren’t reported,” she said. “I think we've seen increases when there was something going on nationally, or in the news, where people were thinking about it.”

In 2021, CAIR Massachusetts received 163 requests for legal assistance related to hate crimes, harassment, bullying, employment and housing discrimination, according to the organization’s annual report.

A recent rise in hate speech may be leading to more incidents, Dougan said.

“We’re seeing nationally — and Massachusetts is not immune from this — a spike in white supremacy being very openly displayed, antisemitism being very openly displayed,” Dougan said. “And I think Islamophobic incidents are simply part of that larger picture.”

At the same time, she said, what happened last weekend in Melrose also reflected what she saw as a positive change: bystanders stepping up.

“Five years ago, when people would describe what had happened to them, they would often talk about the other people who just stood by and either watched or left the scene or didn’t do anything. And that was sort of the norm,” she said. “But I think at this point in time, we do see members of the public stepping up. I mean, and that happened in this case.”

According to Dougan, Jamaleddine recalled bystanders comforted her children as the incident was unfolding, and who stayed afterwards to make sure everyone was OK.

“It’s important to acknowledge that,” Dougan said. “To me, that signifies some level of a cultural change where members of the public see this as a problem ... and see the need and the desire to involve themselves.”