By Jehangir Khattak
This story first appeared in voicesofny.org
Members of the Muslim community living in metropolitan New York are expressing a deep sense of shock, disbelief and anger at the latest revelations by the Associated Pressthat the New York City Police Department designated certain mosques as “terrorist organizations” as part of its controversial surveillance program of the Muslim community.
Civil rights and Muslim groups are asking the Department of Justice to investigate the reported violations of the constitutional rights of Muslims by the NYPD. They held a press conference on the steps of One Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday, August 28.
Fahd Ahmed from Desis Rising Up and Moving, Ahmad Jaber and Linda Sarsour from the Arab American Association of New York and a representative of Council on American Islamic Relations spoke at the press conference, demanding that the Muslim community’s civil rights be respected.
“The NYPD has proven itself unwilling or unable to respect the constitutional and religious rights of minorities, and it is now up to the Department of Justice to step in,” a news release by the Council on American Islamic Relations quoted its NY Board Member Lamis Deek as saying.
The American Civil Liberties Union, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and theCLEAR Project at CUNY School of Law, last June filed a lawsuit against the NYPD challenging the program, calling it discriminatory and unconstitutional.
According to AP, both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have denied those accusations.
“The [AP] report confirms what we have long been saying about the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program: Despite no suspicion of wrongdoing, and based on nothing more than their religious faith and practice, whole communities have been treated as terrorists and swept up in an unconstitutional police dragnet that reportedly has not generated even one terrorism lead,” said Noa Yachot, communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union in a blog posted on the organization’s website.
The Arab American Association of New York, a social services and advocacy organization working in the Arab community since 2001, demanded an “end to all forms of discriminatory policing practices targeting law-abiding Muslims.” In a statement posted on its website, it urged the Department of Justice to take immediate steps to open an investigation into the NYPD’s surveillance program.
In Muslim community enclaves across New York on Thursday, life apparently went on as it had before the AP’s revelations. But journalists working for newspapers of predominantly Muslim communities reported emotions that haven’t been felt since the days after 9/11.
“People in the Pakistani community are scared, stunned and speechless,” said Mohsin Zaheer, a veteran Pakistani journalist and Editor of Urdu-language weekly Sada-e-Pakistan.
Zaheer’s office is next to Makki Masjid (mosque) on Coney Island Avenue, the biggest center of socio-religious activities of the Brooklyn-based Pakistani community.
“Most of the people were speechless when I showed them a tweet or a Facebook post about the NYPD’s designation of mosques as terrorism enterprises,” he says. “When I shared a tweet about the news with a Brooklyn-based attorney of Pakistani origin, he was speechless and stared at me in shock and disbelief,” the veteran journalist recalled in an interview with Voices of NY.
Similar sentiments were reported from the Arab, Turkish and Bangladeshi communities.
Sezai Kalayci, a correspondent for New York-based Turkish weekly Zaman, said that the news could divide the Muslim community.
“I heard many people saying they are not going to the mosques of the Arab community. Now they look for mosques run by the Turkish community.”
But Kalayci noted that even that might not provide enough reassurance. “They are scared to go to even the Turkish community-run mosques too because they fear theirs might also have been designated as [a terrorist organization].”
The Turkish community runs at least 10 mosques in northern New Jersey and a few others in New York’s five boroughs and Long Island. The New York metro area is home to 197 mosques, the largest number in the nation, found a 2012 survey conducted by a coalition of religious organizations. According to New America Foundation, there are some 600-800,000 Muslims in New York City; close to 1 in 10 New Yorkers is a Muslim.
Zaheer said many Pakistanis on Coney Island Avenue, also known as “Little Pakistan” because of its large population of immigrants from Pakistan, were not willing to even talk about the news. “They feel they don’t know how their simple statements would be interpreted.”
Abu Taher, a veteran Bangladeshi journalist and executive editor of Bengali-language weekly Bangla Patrika, believes the disclosure is bound to damage relations between the Muslim community and the NYPD.
“The damage has been done already,” wrote Taher in response to an email query from Voices of NY. He pointed out that many Bangladeshis are close to the NYPD and the news has shocked them along with the whole community. He said law enforcement agencies should work with the community rather than target it.
Shah Zahan, president of the Council of Immigrant Rights, a Bangladeshi immigrants’ right organization, said the revelations would make many people angry and surprised. “We could not have friendship with anyone if there is no trust. I think it is very damaging for the image [of those] who claim they are [New York’s] finest.”
Journalists working for Arabic-language publications, while talking to Voices of NY, echoed the disappointment and anger expressed by others in New York’s Muslim community.
“We are no more living in America,” said Queens-based Abdul Azmal, an Egyptian who has been running his Arabic-language monthly Arab Astoria since 2005. Astoria, Queens, has a large population of immigrants from the Middle East.
Atef Elbeialy, publisher of Arabic weekly Allewa Al Arabi since 1990, seconds Azmal’s observation, saying the majority of the Arab community feels that the NYPD has violated their privacy and also “feel humiliated.”
Azmal says he understands the importance of maintaining security “but watching and declaring a place of worship as a terrorist place without any proof is not right.” He says many Arabs in Astoria are not aware of the details of the AP story as yet. “I am sure they will be very upset when they come to know about it. They will not like it.”
Azmal says law enforcement agencies should respect civil rights while securing the communities. “Now everybody going to the mosque will be very worried. They want people not to go to the mosque for prayers?”
But not everyone in the Arab community expresses complete disagreement with the NYPD’s activities.
“With regard to this particular issue my opinion might be stunning and unacceptable for some readers,” said Mohrez El-Hussini, publisher of the New Jersey-based Arabic-language weekly Al-Manassah Al Arabiya, in response to an email query by Voices of NY.
“Those who are liberals and not supporting political Islam consider such a procedure as normal as it exists in our countries, but for others it is a disturbing act violating civil rights,” he stated.
El-Hussini believes that police surveillance of radical imams who might be radicalizing American Muslim youth is not wrong. “Our young kids are victims of those individuals who are manipulating Islam and naive kids for fulfilling their own agendas and interests.”
El-Hussini thinks that some in the younger generation of American Muslims are suffering from a kind of identity crisis. “It is our responsibility to educate, guide and help them to readjust their life between two distinct cultures; East and West,” he says.
Journalists reached by Voices of NY agree that the damaged relations between the NYPD and New York’s Muslim community need to be mended.
“The NYPD should work hard to rebuild these relations for a better and safe city,” Zaheer says.
Taher thinks the NYPD will have to prove that it is a friend of Muslims like any other community, and work together against the people who threaten Americans’ security.
But Kalayci cautions: “I understand they have reasons [for such actions] but that still is not a reason to discriminate … This is their job [to secure America] but they cannot make every one a terrorism suspect and cannot surveil every Muslim and mosque.”
El-Hussini acknowledges the fear within the Muslim community and also does not rule out incidents of discrimination which, according to him, could occur due to lack of cultural or religious sensitivity to the people from the East. But he still has words of reassurance for a community that is increasingly feeling under siege: “No one should be scared as long as he is doing his best to avoid wrongdoings or breaking the law.”
Zaheer disagrees with his Egyptian colleague: “It will push at least the Pakistani community to become more insular, just like it was before and immediately after 9/11.”