For Muslim New Yorkers, a Long Path From Surveillance to Civil Rights

For Muslim New Yorkers, a Long Path From Surveillance to Civil Rights

For Muslim New Yorkers, a Long Path From Surveillance to Civil Rights

For years, Muslim New Yorkers have been spied on, not heard; now they’re finding their political voice.


As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.

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The Tayba Islamic Center is a small storefront mosque on the southern tip of Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. Sandwiched between a kitchen-cabinet shop and a Jewish daycare center, its main identifying feature is a miniature dome that juts out of the green awning. This modest house of worship has a congregation that mainly consists of Pakistani New Yorkers—including Abdul Manaf, the mosque’s spokesman.

On the evening of July 18, during the final ten days of Ramadan, Manaf received a call summoning him to the center. Three elderly men, all in native Pakistani dress and each on his way to Tayba, had been pelted with eggs by people driving around in a white Lexus and yelling, “This is for your Allah!” The attack stunned the old men and shook others, including the mosque’s imam, who called 911 and then telephoned Manaf. He drove directly to the center to find a speechless 70-year-old Sabir Toppa, egg shells in his hair, the yolk still dripping down his face.

“He was scared. He was worried,” Manaf told me. “I think he was in shock.”

This was hardly the only bias incident against Muslims this past summer. Days before, vandals had scrawled “Islam is evil” and “Islam is barbaric” on mailboxes in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn. And worship at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge was disrupted on July 20 when a car decked with Israeli flags—music blaring, lights flashing—circled the building repeatedly. It doesn’t end there. On July 27, some residents of the Shore Haven apartment buildings in Brooklyn awoke to find fliers outside their doors that proclaimed “Islamists! Go to your country!!! USA hates you!!! You are terrorists and bastards!!! You are the second holocaust!!!!” And on July 30, Sandeep Singh, a 29-year-old Sikh man from Queens who wears a turban, was dragged under a pickup truck for thirty feet after an altercation with the driver, who reportedly referred to Singh as “bin Laden” and “terrorist.” (Sikhs are frequently the targets of anti-Muslim bias because of their dress and skin color.)

These New York stories put flesh on a recent national Zogby poll from late July, which found that American attitudes toward Muslims, never overly friendly, are only getting worse. These days, just 27 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Muslims, down from 35 percent in 2010. A troubling 42 percent believe that American Muslims should be profiled by law enforcement, and the same percentage questions their loyalty in government jobs. It’s possible that these dismal poll results and the recent attacks on Muslims in New York are partly related to the summer’s bloody conflict in Gaza. But while The New York Times and others have rightly drawn attention to the disturbing anti-Semitic incidents that took place in Europe during the Gaza war, little heed seems to be paid to the tensions that Muslims in New York endure.

But to live as a Muslim in New York means more than simply surviving the summer of 2014. Since 2001, Muslim New Yorkers have been at the center of some of the city’s most vociferous debates and discriminatory policies. The NYPD has spied on the most mundane aspects of their community life and continues to coerce Muslims with criminal charges to serve as informants. Plans to build mosques and Islamic centers have been loudly opposed by right-wingers screaming about “creeping Sharia.” The 9/11 Museum curators produced a documentary for the museum that is so inflammatory in its failure to differentiate between Al Qaeda and Islam that it caused the only imam on the museum’s interfaith advisory group to resign, and other members to demand changes to the film.

While certain episodes in this embattled recent history are well known—the “Ground Zero mosque” became a cause célèbre for right-wingers across the United States—the successes that Muslim New Yorkers have had in challenging discriminatory policies and attitudes have been far less recognized. In fact, Muslims are now shaping New York City as much as they’re being shaped by it, participating in a centuries-long tradition of immigrants and ethnic communities organizing around their concerns. While no other community currently bears the intense scrutiny and sustained accusations of disloyalty that Muslims do today, New York’s Muslims are neither voiceless nor powerless.

“We’ve always had the numbers; we’ve always had the institutions,” says Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY). “But we’ve finally figured out how to organize and capitalize on our numbers and institutions. We can demonstrate our political capital now.”

Working within the city’s broader activist community, New York Muslims have succeeded in cracking open the doors of inclusion and accountability. They have helped press the city to appoint an inspector general to oversee the New York Police Department, and they have won promises that public schools will close on Muslim holidays. Both of these are significant victories—not only because of the good they’ll do for the city’s Muslims, but because they’ll be felt by every New Yorker.

Meanwhile, the politicians are paying attention. The mayor, the comptroller and the speaker of the City Council all have official liaisons to the Muslim community, and the de Blasio administration is more welcoming of Muslim New Yorkers than the three-term Bloomberg administration ever was. “When this mayor was elected, he was clear that it was important to reach out to all communities,” says Marco Carrión, the new commissioner of the city’s Community Affairs Unit, “especially those who thought that they didn’t have a voice in the past twelve to twenty years.”

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New York’s Muslims were politically active 
before 2001. Malcolm X kept his home base in Harlem even after he’d left the heterodox Nation of Islam. And as the Muslim population ballooned in size and diversity following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, its leaders began urging the city to recognize its presence. (New York City is now home to an estimated 600,000 to 1 million Muslims from over forty countries of origin.) But the domestic “war on terror,” proclaimed immediately following 9/11, shattered this slowly developing sense of belonging. The community was hit with dangerous levels of intimidation, violence and repression, and organizations such as AAANY, which had just been established to help settle new immigrants, quickly became sanctuaries for Muslims experiencing such hostility. Mosques held outreach programs with local and federal law enforcement. And grassroots groups such as DRUM, a South Asian–American organizing collective based in Jackson Heights, Queens, threw themselves into visiting detention centers, searching for the hundreds of Muslims who had been rounded up in sweep arrests. Fahd Ahmed, DRUM’s acting director, told me that as early as 2002, he began hearing from members that the police were asking them to collect the license-plate numbers of cars parked near mosques and pushing people to become informants—practices strikingly similar to those the Associated Press documented in 2011.

Amid these challenges, groups like DRUM and AAANY have become pioneers of a new kind of activism among Muslim New Yorkers. Based in community organizing and coalition building, this activism has been nurtured, in large part, by younger Muslims determined to make New York’s progressive promise real. “The younger generation of activists and advocates is trying to change the narrative and change the framing,” Ahmed said.

Faiza Ali, 29, is an example of this. Currently the Muslim liaison (among other duties) for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Ali grew up in Midwood, Brooklyn, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. She was a student at Pace University in 2006, when copies of the Koran were twice flushed down toilets in the library. Those incidents, she said, along with the general climate of hostility toward Muslims after 9/11, drove her to activism.

Despite her parents’ wishes that she avoid politics and focus on her studies, Ali joined the Muslim Students Association at Pace and began interning at the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). She landed a job after graduation as the group’s community affairs director, working there throughout the period that culminated in the “Ground Zero mosque” uproar. That fiasco exhausted Ali, but it also yielded a valuable observation: that Muslims needed to develop more political muscle, starting at the community level. “I wanted to explore community organizing and how other communities have built power, because that was a struggle for the Muslim community,” she told me. “You almost felt like you were losing every battle on every front.”

That desire led Ali down a path that brought her to the doorstep of New York’s progressive multifaith community. After leaving CAIR, she accepted a six-month fellowship on interfaith community organizing sponsored, in part, by Bend the Arc, a national Jewish organization working for social and economic justice. She followed that up with a job organizing Haitian and Latino immigrants at Brooklyn Congregations United and, later, a stint as the advocacy director at AAANY. It was all a deep education in city politics, and after de Blasio was elected, she saw an opportunity at City Hall, since there weren’t enough Muslims “with roots in the community,” she told me, “who understood how government works on the inside.”

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Although Muslim activists, like Ali, have often been forced to spend their time putting out political fires, the desire has always been to find longer-term solutions. The school-holidays campaign was among the first of these efforts. It was also one of the first initiatives in which Muslim New Yorkers were at the center of a broad coalition that united to fight for the rights of Muslims and, by extension, other New Yorkers.

The campaign started in early 2006, after a state Regents exam was held on the same day as Eid al-Adha, the most important Islamic holiday. Muslim parents were forced to choose between having their children miss an important test or a family celebration—a choice that Christian and Jewish parents never have to make. Coordinated by La Fuente, an immigrant-rights group, and the political wing of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which represents school-bus drivers and cafeteria workers, the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays included more than eighty community, labor, civil-rights and faith groups. The coalition estimated that 12 percent of the city’s public school students (more than 100,000 children) were Muslim, and by 2009 it had successfully lobbied the City Council to add the holidays by a near-unanimous vote. But the effort was stymied by Mayor Bloomberg, who vetoed the Council’s resolution, opining that “if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.”

As the coalition continued to press the issue, the Associated Press began revealing in 2011 the extent to which the NYPD had been spying on the city’s Muslims, from infiltrating student groups to declaring major mosques to be “terrorism enterprises.” Outraged, Muslim activists forged a close partnership with the city’s police-reform movement. In January 2012, DRUM arranged a meeting with the Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), which was working to end the NYPD’s relentless stop-and-frisk practices, among other policies.

DRUM and CPR had clear reasons to work together, connecting the NYPD’s blanket surveillance of Muslims to the broader police-accountability movement. And, by the time the Brennan Center for Justice proposed legislation to create the office of inspector general, it was a full-scale effort. The Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition reached out to lawmakers, the CLEAR project (a legal clinic focused on law-enforcement accountability based at the City University of New York’s School of Law) documented the impact of surveillance on individual Muslims, and groups like AAANY drummed up grassroots support. Their collective efforts were an important piece of a larger victory. In June 2013, the City Council passed the Community Safety Act, which established an enforceable ban on discriminatory profiling as well as independent oversight of the NYPD.

“The Muslim community’s active involvement was essential to making our fight more effective and broadening our base of support for long-term change,” Joo-Hyun Kang, CPR’s director, wrote in an e-mail. “The core notions that perpetuate stop-and-frisk abuses are the same unjust philosophies that allow for discriminatory surveillance of Muslim communities.”

Bloomberg once again exercised his veto, but the City Council overrode it in August 2013. By May 2014, Philip Eure, the city’s first inspector general, assumed office. He’s already met with Muslim activists, who pressed him to investigate the NYPD’s current surveillance practices under a new police commissioner, William Bratton. CPR, which now includes AAANY and DRUM on its steering committee, is actively supporting the effort. In June, the coalition issued a report detailing its priorities for Eure. “Despite the recent dismantling of the NYPD Demographics Unit,” the report reads, “there is no clear indication that the practice of blanket and discriminatory surveillance of Muslim communities has been curbed or ended.”

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During the 2013 election season, the Muslim community pushed the mayoral candidates on their positions regarding Muslim school holidays and unwarranted surveillance. The community held its first mayoral forum, and all the major Democratic candidates came. Each pledged to close the schools on Muslim holidays. After being elected mayor, de Blasio promised to implement the change but has yet to announce when it will begin.

The positions of the mayoral candidates on surveillance, however, were far from unanimous. Only two of the candidates—John Liu and Erik Salgado—considered it unconstitutional; de Blasio didn’t. As the city’s public advocate, he had defended the program, stating that the NYPD was acting “in a legal and appropriate manner with the right checks and balances.” But by September 4, days before the primary and when he was only a few thousand votes shy of avoiding a run-off, de Blasio shifted his position. In a radio appearance on WNYC, he told a caller that “we have not been leveled with by the NYPD” and that “the kind of surveillance happening is much broader and not based on specific leads,” before insisting that no police surveillance should be permitted that isn’t “based on specific leads and constitutional standards.”

Whether de Blasio’s change of heart was attributable to the Associated Press revelations or to the need to court Muslim voters isn’t clear. What is obvious, however, is that Muslim voters are being taken more seriously than ever before in the city’s history, for one very good reason: rather than appealing to the conscience of politicians, Muslim New Yorkers are increasingly showing up as a voting bloc. In March 2013, the Muslim Democratic Club of New York was formed in order to leverage Muslim voting power. Based on its own survey analysis of last names in voter rolls, MDCNY estimates that there are at least 105,000 registered Muslim voters in New York, with about 73,500 registered as Democrats.

Ali Najmi, 30, is an attorney from Glen Oaks, Queens, and a founding member of MDCNY. Najmi says the NYPD surveillance revelations vividly illustrated to him not only the NYPD’s gross constitutional violations but also the Muslim community’s political weakness. In the middle of 2012, he sent a direct message via Twitter to Faiza Ali, whom he didn’t know, about the idea of the club. It was inaugurated a few months later. After the primary, the group endorsed de Blasio for mayor and worked the phones for him. By the time Ramadan arrived in 2014, MDCNY held its own iftar, and a parade of politicians—including Public Advocate Letitia James, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, State Senate hopeful John Liu, gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout and City Comptroller Scott Stringer— came to address about eighty hungry voters.

Najmi told me that, unlike the situation during the Bloomberg years, New York’s Muslim community now has an excellent relationship with the mayor. “We have a lot of access to him—more than we’ve ever had to a mayor,” he said, referring to Bill de Blasio. Najmi went on to explain that “there are only two things that matter in politics, money and bodies—and we’ve got both.”

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Right-wing Islamophobes reflexively label any effort by Muslims to become partners in the city’s political life as “taking over.” The irony is that institutionalized Islamophobia is at least partly responsible for so many Muslims choosing to organize as Muslims. “People are conscious of their Muslim identity,” Najmi says. “They feel that their Muslim identity…matters to people. It matters to the police; it mattered to Mayor Bloomberg.” And so they organize around that identity, making this growing assertiveness look like it’s a post-9/11 story.

However, there’s an even wider lens through which to consider this change—one that looks back to 1965, when the United States abolished its four-decades-old immigration quota. After that, immigrants from the non-European world arrived in large numbers, creating a city that’s more multicultural than ever before. New York’s foreign-born population has doubled since then and is currently more than 3 million people, with the majority eventually becoming US citizens. Nearly 50 percent of the city’s population now speaks a language other than English at home.

What does this mean politically? Back in 1962, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan argued in Beyond the Melting Pot that full assimilation—one in which ethnicity completely disappears—never happened in New York. Instead, the politics of the city were simultaneously determined by its ethnic communities while also reinforcing an ethnic consciousness among New Yorkers. If this scenario was true in 1962, it’s even truer now, and the consequences of an increasingly pluralistic city are inescapable. If New York’s emergent communities unified as a political voice, the city’s traditional power structure—Wall Street, landlords, real-estate developers, labor unions—could be upended. Already, the school-holidays campaign has expanded: Mayor de Blasio has promised to include not only Muslim holidays on the calendar but Lunar New Year as well. And why shouldn’t he? As New York’s composition changes, so will its culture.

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But because the issues facing the Muslim community are intimately connected to national-security and immigration anxieties—the panic over a potential 9/11-style attack by the jihadi group ISIS being only the latest example—it is far less clear how eagerly Muslim New Yorkers will be welcomed into the city’s multicultural future. Indeed, setbacks are inevitable, but New York’s Muslims are determined to meet them, ready with their partners to demand equal treatment.

Talat Hamdani knows how precarious that success can be, and also how hard-won. On 9/11, her son, Mohammad Salman, a police cadet, hurried to the World Trade Center to help and was killed. Owing to his Muslim name and chemistry background, Salman was suspected of involvement in the attacks. After his remains—found next to his medical bag—were identified, the city finally recognized his heroism, and Salman was buried with full honors from the NYPD. But when officials from the 9/11 Memorial notified her that Salman wouldn’t be listed as a fallen first responder because he was a cadet and not a police officer, Talat was beside herself. “I was told the reason was that he was a civilian and a part-time worker,” she explained to me. “But he gave his whole life—he didn’t give part of his life.”

Talat’s efforts continue. She created a Queens College scholarship in her son’s name and persuaded Community Board 11 to memorialize the street in Bayside, Queens, where he was raised; it’s now Salman Hamdan Way. She also continues to press the 9/11 Memorial organization. The false accusations of terrorism against her son continue to scar Talat, who sees her struggle as connected to countering a broader Islamophobia in America. “We have to fight,” she says, “for the generations of Muslims who are going to live here.”


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