Targeting Muslims on the Upper East Side

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:01

    'People don't understand, this is our country'

    It has been known for years now that the NYPD has been spying on the city's Muslim community. Now, the extent of those operations is becoming clear.

    Two Associated Press reporters, Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, wrote in a recent New York magazine excerpt of their new book that the NYPD employed officers of Arab descent whose job it was to frequent mosques and Muslim businesses in an attempt to root out radicals. The authors revealed that the NYPD had, with help from the Central Intelligence Agency, built a massive database of Muslim citizens, businesses and places of worship, and that one of their targets was the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, located on the Upper East Side. The center is the largest mosque and Muslim community center in New York City.

    Nobody at the Islamic center wished to speak with Our Town about NYPD surveillance in their community, but leaders at a downtown mosque, Masjid Manhattan, recently sat down to discuss their views on the issue.

    Olayinka Dan-Salami, the Masjid general counsel, confirmed that police surveillance has rattled the congregation at the mosque.

    "They are very upset that Muslims in general are being spied on," said Dan-Salami. "We are professionals, we do respect those who are not part of our religion. We respect them highly and to now be singled out and to be spied on, we just think that they are telling us 'you are not part of the community.'"

    Sayeed Chawdhury said there is a common misconception in America that Islam is supportive of terrorism. Pillars of the Islamic faith, he said, forbid killing or even hating another person. He praised America for its religious freedom, but pointed out what he sees as the hypocrisy of the American government, and by extension the NYPD, lobbying for human rights in other countries while simultaneously abusing them at home.

    Sheikh Mostafa said the Muslim community has nothing to hide, and that extremists can be found in any segment of society.

    "Why if any Christian in this country does something crazy, do they not call him a terrorist?" asked Mostafa. "We are here to build America. We are here in America to build America, not to demolish America."

    Mostafa and Chawdhury said some in their congregation work for the NYPD, and a great deal more - 90 percent, they estimated - are professionals working in city or state agencies or in other professional capacities.

    "When you try to stereotype a particular community, you're basically telling that community that [it] is not part of you, you're making that community second-class citizens," said Dan-Salami. "And that is what is so hurtful, especially when that very group is also trying as much as possible to assist in any way to build the country and to build the community. And you are now denigrating that very community, that is what is so bad about the whole thing."

    Mostafa said efforts to monitor the Muslim community are misguided, because when one segment of society - or an individual - feels singled out, they're more likely to react negatively to that isolation. The mosque supports the police in their investigations of legitimate terror threats, he said, but not indiscriminate monitoring of the Muslim community as a whole, who he feels are being looked at for no other reason than that they practice Islam.

    For Chawdhury, there's also a concern about what impact NYPD monitoring will have on the next generation of Muslims in New York.

    "They are seeing these things, going to school, they are also serving in the military, serving in the NYPD, in a part of the system, and they're growing up seeing their uncle, cousin, father being targeted or being spied upon," said Chawdhury. "In the long run, it's not going to help. It's not a fruitful solution."

    Dan-Salami said that if the police department has concerns about a member in a particular mosque, than they should approach the leadership of that mosque because they're willing to help, a statement seconded by Mostafa and Chawdhury.

    "We are open to anybody. Come talk to us, we are human beings, we are part of society, we are American, [if] you exclude us...the next generation, they're not going to take it lightly," said Chawdhury. "In the long run it's not going to work out."

    In addition to being misguided, Mostafa said the NYPD tactics of targeting mosques for surveillance isn't likely to gain them any leads on terror threats. "You're not going to find anything, to be honest," said Mostafa. "You're not going to find anything in a mosque. Even if they work it 24 hours day."