On August 23rd of this year I was invited to Gracie Mansion to attend Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Annual Iftar, a break of fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. For the duration of the evening I sat next to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. We discussed the significance of Ramadan and I pressed him on his department’s lack of response to letters we sent requesting to meet with staff of the NYPD training department. He nodded and said that he’s sure his people would get back to us. They never did.
This was not the first time I had engaged Commissioner Kelly or NYPD senior level staff on issues of concern to my community. Arab and Muslim New Yorkers have worked closely with the NYPD for as long as elders in our community can remember. As a matter of fact, my organization’s soccer team, Brooklyn United, won the NYPD Commissioner’s Cup in 2009 -- a triumphant moment for our youth. We have also invited members of the NYPD to events, town halls, and religious services.
In the 10 years since 9/11, I have worked as director of a social services organization in Brooklyn called the Arab American Association of New York, and as the advocacy and civic engagement coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities. In these roles I have done my best to increase understanding between Arabs, Muslims and other New Yorkers, as well as to advocate for local and national policies that keep us all safe and united.
As part of my job to provide social services to residents of Brooklyn, I have had to counsel Muslim New Yorkers, especially immigrants and youth, who have suffered at the hands of law enforcement agents engaging in misconduct. On numerous occasions I delivered firsthand accounts of these abuses to senior officials of the FBI, NYPD, and Department of Justice, as well as to local, state and federal elected officials. Many refused to believe that Arab and Muslim Americans were being ethnically and racially profiled by law enforcement.
The skeptics were given a jolt when the Associated Press confirmed 10 years of speculation by releasing an investigative report in August outlining a broad surveillance program targeting Muslim community members simply because of their religion – not because of leads or suspicious behavior. The report also alleged that the CIA had been violating a ban on domestic spying by collaborating with the NYPD. Ironically, this report was released at 6:00 am the morning after I sat next to Commissioner Kelly at Mayor Bloomberg’s Annual Ramadan Iftar.
Instead of joining the growing number of elected officials and community activists calling for accountability and rule of law, Mayor Bloomberg defended the police department’s suspicionless surveillance of New Yorkers at schools, businesses, and mosques. By pretending to befriend their Muslim neighbors in order to spy on them, law enforcement officials were betraying the very people who considered themselves allies and partners in keeping our streets safe.
Some people have asked why I didn’t show up to “engage” Mr. Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly on the issue. Before, during and after the breakfast, both leaders continued to reassure New Yorkers that they are not engaging in religious and ethnic profiling. Our very own Department of Justice defines religious and ethnic profiling as “any police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin rather than the behavior of an individual." The AP investigation revealed that there is, in fact, a demographics unit coupled with a list of 25 ancestries of interest used to conduct intelligence gathering. If that’s not ethnic and religious profiling, I don’t know what is.
Not only are racial and ethnic profiling practices wrong and unconstitutional, they waste taxpayer dollars and they make us all less safe. According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union in October, "empirical data show that terrorists and criminals do not fit neat racial, ethnic, national-origin or religious stereotypes, and using such flawed profiles is a recipe for failure. The heinous acts of terrorism committed by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and John Stacks, the man who flew his plane into an IRS building in Texas, confirm that effective law enforcement techniques must be based on criminal behavior and not race, religion or nationality in order to ensure our nation’s security.
Muslim community leaders have sent numerous letters to Commissioner Kelly in the past year regarding bigoted and sensational training materials being used by the NYPD that instill hatred rather than prepare officers to police Muslim communities. To this day, we have received no response. Civic engagement is a two-way street and the Arab American and Muslim American community are doing their part. It is time that New York City’s leaders do theirs.
Last week the CIA announced that an internal watchdog had found nothing wrong with the agency’s NYPD collaboration. But how can we trust the CIA to investigate itself? All we are asking for at this juncture is that Mayor Bloomberg initiate an independent investigation of the NYPD intelligence gathering program and make public the conclusive reports of the investigation. Mayor Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly are accountable to the citizens of New York City and we will continue to demand that accountability.
As for now, rhetoric of any kind will not stop me from standing up for the right of New Yorkers to live their lives without having to fear being spied on simply because of their religion or the color of their skin. I owe it to myself and to my children to continue to defend the very rights afforded to us by the Constitution of the United States.
I spent the morning of Mr. Bloomberg’s interfaith breakfast explaining to my children why I turned down an invitation from the mayor of New York City. As I spoke to them about the importance of always standing up for what you believe is right, I paused for a moment to look down at my iPhone to scan the latest news. While reading remarks made during the breakfast, I found a perfect quote to end the conversation with my children: “discrimination against anyone is discrimination against everyone.” These words were spoken by none other than Mayor Michael Bloomberg. I will hold him to it.
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