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Sarah Sayeed, Ph.D.

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The NYPD And Muslims In New York

Posted: 08/31/2011 5:26 pm

Last week, a troubling piece of news came to the fore, announcing the NYPD's initiative to promote security through a wide surveillance of New York's Muslims and community institutions. Some of the City's Muslim leaders acted swiftly, questioning the constitutionality of such monitoring. The Police Commissioner and the Mayor continue to insist that no laws have been broken, and they have acted in concert with advice from lawyers. Commissioner Kelly also discounted the criticisms of "so-called civil liberties groups."

If it is all legal, then why is it a problem? One issue is the sense of powerlessness and fear that such surveillance engenders. Police surveillance of any space, whether it is a building or a bar, suggests that something about that space is a cause for concern. We assume that the police, as a law enforcement agency, are there watching out because something illegal has happened there. Common sense tells me that if my place of worship is being watched by the police for terrorism, it is not a place that I should go to. Since the news report last week suggested that every single mosque in New York City had been canvassed and "crawled," then effectively, there is no mosque in New York City that the police deem safe from terrorism. It seems there is no mosque that I should consider safe for me and my family.

For observant Muslims, drifting away from the mosque creates spiritual dislocation and disconnection from the community. There is also a cost to religious freedom, a growing sense that our choices are constrained. For someone like me, who has grown up in the United States and has a sense of belonging outside the mosque, the loss of not attending the mosque is serious but in a different way. For newer immigrants who feel estranged and rely on their mosque for a sense of belonging, direction, and rootedness, the consequence of staying away is potentially greater alienation. In addition, newer immigrants who come from countries where police are heavy-handed are even more likely to stay away if they believe the police secretly watch the mosque. Given that the NYPD has theorized a role for alienation in radicalization, its initiative to monitor every mosque could ultimately produce the very problem that it claims is a factor in "home-grown" terrorism -- more alienation.

Another problem is that the news of NYPD's use of CIA professionals and CIA-informed methods comes at a low point in its relationship with key community leaders, who increasingly feel marginalized by the Police Commissioner. Many of these organizations and individuals came together to form the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition to respond to the NYPD Report on Radicalization, released in 2008. There is a growing frustration among these leaders about the NYPD's lack of accountability and transparency. Since 2009, leaders have been asking for access to the curriculum the NYPD uses to teach its officers about Islam and Muslims. The requests have been ignored and leaders became more annoyed with recent news about the use of "The Third Jihad" as background video in a training break for cadets. They have asked for websites that the NYPD lists as inciting terrorism. That has also been ignored. They asked about the use of informants. They did not get a response. Without such information, community leaders are unable to make a determination as to whether the Police is an ally, and whether it will do right by the community. The relationship is growing less collegial, with coalition leaders turning increasingly away from dialogue as a viable option, towards media advocacy and considering lawsuits against the NYPD as a more suitable remedy.

Trust is the basis of any partnership. It is generated when partners take the time to listen to each other, to accept each others' concerns as legitimate and real. In a relationship where there is a clear imbalance of institutional power, such as police having more power than the community, it becomes incumbent on the party with more power to do more of the listening. Listening is required in order to exercise power and authority with justice. Listening and the trust that it engenders can go a long way to create a partnership that will benefit not just the NYPD, but ultimately all of New York.

By ignoring legitimate questions, dismissing community concerns as polemics, and leaving it to investigative journalists to expose its questionable programs, the NYPD has shown a shaky commitment to real and honest partnership. It has shown how little it trusts the Muslim community. Let's just hope that the currently fractured relationship can be reversed, and it doesn't turn into a liability. Our collective safety depends upon it.