‘People don’t understand, this is our country’
Masjid Manhattan, a mosque on the Lower East Side, was packed one recent Friday. The second floor was filled from wall to wall with worshippers who came to hear the Friday afternoon Jummah – or sermon – from Sheikh Mostafa, the mosque’s imam.
Worshippers filed in before the 1 p.m. sermon in ones and twos, a mixture of businessmen, students and day workers, mostly of Arab or African descent. A man wearing traditional Middle Eastern garb and black New Balance sneakers passed out chilled dates. After the service, gathered on the sidewalk, worshippers said goodbye to each other and Sayeed Chawdhury, who sits on the mosque’s board of directors, implored his departing brothers and sisters to attend next week’s open house.
Masjid Manhattan is set between two bars on Cliff Street and a half-mile across town from where the towers fell on 9/11.
In 2011, the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD had been conducting surveillance operations of the Muslim community in NYC and beyond, prompting widespread criticism of their tactics. More recently, it was revealed that the NYPD had, with help from the Central Intelligence Agency, built a massive database of Muslim citizens, businesses and places of worship. The two AP reporters who broke the story, 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 any radicalized Muslims or determine where one might roost in preparation for an attack.
Hosam Helal recently visited the mosque from Toronto. He’s noticed people at this mosque are much more wary of outsiders than Muslims in Toronto mosques.
“We found some of the congregation are highly alarmed by the fact that we are visitors from out of town,” said Helal. Once, when he snapped a photo with his phone at the Masjid, he said he heard some members whisper in Arabic to be careful, because he might be a spy.
In an empty prayer room on the third floor, three leaders of the mosque sat cross-legged on the carpet with a reporter and talked about NYPD surveillance of their community.
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 pointed out that the pillars of the Islamic faith 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 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.”
Mostafa said that any known terror threat would be brought to the authority’s attention by a Muslim because they’re invested in that community. “We are against anyone harming or causing trouble in this country,” said Mostafa. “This is our country. People don’t understand, this is our country.”
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