NYPD vs. Muslims: Is an Entire Community Being Profiled?

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Seth Wenig / AP

Devotees pray at the Al-Mahdi Foundation in New York, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. As it canvassed the Northeast looking for Iranian terrorists, the New York Police Department recommended increasing surveillance of thousands of Shiite Muslims and their mosques based solely on their religion, according to interviews and a newly obtained secret police document. The document offers a rare glimpse into the thinking of NYPD intelligence officers and how it drove the departmentís aggressive spying operations.

The AP released Thursday a secret 2006 NYPD document it had obtained, showing how a department within New York City’s police force had systematically profiled and solicited intelligence regarding members of New York’s Shi’ite community. The leaked document adds further fuel to the fire being kindled by legal advocacy groups and Muslim community organizations, angry at the NYPD’s apparent targeting of an entire segment of the city’s population. The AP writes:

[New York City] Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the NYPD never considers religion in its policing. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said police only go where investigative leads take them. But the document lists no leads justifying spying at Shiite mosques.

Just last week, Bloomberg was forced to defend Kelly, his Police Commissioner, over the latter’s appearance in The Third Jihad, a scare-mongering documentary that warns of the threat of Muslim radicalization within the U.S. “I think it’s fair to say that there is a little bit of embarrassment that this film was made,” said the mayor. “I think anything like this doesn’t help credibility.” The film was also shown to some 1,500 NYPD officers, a screening which deepened the impression among some Muslims that New York’s Finest see them as a bloc threat.

(PHOTOS: Muslims in America)

To its credit, the AP has diligently spearheaded investigations into the NYPD’s secret surveillance operations for more than a year.  Last August, after interviewing 40 police and federal officials and reviewing classified documents, the AP reported on the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, a little-known bureau that “covertly” moved “into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program” in the wake of 9/11. It employed undercover cops, informants and, significantly, “unprecedented help” from the CIA, which is technically barred from spying on Americans. A taste of the NYPD’s activities:

In just two episodes showing how widely the NYPD cast its net, the department sought a rundown from the taxi commission of every Pakistani cab driver in the city, and produced an analytical report on every mosque within 100 miles, officials said.

Some Muslims, particularly cab drivers, complain of being subjected to “voluntary interrogations” by police, encounters that, while legal, prove intimidating and alienating.

The latest report disclosed by the AP, dubbed “U.S.-Iran Conflict: The Threat to New York City,” was authored by the NYPD half a decade ago. But, given the current climate of tensions and diplomatic pressure surrounding the fraught U.S.-Iranian relationship, the concerns that it expresses seem as relevant now as they were then. It airs suspicions — albeit largely unfounded ones — over the influence of Tehran-backed militant groups like Hizballah and Hamas in pockets of New York’s Shi’ite community. Unlike most other countries in the Middle East, Iran is majority Shi’ite, and its theocratic government styles itself at the revolutionary vanguard of a form of messianic Shi’ism. But that doesn’t justify such a full-scale sweep of Shi’ite mosques and neighborhood centers, the vast majority of which were frequented by those not of Iranian descent. Though the NYPD strenuously denies carrying out such operations in the city solely on the basis of a community’s religious denomination, it seems hard to arrive at any other conclusion.

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Still, the report betrays an almost amusing level of shoddy, speculative reporting. One mosque identified as Shi’ite is actually Sunni; the report spends a fair amount of time wringing its hands around the possible affairs of Mujahidin-e-Khalq (MEK), a group that is actually vehemently anti-Tehran, deemed a cult by the State Department and backed by a conspicuous cadre of neo-conservatives in Washington.

Mayor Bloomberg has always presented himself as a champion of multiculturalism and tolerance  — in 2010, he took an unflinching stand against those who sought to block the construction of an interfaith Muslim-led community center not far from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. But frustrations among many New York City’s Muslims are growing. A month ago, over a dozen Muslim clerics and community leaders boycotted the Mayor’s interfaith breakfast, an annual event aimed to showcase the city’s diversity and harmony. Now, Muslim community groups and advocacy organizations plan to stage a rally Friday at Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square. Imam Al Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid, President of the Islamic Leadership Council of New York and an organizer of the protest, declared Thursday: “Muslim New Yorkers are fed up with the NYPD unjustly targeting our community, violating the civil liberties of too many people, and lying about it with no repercussion.” Tensions, it seems, are only about to heat up.

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