Muslims in Brooklyn: A Community on The Edge

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Ten years after 9/11, the Muslim community in Brooklyn has been forced into the public view again in the wake of recent revelations that the NYPD were conducting secret surveillance programs against them. Our reporter Omar Akhtar documents his journey through Muslim Brooklyn.

Outside the Brooklyn College (Gloria Dawson/ The Brooklyn Ink)

 

Almost every Muslim I speak to at Brooklyn College tells me about Fahad Hashmi. They speak of him much the same way as they would about a terrifying urban legend. Each one of them tells me to “look at what they did to Fahad Hashmi.” Hashmi, an outspoken Pakistan-born American and self-identified Muslim activist, lived in Queens and studied political science at Brooklyn College. He graduated in 2003. But his story lives on as a cautionary tale handed down from junior to sophomore to freshman. The message is always the same:

If it could happen to him, it could happen to me.

In 2004, Hashmi was in England, pursuing a masters degree in international relations from London Metropolitan University. He allowed an acquaintance visiting from Queens to stay at his apartment for two weeks. The acquaintance, a fellow Pakistani immigrant named Junaid Babar, was carrying a suitcase containing what prosecutors would later call “military gear.” The suitcase contained raincoats, ponchos and waterproof socks that Babar was going to take to Pakistan and supply to Al-Qaeda.

Two years later, in 2006, while trying to board a flight to Pakistan from London’s Heathrow Airport, Hashmi was arrested and charged with conspiring to send money and military gear to terrorist organizations. He became the first person to be extradited to the United States from Britain on terrorism charges. Federal prosecutors admitted they had no evidence to show that Hashmi was a member of Al-Qaeda or that he himself supplied materials to them. They did, however, allege that he knew where Babar was going, lent him $300 for a plane ticket and allowed him to use his cellphone to make calls to Al-Qaeda operatives. In a strange twist, Hashmi’s case was based on the testimony of Babar himself, who had been arrested two years earlier for his involvement in several terrorist plots. In an effort to reduce his expected 70-year-sentence, Babar had turned government informant. As a result, his sentence was reduced to “time served” after four years and he is free today, after spending most of the last 10 years plotting to kill people in terrorist attacks.

Hashmi, however, spent the next three years of his life in solitary confinement. Under the Special Administrative Measures for particularly dangerous inmates he was under lockdown 23 hours in the day and allowed one visitor once every two weeks. He got one hour of exercise every day, which he had to do in a cage. There was a story about Hashmi losing his visitation rights for three months for practicing martial arts in his cell. His lawyers protested what they called “inhumane” and “unnecessary” harshness.

Last year, Hashmi pled guilty to one count of conspiring to provide material support to Al-Qaeda. It was largely seen as a deal struck with the government for a reduced sentence.

To most of the Muslims students I spoke with, it was irrelevant that Hashmi pled guilty. Nor did it matter that when Judge Loretta A. Preska asked whether he was pleading guilty “because you are in fact guilty?” he replied, “Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), yes.” What resonated for them was that Hashmi was a regular guy, someone just like them who held views that most of them shared and who had spoken about things most of them spoke about.

In his final research paper at Brooklyn College, Hashmi had written about the abridgment of civil liberties of Muslim-American groups in the United States after 9/11. At many student meetings he had condemned U.S. foreign policy. A 2002 story in Time Magazine quoted Hashmi, then a student activist, calling America “the biggest terrorist in the world.”

The U.S. government hadn’t charged Hashmi with acts of violence. But the prosecution used the charges against him to support an argument that he had a “proclivity for violence.” For that he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

 ****

If the Hashmi case helped establish wariness in the Muslim community in Brooklyn, what happened next established outright paranoia. In August, an Associated Press story reported that the New York Police Department was conducting a surveillance program on Muslims throughout Brooklyn. They were targeting local imams, mosque attendees and Muslim student groups in colleges.

A secret division in the NYPD known as the “Demographics Unit” was given the task of mapping and monitoring ethnic neighborhoods. They followed immigrants, mapping what restaurants they ate at, what mosques they prayed at and where they socialized. Most alarming to Muslims was the AP’s revelation that the department used undercover police officers to infiltrate Muslim student groups. Activities as mundane as paintball trips were flagged as potential terrorism training. Students who were particularly vocal about their political and religious beliefs were also noted. In many instances, the student groups claimed that they had encountered infiltrators, mysterious students who would pop up at meetings and social gatherings and try to encourage people to speak about radical views or have strong political opinions in an effort to entrap them.

According to the documents obtained by the AP, The NYPD had identified 31 Muslim student associations (MSAs) on college campuses in New York City that they deemed “MSAs of concern.” The NYPD scanned online chat rooms and their undercover officers monitored student meetings and kept an eye out for individuals with strong political views.

Six of these MSAs were at branches of the City University of New York: Brooklyn College, Baruch College, City College, Hunter College, La Guardia Community College and Queens College.

Not a single arrest has been made as a result of the surveillance program since 2006.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a statement that the police only act on leads and do not single out groups based on religion. Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the NYPD’s actions, comparing it to screening for measles. “If you want to look for cases of measles, you’ll find a lot more of them among young people,” he told Newser. “That’s not targeting young people to go see whether they have measles or not. If there is a community where the crime rate is very high, to not put more cops in that community is ridiculous.”

I traveled to Brooklyn College to speak to the students right after the story broke. I heard varied responses. There were the liberal, white kids who expressed the predictable outrage at the racism and the invasion of privacy. Others argued that the NYPD did exactly the right thing and the surveillance program was justified and made them feel safer.

Muslims students reacted with predictable outrage. Soheeb Amin, the president of the Muslim Students Association at Brooklyn College said, “When we found out about the NYPD’s activities, it actually just confirmed what we already suspected. The rights of Muslims have been restricted since 9/11 in the name of counter-terrorism, but we find that the victims of such measures end up being innocent college students who are American citizens for the most part.” Amin blamed the actions on most Americans’ ignorance of his religion. “If only they understood Islam and its true message, or maybe if they had read the Koran in its entirety and not just selected verses, they would not be suspicious of someone just because they are a practicing Muslim,” he said.

“It’s definitely scary, it makes me think twice about what I say when I’m speaking to someone on the phone when I’m on campus,” said sophomore Faria Imtiaz, a member of the Muslim Students Association at Brooklyn College. “It shows that if it could happen to us, it could happen to anyone.”

Faria Imtiaz, Muslim student at Brooklyn College (Gloria Dawson/The Brooklyn Ink)

There was that refrain again. Imtiaz was one of the first students who mentioned Fahad Hashmi to me. She also told me how she suspected one of the teachers at her high school may have been an NYPD spy – an account I was unable to verify.

What she said next however surprised me. “What can you do?” she said. “Sometimes these things are necessary.”

I couldn’t help but be surprised. Why weren’t they more angry? Where was the outrage? I asked Imtiaz.

“Of course we’re angry,” she said. “But a lot of us are also scared of speaking out.”

Listening to first Hashmi’s story, and then the reaction to the surveillance left me feeling, at turns, alarmed, paranoid and guilty. I too am a Pakistani. I am a practicing Muslim who has lived for years and studied in the United States. I have on occasion criticized American foreign policy in conversations with friends. Which left me to wonder—if it could happen to him, could it happen to me?

The alarm and the paranoia were predictable. The guilt was something different. I come from a country where almost everyone is Muslim, a country founded, with great bloodshed, on that premise. My relation to the state is not framed by my faith; it is not a reason for me to be regarded as a person of suspicion. The students I met in Brooklyn College, were caught in a very different struggle. They were caught between the forces of assimilation and identity – between fitting in as loyal Americans and resisting the temptation to appear acquiescent. Their parents may have advised caution. And some of them heeded the warning. But others were still not sure how to live lives as Muslims in a country where the visceral response to their faith, my faith, was the inevitable connection to the extremists who had killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, and who remained the targets of the ongoing war on terror.

What was it like to be them, to be young and Muslim and living in an America where they felt not only alien but suspected of disloyalty?

I related to the fear these students were expressing. What surprised me was the degree to which they felt there was nothing they could do about it. I did not know whether they were simply afraid of speaking out and being labeled anti-American or whether they were not disturbed enough to protest. What was clear was their reluctance to attract attention for their views.

If they were going to hold their tongues, I would need to find those whose views, and whose work, captured the tension of being pulled between fear and outrage, between being accepted as yet another American and resisting the tug of trying to fit in.

 ****

 Cyrus McGoldrick, the civil rights manager at the Council on American-Islamic Relations-New York is 23 and not a typical young Muslim. In fact, until a few years ago he wasn’t even Muslim. Born to an Irish-American father and an Iranian mother, McGoldrick had grown up around Muslims but did not convert to Islam until three years ago. In his spare time, he’s a musician, rapping under the name “The Raskol Khan.” He speaks with a languid confidence, without the unease and the suspicion that I found in a lot of the Muslims who came from immigrant backgrounds. He wears a thick beard without its moustache, a white Muslim prayer cap and the traditional keffiyah or checkered cloth draped around his neck. I asked him why more Muslims weren’t reacting with greater outrage to the NYPD’s spying.

“Most Muslims feel that if they just keep their heads down, get on with their lives and show everyone that they’re just leading normal everyday lives like the everybody else, things will get better on their own,” he said. “They’ve been thinking that for the last 10 years, but they need to realize it’s not getting better.”

“The civil rights movement had the MLK’ers and the Malcolm X’ers. The Malcom X’ers always told the MLK’ers that ‘You’re always doing sit ins, you’re doing too much sittin’ down. You need to stand up!”

That is exactly what he does. Together with Ramzi Kassem, a City University New York law professor, McGoldrick has been conducting “Know Your Rights” workshops across schools, colleges, mosques and community centers. The workshops are sponsored by CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility), an initiative sponsored by CUNY that addresses the legal needs and concerns of communities in New York that are affected by the government’s counter-terrorism measures. McGoldrick says the workshops inform Muslims of their rights and how they should react if the police question them or if they suspect someone in their community is an informant.

It was a story published by the AP about these workshops that set off another war of words. In November, the AP ran a story under the headline Angry over spying, Muslims say: “Don’t call NYPD. The story suggested that in the wake of the surveillance program, community leaders were calling on all Muslims not to cooperate with the NYPD. New York Republican Congressman Peter King called this reaction “disgraceful.”

McGoldrick shakes his head and sighs at the mention of the story. He says he and Kassem never advocated refusing to cooperate with the NYPD. “The framing of that story was all wrong, in our workshops we explicitly tell people that if you see something (suspicious) going on, of course you need to report it,” he says. “It was not about what to do when you go to the police, it was about what to do when the police come to you.” Instead, he says, the workshops advised people not to speak to the police without knowing their rights or having legal consultation to avoid entrapping themselves.

Still, he added, he recognized the urge not to cooperate. “Pardon my language, but you can’t just shit on us and then expect us to cooperate with you,” he says. Even though the workshops hadn’t intended to send a message of non-cooperation, McGoldrick said he nonetheless could defend the sentiment. “To expect me to come forth and give you information about what people are talking about, what the imams are saying in their sermons, that’s pretty ballsy, especially after reports come out that you’ve been spying on all of us,” he says.

He had little faith in the various outreach programs that tried to promote interfaith understanding. They were, in his view, “mostly for show,” and accomplished little. In fact, his organization is boycotting Mayor Bloomberg’s annual interfaith dinner later this year and writing an open letter explaining their grievances regarding the actions of the NYPD and the mayor’s comments following them.

His attitude stands in marked contrast to what I had heard in the past from so many other American Muslims who believed that cooperation between faiths was the best way to improve relations with the rest of the community. But this was changing, according to McGoldrick. “The few Muslim leaders who are willing to attend these events and do the photo ops, even they are becoming more and more on the fringe now,” he says. McGoldrick points out that even though a large number of imams and community leaders have held regular dialogue with the police department and have maintained good relations with them, they’re still turning up in the list of people who are being spied on.

McGoldrick and his colleagues may be disillusioned with efforts at outreach. But I was not entirely convinced he was right. So I visited the Muslim American Society center on Bath Avenue to find out more about what those attempts at interfaith connection were, and what they were achieving. The center serves many functions; it has Koran classes; a prayer room; a large hall for community functions and activities for children, including karate lessons. It is also responsible for the building of many mosques and Islamic community centers in the city, an activity for which they’ve faced considerable opposition.

Ibrahim R. Mossallam arrives at the center to drop off his five-year-old son Ismael for one of those karate lessons. The 33-year-old Palestinian-American kisses his son and affectionately ties his karate belt around him, gently pushing him towards the instructor and a gaggle of other rowdy kids. I think of Fahad Hashmi and how his martial arts practice was considered a sign of insubordination.

Mossallam is the Muslim American Society outreach director for Brooklyn and Staten Island. He’s youthful, friendly and energetic, just what you’d expect from someone in his position. He’s dressed in baggy jeans and a hoodie, not at all looking like the grown up father of two young children. He speaks quickly and enthusiastically about the society’s efforts in reaching out to others in the community.

He tells me that one of his proudest achievements was the opening of a mosque in Sheepshead Bay. Much like the Park 51 episode last year where there were public protests against the building of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero, local residents protested the building of the mosque. They first claimed that it would be a public disturbance and then argued that it was violating building codes. Courts struck down both the challenges. Despite the opposition, Mossallam said the actual opening went smoothly. “You can’t just open it up with hordes of people coming to the mosque and not expect any hiccups,” he said. “We decided to have a pre-Ramadan dinner, created invitations and letters, gave them to the neighbors, invited local politicians, local assemblymen, priests and rabbis and opened three days before Ramadan. The neighbors loved it.”

Mossallam says his job is to show Muslims how to interact with non-Muslims, live as law-abiding Americans but still maintain their Muslim identity. “There have been those who’ve gone behind a rock and don’t even know how to talk to a non-Muslim if they are approached and just view them with suspicion.” he said. But nor does he advocate complete assimilation.

“Most Muslims, especially before 9/11 all assimilated, they all tried to blend in, very few who had strong iman (faith) would go out and make time to pray. Most Muslims here won’t even do that, they won’t pray openly,” he said. “They’ve turned into a typical American religion where they’ve separated life from religion in a lot of ways.”

But in the wake of relentless scrutiny after 9/11, he says, Muslims in America were forced to evaluate their faith and identity. “Muslims wanted to find out ‘Where in the Koran does it say you can attack civilians? What could they have possibly taken and twisted to fit their thinking?” he said. “The more I read about Islam the more I realized half the stuff I knew was false.”

The younger generation of Muslims, he continues, is much better educated and is more likely to practice the true version of the religion. His parent’s generation practices a more cultural version of the faith, depending on where they immigrated from. The result is a new generation of Muslims who are much more open about their beliefs, not particularly inclined to assimilate and more likely to react to perceived prejudice. “The first thing is to not be ashamed of being Muslim,” Mosallam says. “You do want to fit in, but not too much. When you walk down the street you don’t want someone to say ‘Oh there goes John’ or ‘There goes David’, you want them to recognize and say ‘Oh there goes Muhammad’ or ‘There goes Ibrahim.’”

I never had to decide how “Muslim” I wanted to be. I didn’t have to choose between whether I displayed my religion openly or practice in secret. For me, Islam was always something very private, not something I tried to draw too much attention to, whether I was in the U.S. or in Pakistan. This would explain my unease when I returned to Brooklyn College, to attend an Eid-ul-Adha event organized by the student chapter of the Muslim American Society.

 ****

 This Eid celebration is unlike the Eid celebrations I’ve seen in both Pakistan and America. The women all sit on one side of the room, separated from the men by a wide aisle. All but a handful of the women wear headscarves. Almost every man has a beard.

A beaming young man named Majed is speaking at the podium. Again and again he punctuates his sentences with Inshallah (God willing) and Alhamdollilah (Praise be to God). Majed is preaching as the students sit in sober silence. He is the evening’s emcee; every trip to the podium is accompanied by a Koranic reference or a mention of the Prophet. I am slightly unnerved at the absence of non-Muslims. When I was in college at Ohio Wesleyan University, Eid events were opportunities to invite people of other faiths to join in the celebration. I’m also surprised that it is such a somber, religious atmosphere. Where I grew up, celebrating Eid is more about getting together with friends, family and food. There is very little sermonizing.

Not to say there aren’t any light moments. Majed introduces the night’s first performance, a young man, barely 14 years old whose specialty is singing pop songs reworded into songs about Islam. The kid can sing, but I cringe at his acapella renditions of Chris Brown and Ne-Yo songs that, instead of being about wanton love and dancing in a club, are instead about love for Allah and getting into Jannah (heaven).

Next up is Fadi Ebrehm, a 20-year-old Syrian-American convert who writes poetry. Ebrehm is fidgety and self-conscious, mumbling introductions to his verses. But his diction is immaculate when it comes to reciting his pieces, where the topics vary from the Iraq War, to Palestine to living in America as an immigrant.

I learned from history/That puppet rulers never speak to the people honestly/We all carry contradicting ideologies/We don’t steal/But we don’t mind the robbery.”

Later, when I caught up with Ebrehm, he told me that he felt the same discomfort at the event. “They really should have opened it up to more people,” he said. “I think they missed a real opportunity here.” Ebrehm performs his poetry at many similar events and gets frustrated when the only people to listen to him are Muslims. “It’s not just for Muslims. My work is for everyone. Being Muslim is just one part of me. It doesn’t define who I am or my work.”

The evening’s main event is a sermon by Imam Siraj Wahhaj. Imam Wahhaj is an African-American convert to Islam and also the founder of Masjid-e-Taqwa. He has given talks all around the world and it shows in his commanding presence as he takes the stage, with an palpable buzz going through the audience.

Wahhaj is a charismatic, engaging speaker. He isn’t afraid to be funny and his command when quoting from the Koran in its original Arabic is flawless. He doesn’t focus on one topic in particular, instead touching upon several issues. “I am so proud of Muslim students in the time and age we live in” he says. The implications are clear: he’s warning the students about the culture in which they’re growing u.

He speaks about the predictable evils — drugs, alcohol and pornography. He warns the students about their urges and about sexually transmitted diseases. He narrates a story of the one Muslim girl who decides to celebrate her birthday with her non-Muslim friends, got drunk in a bar and got pregnant the same night.

He then asks how many people believe abortion should be allowed. There are furtive glances around the room as if students don’t know the right answer. A few raise their hand. Wahhaj doesn’t berate them. Or immediately state his belief. Instead he tells another story, this one about a black woman who was raped by a white man. That woman, despite tremendous pressure and social stigma, decided to keep the baby. That baby grew up and became mother to one Malcolm Little, later be known as Malcolm X.

Wahhaj pauses to let his message sink in.

****

 I meet with Imam Wahhaj a couple of weeks later at Masjid-E-Taqwa, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I take issue with some of his views, especially those on abortion. But I am intrigued by his experience as a Black Muslim. Cyrus McGoldrick had drawn parallels between the civil rights movement and the struggle of Muslims in America. As an American convert, Imam Wahhaj is free from the additional burden of being an immigrant. I’m curious to hear what he has to say.

For Wahhaj, the actions of the NYPD are nothing new. He isn’t fazed in the least, he says, because in the words of Imam Talib Abdul Rashid in Harlem, being a black Muslim means “being black twice.” He’s seen this all before. “I always thought we had this kind of surveillance on us,” he said, “especially on me.” He says the mosque’s phones are tapped, not unlike the counter-intelligence program under J. Edgar Hoover that targeted black people and leaders.” He says these situations repeat themselves. “It happens, it’s a phase right now, it’ll go away, but it won’t go away by itself. Muslims have to fight, just like black people had to fight for their freedom.”

Imam Wahhaj was born Jeffrey Kearse in Brooklyn, 1950. When he was 18, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “That was a turning point for me,” he says. “He was my hero and the one I loved. I went home crying. And I remember thinking to myself, at that point I wanted to be either a Black Muslim or a Black Panther.”

Wahhaj says his conversion was less about religion and more about Black pride and fighting against injustice. After Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, Wahhaj (whose name at the time was Jeffrey 12X) followed Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Muhammad and converted to orthodox Islam. He changed his name for the last time to Siraj Wahhaj (“bright light.”)

Like Cyrus McGoldrick, Imam Wahhaj is adamant in insisting that things aren’t going to get better on their own for Muslims in America. Change will only come when Muslims can show the rest of the country that their plight is not a Muslim issue but in fact a civil rights and civil liberties issue that affects everyone.

The young Muslims I met spoke of a growing sense of alienation, both from anti-Islamic comments and post 9/11 laws that they feel target them – as they targeted Fahad Hashmi. They’re tired of being in the news for all the wrong reasons and they’re tired of apologizing, having to keep repeating, “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Despite the efforts at outreach and interfaith engagement, there are voices in the community telling this generation that their anger is justified and being passive is no longer an option. If things will ever get better, it is going to be through fighting for their rights.

As McGoldrick put it, “They sit, and they wait, thinking that if we do nothing, things will just get better on their own. But they won’t unless we do something about it. Of course everybody wants peace, but we can’t have peace without justice.”

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4 Responses to “Muslims in Brooklyn: A Community on The Edge”

  1. Jabeen Cheema
    January 2, 2012 at 9:04 PM #

    Why do people think their all that…………..

  2. Nancy from the block
    January 3, 2012 at 6:38 AM #

    What a bunch of politically correct bullshit. Islam has NOTHING in common with ANY American values. It’s a racist, homophobic, exclusive, domineering, hateful, murderous, totalitarian political system that kills those it disagrees with or who disagree with it.

    Mohammad was a pedophile. Islam is a disease. They should all go live in the middle east and do what makes them happiest: kill each other.

  3. jj
    January 3, 2012 at 9:16 AM #

    So this Hashmi provided support to a friend who provided support to Al Qaeda, and many Muslims feel that they too can be in this situation. How many steps removed is an ordinary Muslim from Al Qaeda? This article feeds islamaphobia. What were you thinking?

  4. Pedro
    January 4, 2012 at 9:11 PM #

    CAIR = Hamas
    Wahhaj = terrorist supporter & defended 1993 Trade Center attackers
    MAS = Brotherhood

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