Leaders and members of the Muslim community in Astoria did not seem to be surprised by the recent breaking news that the NYPD was spying on them.
In their new book, “Enemies Within“, Associated Press reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman uncovered documents showing the existence of a Demographics Unit in NYPD that spied on people, shops and religious organizations, mainly based on “ancestries of interest” or their Islamic ethnic background. The news was not a shock to the Muslims who followed the English language news and those who worked with community organizations.
“Everything becomes bizarre after 9/11,” said Mohammed Haque, a former youth director of the Muslim American Society’s Astoria chapter who is still involved in the organization. “Two years ago, people were phobic to Islam, so I think that made the NYPD like ‘we gotta do something.’”
Haque described the relationship between MAS and the local NYPD as “really good”. Haque had seen people from the community coming to MAS with concerns and he would explain to them while there is a fine line of Muslims’ human rights that should not be crossed, the NYPD has certain rights to investigate to some extent. Instead of being upset, he has been trying to focus more on community outreach and hopes for non-Islamic people to understand Muslims, have faith, and then love.
“I would say this is a very sensitive issue so you can’t generalize the NYPD. It has to go case by case. It has to go unit and unit. The NYPD might have racial problem but that’s in every organization,” Haque added.
Leaders in Astoria mosques had experienced more first-hand encounters than local organizations, especially on Fridays, the big day of worship for Muslims.
“We know for sure that the NYPD they are doing this. They sent some people. Sometimes we can easily recognize them through their questions. And then they will write something and send it to the NYPD,” said Salah Mahmoud, the assistant Imam of Masjid Dar Al-Dawah. He added: “Unfortunately, [sometimes] they take our lectures out of context, so they can show we are bad people and we have to be watched all the time.”
The Imams in Masjid Dar Al-Dawah usually did not do anything when they spotted NYPD’s spies in the mosques even though they typically recognized who they were. Instead they relied on human rights and Muslim rights activists to voice their discomfort and worked with local NYPD closely as well.
“Because the thing is, we don’t do anything wrong. So we are not worried about it,” said Mahmoud. “We are just wondering if [the NYPD] have the same system for churches and synagogues and stuff or just for Muslims, that really bothers us. They say synagogues and churches [they] take care of that too, but we don’t believe that. It’s not right.”
Similar scenes also took place in hookah bars, one of the most popular places for Muslims to gather and talk outside the mosques.
“He’s one of them also, spy,” said Jeffrey Faars, an Astoria Egyptian resident pointing to a white man who walked in the hookah bar. “He knows a lot, he’s here and there, but he thinks that nobody knows.” The man stayed awhile before saying goodbye and “may Alah be with you” to Faars who was enjoying his hookah. Faars responded back nicely with a smile. Faars and others stressed that despite the controversy they understood the importance of the NYPD’s action.
“We need somebody to watch the fanatic people, because those people make trouble for all of us, the terrorists,” said Faars.
In the hope for changes, organizations such as the Masjid Dar Al-Dawah have became more engaged in politics as citizens.
“We participate in all kinds of elections and votes and for the mayor,” said Mahmoud. “We are trying to change. We didn’t tell them whom to choose but we started with why we should be effective and I think this year was different. The hope is that after [Bloomberg] left the office, a new one comes and it will become better.”