Tag Archives: New York City

Mosques, students and NGOs: Journalist blows the lid off police spying on NYC Muslims

Two weeks after an Associated Press investigation exposed the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s  “demographic units” used to spy on a wide array of Muslim New Yorkers, a journalist has published startling new details that reveal the breadth of that operation.  The details are sure to raise new alarms in the Muslim-American community in New York City (NYC) as the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approach. 

Leonard Levitt, a long-time writer on the NYPD beat, reports:

The New York City Police Department has been spying on hundreds of Muslim mosques, schools, businesses, student groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals, NYPD Confidential has learned.

The spying operation has targeted virtually every level of Muslim life in New York City, according to a trove of pages of Intelligence Division documents obtained by NYPD Confidential.

The documents do not specify whether the police have evidence or solid suspicions of criminality to justify their watching the Muslim groups.

The breadth and scope of the surveillance described in the documents suggest that the police have been painting with a broad brush and may have targeted subjects without specific tips about wrongdoing.

Specifically, Levitt reveals exactly who the NYPD spied on:

The NYPD’s spying operation has compiled information on 250 mosques, 12 Islamic schools, 31 Muslim student associations, 263 places it calls “ethnic hotspots,” such as businesses and restaurants, as well as 138 “persons of interest,” according to the Intel documents.

Police have singled out 53 mosques, four Islamic schools and seven Muslim student associations as institutions of “concern.” They have also labeled 42 individuals as top tier “persons of interest.”  

At least 32 mosques have been infiltrated by either undercover officers, informants, or both, according to documents, which are dated between 2003 and 2006 and marked “secret.”  

The NYPD has also been monitoring Muslim student associations at seven local colleges: City, Baruch, Hunter, Queens, LaGuardia, St. John’s and Brooklyn.

The department calls the two student groups at Brooklyn and Baruch colleges “of concern” and has sent undercover detectives to spy on them, the documents reveal.

The department defines a Muslim student association as “a university based student group, with an Islamic focus, involved with religious and political activities.”

The documents reveal that an Intelligence Division Cyber Unit has monitored MSAs at Brooklyn, City and Queens colleges.

The department also lists 10 non-governmental organizations as “of concern.” According to the documents, all 10 organizations have been spied upon by NYPD undercovers, informants, detectives with the Joint Terrorist Task Force or what the documents describe as a “secondary.”

On the NYPD list of 42 top tier “persons of interest” are: a corrections officer, a former imam, an un-indicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a lecturer at Brooklyn College and what the department describes as a “Brooklyn College MSA member [who] has expressed desire to be a suicide bomber in Palestine.”

The police have spied on all these people with either an undercover officer, an informant, or both, the documents say.

The spying operation–which appears to run afoul of a 2004 NYC law that prohibits racial and ethnic profiling by the NYPD–was created by former CIA agent David Cohen.  Cohen has previously been criticized for helping spearhead an expansive NYPD operation that saw the department travel the globe to monitor social justice activists ahead of the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Muslim-American and civil liberties groups have slammed the NYPD operation.  A statement by the Muslim-American Civil Liberties Coalition demands:

• the New York City Council to investigate and oversee the NYPD’s operations, as well as a City Comptroller Audit;
• the Obama Administration to initiate a federal investigation into the extent to which the CIA has engaged in domestic spying within the United States, in violation of law and its manadate;
• Congress and the New York State Senate to hold hearings into the NYPD’s, FBI’s, and CIA’s  surveillance and policing practices in Muslim communities with a focus on the role of informants;
• Congress and New York State Senate to pass enforceable anti-racial profiling legislation;
• NYPD and the Department of Justice to revise their internal guidelines to disallow the use of surveillance and informants absent suspicion of specific criminal activity. 

The response to the relevations about the NYPD casting a large net over NYC Muslims is by no means the first time civil liberties and Muslim-American advocacy groups have clashed with the NYPD.  As I reported for the Gotham Gazette last November:

Arguably the biggest irritant came when the police department released a 2007 report, titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. The report detailed the process by which it saw some American Muslims as being “radicalized” into terrorists and said that, while Americans Muslims are “more resistant to radicalization than their European counterparts, they are not immune.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations promptly criticized the report, saying, “Its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community.” In the wake of the report, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition formed and critiqued the report for presenting “a distorted and misleading depiction of Islam and its adherents.”

Following meetings with Muslim organizations, the police department quietly issued a two-page clarification that stressed that the “NYPD’s focus on al Qaeda inspired terrorism should not be mistaken for any implicit or explicit justification for racial, religious or ethnic profiling.”

While Muslim organizations welcomed the clarification, criticism of the report remains.

“It’s not clear what the NYPD really thinks, because it’s leaving the bulk of its assertions and its conclusions in place,” said Faiza Patel, who works with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Project. The clarification “didn’t address all of [the Muslim community’s] concerns. The way it was done — really kind of hidden there — makes it seem as if the police department is talking out of two sides of its mouth.”

A separate Associated Press article on the NYPD documents states that they “paint the clearest picture yet of how the past decade’s hunt for terrorists also put huge numbers of innocent people under scrutiny as they went about their daily lives in mosques, restaurants and social groups. Every day, undercover officers and informants filed reports from their positions as ‘listening posts’ inside Muslim communities.”

The expansive intelligence operation is representative of perhaps the most enduring legacy of the September 11 attacks:  the harassment and surveillance of the Muslim-American community and the alarming rise of a national security state that strips away Americans’ civil liberties. 



Upper West Side Synagogue and Brooklyn Jewish Center to Host Memorial Events for Far-right Extremist Meir Kahane

Three memorial events for the racist, far-right ultra-nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane are to be held throughout New York City this Sunday in ceremonies marking twenty years since the killing of Kahane.

The events are to be held at the Ocean Avenue Jewish Center in Brooklyn, at the site of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan and at the West Side Institutional Synagogue, which describes itself as a “warm and vibrant modern orthodox synagogue located in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.”

The Kahane memorial at Ground Zero is taking aim at “political Islam” and at the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero.  A blog post promoting the event on the Jewish Defense League’s “Canada blog” states, “It has been 20 years since *Rabbi Meir Kahane* (HY”D) was murdered. He was the first Al Quida [sic] terror victim. And his vision is more important today than ever.  The forces of Political Islam built a Mosque on the holiest site of the Jewish People-The Temple Mount. And today, the forces of Political Islam are determined to build a Mosque at Ground Zero.”

At the Upper West Side event, Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn of the West Side synangogue will be speaking–despite telling someone organizing a protest against the event that the Kahane memorial is “not a west side institutional event” and that “somebody is renting our ballroom.”  Also speaking will be Helen Freedman of Americans for a Safe Israel, a right-wing group that supports “Israel’s right…to the territories won in the 1967 war”; the talk-show host Barry Farber; and Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a right-wing Orthodox Jewish follower of Kahane who has advocated for the racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims in New York City.  Hikind is an advocate for illegal Jewish settlement in occupied Palestine, and his wife runs “Ateret Cohanim, one of the chief Jewish groups forcibly Judaizing East Jerusalem,” as blogger Richard Silverstein put it.

The honoring of Meir Kahane has sparked controversy among the Jewish community in New York City, and there are plans, led by Yeshiva students in the city, to protest the memorial events.

“We were pretty outraged to see that a synagogue in the Upper West Side–from what I understand, a relatively mainstream, Orthodox Upper West Side synagogue–would be holding a memorial to Meir Kahane, who is one of the most extreme, radical, right-wing Israeli leaders in the last few decades,” said Itamar Landau, a full-time fellow at Yeshivat Hadar, in an interview.  Landau is a key organizer behind the planned protests this Sunday.  “That’s not the Jewish community that I believe in, and that’s not the Jewish community I think we have.”

Kahane is a notorious figure.  He founded the Jewish Defense League, a U.S. organization designated a “terrorist” group by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department and U.S. courts. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Jewish Defense League “has a long history of bombing, assaulting and threatening its perceived enemies. Its targets have included the Soviet Union, neo-Nazi activists, Palestinian leaders, prominent black Americans, and even Jewish moderates.”

Perhaps the most infamous act of violence by a follower of Kahane was the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, when Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli-settler born in Brooklyn, murdered 29 Muslims praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.  The Israeli government outlawed the Kach political party, which was founded by Kahane, and an offshoot party, in the 1990’s.

Kahane advocated for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, an idea that still retains currency among Israeli political parties, as Avigdor Lieberman’s recent speech at the United Nations showed.

(Thanks to Jesse Bacon of Jewish Voice for Peace for tipping me off to this).

Settlement Builder Africa-Israel Faces Trouble on Two Fronts

First a boycott campaign, and now a lawsuit.

Africa-Israel, an investment company which is implicated in the construction of illegal settlements on Palestinian land, has announced that it will no longer be “involved in Israeli settlement projects and that it has no plans for future settlement activities,” according to the New York group Adalah, which works on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.  The announcement follows a three-year boycott campaign against Lev Leviev, the Israeli billionaire and chairman of Africa-Israel, and companies that he is involved in.  Leviev is still involved with “settlement construction through other companies like Leader Management and Development,” as Ethan Heitner, an activist with Adalah-NY, noted in the group’s press release.

And in New York City, the New York Post is reporting that Shaya Boymelgreen, a former business partner of Leviev’s, and Africa-Israel are facing a lawsuit over conditions in a luxurious apartment tower in Manhattan:

The glamorous apartment tower at 15 Broad St., home to celebrities and Wall Street moguls, is also full of dangerous glitches, unfinished work and funny smells, according to a $20 million lawsuit just filed against converter Shaya Boymelgreen and his Africa Israel International Investments.

The 330-unit address, known as “Downtown by Starck” after interior designer Philippe Starck formed it out of two adjoining buildings, including the landmarked former home of JPMorgan, has been one of the city’s most heavily-hyped condo conversions.

Now, the suit — filed by the four members of the 11-person condo board who are not controlled by Boymelgreen and by some apartment owners — claims he reneged on certain promises to buyers, including a movie theater that can’t be used at all because it falls short of Building Dept. code.

Though the two developments may not be necessarily related, it’s certainly been a bad week for Africa-Israel–which means it’s a good week for human rights and Palestinian justice.


New York City Withdraws Approval, Then Re-approves, Sheepshead Bay Mosque Proposal

After approving a proposed mosque and Islamic community center on October 13 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn that has faced vitriolic opposition from the Brooklyn Tea Party and a group of residents called Bay People, the New York City Department of Buildings withdrew their approval last week. And then they re-approved it October 23, according to news reports.

When the department reneged on their approval for the three-story project at 2812 Voorhies Ave, Allowey Ahmed, the owner of the property, attributed it to pressure from anti-Muslim activists, according to a report in the Brooklyn Paper.  A spokesperson for the Department of Buildings told the paper that after the department withdrew their approval, backers of the mosque “came in to address our questions and the hold has been lifted.”

The battle, though, doesn’t seem to be over.  Bay People has reportedly raised $30,000 for “fund a legal strategy to block the mosque by arguing it violates zoning laws and will create noise and traffic problems on the quiet block,” according to a June 30 Daily News article.

The opposition to this mosque comes as a general anti-Muslim climate is spreading across the United States, exemplified by the hysteria over the Park51 Islamic community center in lower Manhattan.

I recently reported on the battle over the proposed mosque in Sheepshead Bay in the Indypendent:

Bay People, Inc., as well as other opponents, also have an agenda aligned with anti-Muslim groups and individuals that have been stoking opposition to mosques around the city and country.  On its website, Bay People states that, “the neighborhood residents are mostly of Italian/Russian/Jewish/Irish descent and will not benefit from having a mosque and a Muslim community center.”  In addition, the group is opposed to the Muslim American Society’s (MAS) affiliation with the project, claiming that MAS is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and has links to radical Islam and terrorism.  (Rep. Michael McMahon, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a probe into MAS, which concluded that there was “no indication whatsoever that the Muslim American Society is affiliated with any organization that threatens our national security,” according to the Staten Island Advance.)

MAS has partnered with the local Muslim community to back the center, which in addition to having a prayer space will also have English as a second language classes, computer classes and workforce development programs.  Those closely involved with the proposed project say the focus will be on providing youth in the community with a positive place to go, but that it will be open to anyone.

“What they’re trying to do is put up all these smoke-screens to propagate fear in that community to not allow the [Muslim] community to build, and it’s absolutely unjust…for them to basically try to monopolize Sheepshead Bay and make it a Muslim free-zone,” said Debbie Almontaser, a prominent Muslim interfaith activist.  Almontaser is the board chair for the Muslim Consultative Network, which has been working with the local Muslim community in Sheepshead Bay to combat the opposition.  “If you look at the history of this community, there are churches, there are synagogues, and now it’s time to have a mosque…”

John Press, the head of the Brooklyn Tea Party, which protested alongside Bay People at a September 26 rally against the proposed mosque, didn’t shy away from opposing the mosque based on anti-Muslim sentiment, calling Islam a “hostile political doctrine.”

“We recognize the importance of the ‘clash of civilizations,’ and the Muslim American Society is a proponent of sharia law.  We believe that sharia law is antithetical to Western freedoms,” said Press, who doesn’t live in Sheepshead Bay and said that “a few” Brooklyn Tea Party members do.

The claims about “sharia” law and Islam as a “political doctrine” echo similar claims from anti-Muslim activists actively working to oppose the construction of new mosques around the country from lower Manhattan to Tennessee to California.

“The opponents against the proposed mosque in Sheepshead Bay erroneously brushstroke the entire Muslim community as ‘the other’ based on misinformation and at times outright bigotry,” Aliya Latif, the civil rights director for the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, wrote in an email to the Indypendent.

Anti-Muslim accusations have been leveled by opponents of the mosque at a series of heated protests in the community, including a June 27 anti-mosque rally where one Sheepshead Bay resident threatened to “bomb the mosque” if it’s built, according to the Brooklyn Paper.

There have also been counter-protests to combat the opposition and to support the proposed project, like the one at a Sept. 26 rally that saw the dueling sides on two sides of Voorhies Ave.

“The day we were there, [Sept. 26], we arrived and we thought we went back to the 50’s.  There were signs all over people’s houses [reading] ‘Muslims go home,’” said Elaine Brower, an activist who lives in Staten Island and a member of the New York City Coalition to Stop Islamophobia, which has been organizing in support of the proposed mosque.  “If people don’t stand up against it in unity and show support for Muslims and Arabs in this country, it’s only going to get worse.”

Brower was also involved in supporting a proposed mosque in the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island.  After a reverend initially entered into an agreement with MAS to sell a former parish convent to them so a mosque could be built, the board of St. Margaret Mary R.C. Church, which the reverend is a part of, withdrew support for the sale after about two months of harsh condemnation from local residents.  Like the Sheepshead Bay mosque controversy, residents cited concerns about parking and traffic as well as MAS’ alleged affiliation with links to terrorism.

Still, despite the vitriolic opposition to the Sheepshead Bay center, Allowey Ahmed, the owner of the property at 2812 Voorhies Ave., is moving forward with his plans.  Ahmed, a Yemeni-American and long-time Brooklyn resident, estimated that over $1 million in funds will need to be raised for the community center, and that he hopes construction will begin in the next few months.

“What is right is going to prevail,” said Ahmed.  “We believe we are on the right track, because we believe we are sending a good and positive message.”


9/11 anniversary weekend brings out spirited demonstrations

The following two pieces, one from last Friday night and the next from Saturday, originally appeared in the Indypendent:

On Night Before 9/11, New Yorkers Voice Strong Support for Muslim Community Center:

As the anniversary of 9/11 and the Islamophobic rally led by far-right blogger Pamela Geller converge today, over 1,000 New Yorkers gathered Sept. 10 at Park Place in lower Manhattan for a candlelight vigil in support of the proposed Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero that has ignited a national firestorm over Islam in America.

Organized by New York Neighbors for American Values, a new coalition of over 100 groups formed in response to the opposition to the Cordoba House project, faith leaders, elected officials, musicians and activists voiced strong support for the proposed Islamic community center, which will also include a September 11 memorial, a restaurant and culinary school and more.

“This is not just an issue I should support silently,” said Frank Fredericks, the co-director of Religious Freedom USA.  “This is a core, essential issue that Americans should stand up for.”

The supporters of the center, holding candles, filled more than two blocks, and some had to stand on a sidewalk across the street from the vigil.  The music of Bob Marley, John Lennon and a live rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” filled the air.

“There’s enough for all of us.  Nobody has to be thrown away.  We can do this thing if we hang together.  There’s enough room in this neighborhood for an Islamic center,” the keynote speaker of the event, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress, said.  “We don’t have to say they gotta go…They are our fellow Americans.”

The action came the night before the 9th anniversary of the September 11 attacks and a planned rally in lower Manhattan organized by the right-wing Stop Islamization of America group.  A counter-protest against Islamophobia and in support of Muslims backed by a broad left-wing coalition is also being held on September 11.

“No neighborhood should be off-limits for any particular group,” said Aliya Latif, the civil rights director for the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Stop Islamization of America, led by Geller and Robert Spencer of the anti-Muslim blog Jihad Watch, is protesting the planned Muslim community center two blocks away from Ground Zero, claiming that it is “an effort to insult the victims of 9/11 and to establish a beachhead for political Islam and Islamic supremacism in New York.”  Geller is a leading Islamophobic voice who has called for the removal of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of the most holy sites for Muslims, and has posted on her website a picture that replaced the Prophet Muhammad’s face with that of a pig. Spencer has compared the Islamic holy book, the Quran, to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and thinks that Islam is “innately extremist and violent.”

“I think we all know that nobody would object to a community center on Park Place unless it was sponsored by Muslims.  And no one can say with a straight face that that’s not based on religious discrimination,” said Richard Gottfried, a New York State Assemblyman.  “People who share American values do not do that.”

The vigil came in the midst of an increase of anti-Muslim sentiment across the country, stoked by the right-wing press.  There has been a spate of anti-Muslim actions over the past couple of weeks as the debate over the Muslim community center in New York has heated up.  While two-thirds of New York City residents want the proposed center to be moved farther away from the site of Ground Zero, a majority of Manhattan residents support the project, according to a recent New York Times poll.

“We have every right to worship wherever we want.  This country was founded on the basis of religious freedom,” said Rabyaah Althaibani, a Muslim Arab-American.


On 9/11 Anniversary, Park 51 Islamic Center Sparks Rallies, For and Against

(with Ellen Davidson)

Thousands rallied in Manhattan’s City Hall Park, near the site of Ground Zero, on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry, while blocks away an equal number demonstrated against the proposed Cordoba House Islamic community center at 51 Park Place in lower Manhattan.

At the Unity and Solidarity Rally, speakers denounced racism, urging protesters to fight growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Israel/Palestine conflict.  The multiracial crowd heard antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, former U.S. Rep. and Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, former U.S. Attorney Ramsey Clark, the Raging Grannies and representatives of peace, religious, labor, and community organizations including the Albany Central Labor Federation, the Bail Out the People Movement, Riverside Church, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Islamic Society of North America, United for Peace and Justice, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Veterans for Peace. The anti-Islamophobia protest was organized by the International Action Center and backed by a broad coalition of leftist, Muslim, Arab and Palestine solidarity groups.  Demonstrators marched to Foley Square, chanting and holding signs against anti-Muslim bigotry.

At the anti-Cordoba House rally, the mostly white participants waved U.S. flags and chanted “No mosque here.”  Speakers at the anti-community center rally included Pamela Geller, a leading voice on the Islamophobic right, and the notorious Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has stated that he “hates Islam.”

View a slide show that features pictures from both actions here.

A depressing statistic: 71 percent of NYC Jews oppose Islamic community center

Tablet Magazine‘s Marc Tracy picks up a depressing statistic out of a new Marist poll:  71 percent of New York City Jews who are registered voters oppose the building of the Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero.

Given that Jewish-Americans are a reliably liberal group on most issues, that statistic says a lot about the nature of the mainstream discourse about Islam and how Islamophobia is accepted in this country.  It’s a big problem, and one that needs to be combated.

Also–and I don’t think this is just me connecting Israel to every single issue–there’s a Zionist angle to analyzing that statistic.  Many Jewish-Americans, especially older ones, still have a deep, emotional connection to the State of Israel.  They see Israel has being besieged by those terrible, genocidal Arabs and Muslims.  Just look at Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest piece in the Atlantic, where he points out that Israel sees the Islamic Republic of Iran as “a threat to Israel’s very existence.”  That notion glosses over the complexity of Iranian society and the fact that, as Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett point out in Foreign Policy, “roughly 25,000-30,000 Jews continue living in Iran, with civil status equal to other Iranians and a constitutionally guaranteed parliamentary seat.”  And in the United States, Arabs and Muslims are often lumped in to one big, giant mass of people who are anti-Semites.  That misses the diversity of the Arab and Muslim worlds, the distinction between the likes of al-Qaeda (who only represent a tiny sliver of Muslims) and Hamas and Hezbollah, and contributes to a complete misreading of the Israel/Palestine conflict.