Anger and apathy from Brooklyn Muslims over NYPD spying report

AP report that NYPD labeled mosques 'terrorist enterprises' has some on edge, while others say surveillance is not new

Muslim-American men praying in 2010 in front of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. The largely middle-class neighborhood of 70,000 residents has a small but vibrant Muslim population.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

On Friday afternoon at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a large mosque and community center in an especially diverse neighborhood of Brooklyn, Muslim men double-parked their cars and ran from adjacent storefronts to catch the start of the 1 p.m. prayer.

As the interior of the mosque filled up with more than 100 people, those left outside began claiming space on the sidewalk, using Arabic-language newspapers as substitutes for prayer rugs.

It was a normal Friday, except that many in attendance were a little more tense than usual. This was the first Friday prayer following the release of documents by The Associated Press that showed several mosques in New York, including the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, had been labeled as suspected "terrorist enterprises" by the New York City Police Department (NYPD), and were under the department's watchful eye for years.

The AP also revealed in 2011 that the NYPD was keeping several Muslims under surveillance, but the new revelations came as a shock to many in the Bay Ridge Muslim community, who said they've had nothing but good relations with the police.

But to others, the documents were just another sign of a continually worsening relationship between what they say is an overly suspicious NYPD and Muslim-Americans just trying to go about their lives.

"[Surveillance] started in 1993, as soon as we opened," said Zein Rimawi, one of the founders of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, who now sits on its board of directors. "So, to be honest, we knew about it."

Rimawi said congregants have told him for years that the NYPD has been asking for information about the mosque. That's why, although he was unaware that the police had labeled the mosque a "terrorist enterprise," he wasn't surprised when two AP reporters told him last week.

"I'd like to ask the police department if they've found anything illegal here," he said. "We've complained many times, but they don't listen."

Rimawi's mosque is just one of at least 10 mosques that the NYPD had opened investigations on. 

The program began in 2003 when NYPD leaders persuaded a federal judge to overturn a 30-year-old law that prevented police from monitoring First Amendment-protected speech.

That decision made it legal for officers to investigate members of mosques, as long as the "facts or circumstances reasonably indicate" that two or more people could be involved in terrorism or violent crime, according to the AP report.

'The trust is broken'

Ever since that decision, the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge has been under the watch of the NYPD.

But Rimawi may have been one of the most jaded members of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. To many members of the mosque, the publication of the program was a shock.

"I'm very upset," said Kareem Bitar, a retail salesman who lives in Bay Ridge and comes to the mosque every Friday. "We don't think of the NYPD as being evil or even harsh. They're here to do their job ... But for them to actually go ahead and spy on us -- the trust is broken."

The perceived trust between police officers and community members is why several congregants were taken aback. Many said that if the NYPD needed information, it could have just come and asked for it.

"We do everything in the open here," said Mohamed Mahmoud, who owns a printing shop across the street from the mosque. "Anyone can come here. They can come see what we do. So why would they put us in this position?"

Others were more understanding of the NYPD's tactics. One man compared the spying to the police rooting out Mafia members from New York's Italian-American community in the 1960s.

But even those who were semi-supportive of the program said the NYPD's secrecy would fray their trust in the organization.

That's what Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, located a few blocks south of the Bay Ridge mosque, was most worried about.

Sarsour said she understands that the NYPD has a job to do, but she believes that it's gone too far. Sarsour had known about surveillance programs for years, but was surprised to find out that the NYPD planned to place a confidential informant on her organization's board. She still doesn't know if it succeeded.

"Getting someone on our board, that kind of takes it to the next level," she said. "When you see your own name and your own organization on a document, it becomes personal. I felt hurt."

Sarsour believes this is a low point for relations with the NYPD. She said that before the department's spying was revealed in 2011, she thought the NYPD was doing a great job of actively including the community in its work.

"But as soon as our suspicions about surveillance were confirmed … we stopped inviting Commissioner Kelly and senior NYPD leadership to speak with us," she said. "Our relationship was done."

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