NEW YORK —
The New York City Police Department has disbanded a unit that spied on Muslims in their mosques and community gathering places. Set up in 2003, under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, the officers' job was ostensibly to gather intelligence on potential terrorist plans and conspiracies. The city’s diverse Muslim community has long complained about the unit, claiming their constitutional rights were being violated by indiscriminate religious and ethnic profiling.
Maimuna Abdul-Hakim was angered by the intrusion of plainclothes police operatives who spied on her fellow Muslim community members, both in her mosque and in her Harlem neighborhood. (VOA Photo Adam Phillips)
Like most New Yorkers, Maimuna Abdul-Hakim felt the attacks of 9/11 were a wakeup call for Americans, and increased vigilance was a necessary response; but, this devout member of Harlem’s Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood and mother of three was shocked to learn that her place of worship was being targeted for surveillance by the Demographics Unit of the NYPD. She says she is glad to learn that it has been disbanded.
“Especially since I’ve been here my whole life and I have children who come here, and not knowing who these people are, we are kind of kind of a close community; it put my guard up. So I am happy. It’s about time," she said.
Abdul Sabir, the mosque’s janitor and a devout Muslim, also welcomes the news.
"I was very relieved. They are starting to see that we are very peaceful people. There is no need really to spy on us. Islam stands for peace. So I was relieved."
What do you think is going to happen going forward? Do you trust them?
"I trust in Allah [God]. But I am always aware."
Resentment toward former police commissioner Raymond Kelly over the surveillance runs deep within the city’s Muslim leadership, says Imam Al Hajj Talib Abdur al Rashid, president of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York.
“Many of us throughout the city have tried consistently over the years to have good relations with the NYPD. Many of the imams conveyed a great sense of betrayal to know that they have been working the NYPD, working with [former] police commissioner Kelly, and all the time they were being spied on. So there was this dread that the NYPD used them and used the mosque to gain entrance for surveillance. And as you know, the NYPD surveillance program did not turn up one single lead in all of that looking and all that spying on people," he said.
The imam, however, is cautiously optimistic. He says that by disbanding the Demographics Unit, Mayor Bill de Blasio has demonstrated his commitment to ending religious, ethnic and racial profiling….
“… but how that’s going to translate into policy remains to be seen. There is a real challenge to come up with a 21st century policy of policing for New York -- one that ensures public safety without violating people's civil and human rights. It’s a challenge; but they get paid to meet challenges," he said.
While Muslim community leaders, the police and the mayor’s office have voiced their commitment to build trust, community advocates say that true healing will come only when they are satisfied that there is no official profiling by any city unit or department. For their part, officials continue to assert their commitment to doing whatever is necessary and legal to protect all of New York’s citizens from terrorism.