The director of the Arab Association of New York talks with Meaghan Winter about mosque monitoring, civil liberties, and kids asking 'why do they hate us?'
Image from Flickr via Paul Lowry
Last week, U.S. district judge Cormac Carney likened himself to Odysseus, who chose to “pass by the monster and risk a few individual sailors, rather than hazard the loss of his entire ship to the sucking whirlpool,” as he dismissed a case alleging FBI informants had violated American Muslims’ civil rights by infiltrating a mosque and collecting personal information. Judge Carney decided that prosecuting the FBI would require revealing secrets necessary for national security.
I first heard about Craig Monteilh, the informant who infiltrated the Irvine mosque, from Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab Association of New York, a social service organization in southwest Brooklyn, home to what Sarsour describes as the largest Muslim community in New York. The Arab Association was founded in the months before September 11, 2001 to fill a void—people were looking to mosques for help and mosques don’t traditionally provide social services—and since then has provided basic case management including translation services and adult education, and has sought to educate the greater public about New York’s Arab community. This month, as new legislation kicks in, the organization is helping immigrants who arrived as children—“Dreamers”—apply for renewable deportation waivers and work permits. The Arab Association is also registering voters, hoping to solidify political power.
Sarsour spoke with me about informants, internalized racism, and the false choice between safety and civil liberties.
—Meaghan Winter for Guernica
Guernica: What are some of your organization’s priorities right now?
Sarsour: We’ve done a lot of work around voter registration. There’s an important mayoral race in 2013, and we’re getting people ready to vote for that. We’ve seen a disconnect between our community and the Mayor’s office on a number of issues, including Mayor Bloomberg vetoing a resolution to incorporate Muslim holidays into the public school calendar. We had 50 of 51 city council members vote for it, even some very conservative Jews, for example, that don’t stand with us on other issues but stood with us on this issue. But Mayor Bloomberg said no.
The other issue is the NYPD’s surveillance of the Muslim community. Mayor Bloomberg has stood right next to [Police Commissioner Ray Kelly] and said that this the best thing that has happened in New York City, and hasn’t really engaged the Muslim community in an honest dialogue about what it means for our community to feel like we’ve been targeted by law enforcement.
We’ve always thought there were informants in our mosques and our businesses. The funny thing is, those of us who come from the Arab world come from places where there are these kinds of people all over the place.
Guernica: Why do you think Bloomberg was motivated to prevent accepting the Muslim holidays into the school calendar? In many ways that seems a benign issue, especially when so many council members were behind it.
Sarsour: He said that if he could go back in time he would actually delete other holidays, like the Jewish holidays. And his rationale was that if we give the Muslims their holidays, other groups, the Hindus, the Sikhs, will ask for their holidays. But for us, the most frustrating part about it was that we were doing this campaign for about two and a half years. Columbia University did a research project for us. One in every eight students in the New York City school system is Muslim. We are not an insignificant population. These stats are from 2007. Five years later, immigration from Muslim parts of the world continues to increase, whether we want to believe it or not. Many Muslims in New York are African American. Students are identified by language, not ethnicity, so Muslims are probably even underreported. We didn’t buy the idea that everyone is going to ask for holidays.
Guernica: I can see how that would make people feel like they don’t count.
Sarsour: A lot of people say, “Look how wonderful Mayor Bloomberg was on the Ground Zero mosque controversy.” He stood there on Governor’s Island and said “these people have a right to build.” I don’t give him that much benefit of the doubt. I’ve worked with him and I know how he thinks. He’s not a bigot or a racist, but for him it was that government shouldn’t be involved in private business matters. His perspective is that of a commercial developer. He’s a billionaire. He doesn’t want government to ever come in and say, “You can’t build there.” The land was zoned for an Islamic community center, so he believed they should go ahead. I also agree with his perspective—I don’t think government should be meddling in private business.
Guernica: I was reading about the lawsuit recently filed against the NYPD for surveilling Muslims—is your organization is involved?
Sarsour: There are two lawsuits right now: Muslims are suing the NYPD for surveilling in Jersey. The New York suit hasn’t been filed yet. Basically, we’re working with a few different groups to identify plaintiffs.
You can’t just say you were surveilled, you have to prove some sort of damages from being surveilled. If you’re a business that turns up in the secret NYPD documents and you can prove that since the date that you were surveilled that you had fewer customers, or you’re a mosque that can prove fewer attendants, or someone that believes an informant was in the organization and had to change the entire computer system and spend twenty thousand dollars, you’re the kind of plaintiffs that we’re looking for.
Guernica: I was hoping you could talk about the ways in which just the thought of being monitored has changed the community.
Sarsour: For us, the revelations from the Associated Press were more like confirmations. Before we’d tell each other, “Eh, we’re being paranoid.” But when we saw the revelations it crystallized everything we’ve been talking about for 10 years. We’ve always thought there were informants in our mosques and our businesses. The funny thing is, those of us who come from the Arab world come from places where there are these kinds of people all over the place. We have radar for them. People have been more reserved, but also paranoid about different kinds of people who approach.
The idea of entrapment has come up in a lot of the cases foiled by New York Police Department, so parents have been talking to their kids about not talking politics with people, not getting into a conversation where you’d say something you wouldn’t normally say. It’s not exactly how you want to live. At the mosque we look at new people and think, Hey, maybe he just moved here. Maybe he’s a cabdriver who happened to drop somebody off in Bay Ridge and wanted to pray this afternoon at a mosque. The fact that we’re so suspicious of people in our community, that’s not how other people in the city are living.
Guernica: It’s interesting that the NYPD is profiling people, and obviously what you’re doing isn’t the same thing, but it’s not so different. You’re also trying to sort out who fits your profile.
Sarsour: Yeah. And recently the conversation has been about the Sikh temple shooter. This guy was already flagged by the FBI. He was a white supremacist, in some group, went around singing about killing Jews and gays, but this guy was not surveilled… We are being surveilled without leads. There is no way to say these are normal practices.
Guernica: When I saw you at Riverside Church, you spoke about how informants sometimes instigate violent or deviant ideas. Can you talk about that?
Sarsour: We believe there are two types of confidential informants. One type is the regular guy or gal who just goes and overhears conversations and participates in activities and takes notes and reports to a law enforcement agency.
The other kind of informant is put into a certain location, and those are the informants who become agent provocateurs. There’s a story you can look up that’s an interesting example—in Irvine, California. A white guy, Craig Monteilh, supposedly converts. He goes into a mosque. You have to understand, when someone converts, we are so overwhelmed that in this day and age someone would even come to Islam, we are just overjoyed. People welcomed him with open arms… Within a couple months, no one had said anything violent—the community was actually progressive. So he changed his dress and grew a beard, and brought in pictures, saying, “Look what they’re doing, raping our sisters.” People told the leadership of the mosque, and the leadership reported him to The Council of American-Islamic relations and the FBI as a potential violent person. Turned out he worked for the FBI and the FBI pulled him out. The story only came out because the FBI reprimanded him and didn’t pay him, and Craig Monteilh ended up testifying on behalf of the Irvine Islamic Center against the FBI saying, “Yup, they told me to come to this mosque.” This is just one example of how informants cook up potential crimes when there wouldn’t have been criminal activity otherwise.
With the Newburgh four you have a crack addict, a schizophrenic, and a guy who just came out of prison with a brother in hospice who needed a liver and was promised thirty thousand dollars. The plastic bomb placed under the car in front of the synagogue in Riverdale was bought by the informant. Then there’s the shooting of Imam Ameen Abdullah. They went to Detroit, to one of the poorest mosques in the country. Of course there was probably some drug activity there. They used our taxpayer dollars to create a commercial warehouse. There was a raid at the warehouse and Imam Abdullah was shot in the back eighteen times. Would that crime have existed if law enforcement hadn’t created that situation in the first place? Those stories are in the backs of the minds of Muslim Americans in this country.
Think about if every store you went into, every place of worship, safe havens for people, your garbage can, was monitored.
Guernica: I was recently reading Tim Weiner’s history of the CIA, A Legacy of Ashes. When reading about Emma Goldman, I was struck by how patterns repeat themselves. Do you have any thoughts on why this is a reoccurring part of our history?
Sarsour: Then you go to McCarthyism, then to the ‘60s. In modern times, it’s the NYPD and Muslims. We have to justify the funding that goes into those agencies. To quote Mayor Bloomberg, if the NYPD were an army, it would be the seventh largest army in the world. They have resources from the Feds. They’re almost operating as a counter terrorism organization, almost like the FBI. If we’re safe and everything’s wonderful, they can’t justify their funds…The NYPD hires fifteen thousand informants whose sole job is to infiltrate various groups. That’s not including actual officers. It shows up in the talking points—we haven’t had another 9/11. Unfortunately, it’s making me feel that we’re becoming almost a police state.
Guernica: Polls show that a lot of New Yorkers support surveillance. What would you say to people of goodwill who just think monitoring is necessary to keep people safe?
Sarsour: Our situation is framed wrong. I don’t really blame people of goodwill who think it’s OK, because it’s framed as a choice between your family’s safety and monitoring this segment of the community, who is mostly great and not doing anything wrong, so it’s OK, right? To that I say, think about the psyche behind it, think about if every store you went into, every place of worship, safe havens for people, your garbage can, was monitored. How would that make you feel? Most people say, “Oh, that’s terrible.” Well, that’s what people are enduring. We’re feeling like first amendment rights apply to everybody but us.
I have children. I want to make sure my kids are safe. I get it. I don’t think people are bigots or hate Muslim Americans—it’s just the way it’s framed for them, a choice between safety and the rights of other people.
I don’t think people are bigots or hate Muslim Americans—it’s just the way it’s framed for them, a choice between safety and the rights of other people.
Guernica: You’ve written that Muslim Americans often internalize racism. How do you see that expressed in people you work with, or people that you know or meet?
Sarsour: There are so many examples. The scariest and most frustrating is how this affects young people, who were born and raised here and know nothing of other than life here.
We have a summer camp. In 2010 we had a camp celebration, a party for families. This cute kid, just graduated 5th grade, going to middle school, randomly asks me, “Do I tell them I’m Muslim?” I totally didn’t get it. I was like, “Well, if someone asks you, of course.” And he says, “What if they hurt me?” And I’m like, “Why would they hurt you? You don’t have to worry about that.” And he says, “Didn’t someone just stab that guy in that cab? He told a white man he was Muslim and the man stabbed him.” I’m thinking, you’re 10 years old and you know that story? I told him at school there would be security guards and teachers and not to worry. All of sudden, all these kids had all these examples like, “Oh, remember your brother was on the train and these kids beat him up and called him a terrorist?” And I just sat back and was like, wow. We’re talking about eight-, nine-, 10-year-old kids.
Kids have to be taught to hate… the adults were shouting “Go home!” I almost think that’s child abuse, subjecting a child to an environment of that kind of hate.
My son that summer was 12 years old, and he came over and asked, “Mom, why do they hate us?” And I said, “No, no what are you talking about, they don’t hate us.” He said, “Mom, come on.” My own son, in front of all these kids, saying, “come on.” What goes on in these young people’s minds is what scares me the most—they don’t know where they are in this situation. They’re American, they speak fluent English, some of them speak no Arabic at all, they go to public school, play X Box, and they have this question: “Why do they hate us?” and we’re talking about who they are. It’s the non-Muslim people—could be anyone.
One boy was coming from Egypt and didn’t speak English very well and kids at school were calling him a terrorist. He didn’t want to go to school anymore, didn’t want to eat. I went to his superintendent meeting with him mom because she wanted to transfer him, and I witnessed it for myself. When I went to the school. The mother wears a niqab. She wears this mesh thing over her eyes, and gloves. I’m in a hiqabi too but I don’t look as conservative. I’m standing outside with this woman and hearing the kids snicker and say all these things. I was outraged but I wasn’t going to get into a fight with eleven year-olds. I had brought in attorney to see the lack of the response from the school. According to the Respect for All campaign, that kid who called him a terrorist should be suspended just like a kid should be suspended for calling someone “nigger.” Standing in front of the school, hearing the nasty things kids were shouting at the mother, knowing that she probably wasn’t understanding half of it anyway, I though, Wow—you know these kids aren’t making this up on their own. They are hearing that somewhere. This is our next generation.
Guernica: That’s when I get depressed, when it’s young people, thinking that in thirty years the adults making decisions will still have these ideas.
Sarsour: There’s a mosque right now being built in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. When the Muslim American Society bought the property it was zoned so that it could be a place of worship. They followed all the laws. People went to the community board meeting and said they didn’t want a mosque there. They tried to say it was for traffic—it’s New York City, there’s traffic everywhere—but some people were very outright with their bigotry.” The worst part, they kept having protests in front of that mosque every week, and people would bring their children. I literally could not believe it. They had children hold up signs. This little kid had a sign that said, “We don’t want Hamas in our community.” The kid was no older than seven. I was thinking, Goddamn, if you want to hate, go ahead, but don’t teach your children. Kids have to be taught to hate. No kid born anywhere is born with hate. A kid that age doesn’t understand about Hamas, but the adults are standing there shouting “Go home!” I almost think that’s child abuse, subjecting a child to an environment of that kind of hate.
Now they have the elected officials in that neighborhood trying to petition the city to stop permits on the building. [Brooklyn Borough President] Marty Markowitz, who is quite lovely and has supported the project, wrote a letter back to the opposing group, The Bay People Association for something or other, saying he understood their concerns—concerns of what?—but I see where he’s coming from, trying to diffuse it. When the letter went public, he called me and said, “Linda, you have to understand what I’m dealing with, hate at it’s best.” I did understand. It’s disgusting to have to deal with that.
Meaghan Winter is a teacher and writer based in New York.