Monday, December 24, 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Subway Ad That Calls Me A Savage by: Linda Sarsour
 (cross-posting from

While waiting for the train on the platform in a New York City station I always read the advertisements plastered on the walls. I don’t watch much television and these ads always update me on the newest movie releases, season premieres of television’s hottest primetime shows and NYC’s latest fashion trends. Starting this week, New Yorkers are in for something a bit out of the ordinary – in-your-face racism and the response to it.
An ad went up on Monday, September 24 in 10 train stations in New York City that reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Many New Yorkers will pass right by them and not even flinch, but I am not that New Yorker. I am a First Amendment absolutist and I believe wholeheartedly that Pamela Geller, founder of Stop the Islamization of America, a cited hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has every right to express herself through these ads. I also believe, however, that with freedom of speech comes responsibility. Is it legal in a court of law to place these hateful ads? Absolutely. Are they moral and necessary? Absolutely not. This is not just about legality, but also about morality. Slavery was once legal in the United States, but that didn’t make it moral. Read More....

Saturday, January 28, 2012

NYPD and the Muslim American Community in NYC

I am sure you are all following the controversy around the NYPD's use of a hateful, anti-Muslim film, The Third Jihad, to train close to 1500 officers. As a member of the Muslim American community, and a member of the broad based coalition calling for the resignation of Raymond Kelly and Paul Browne, I would like to give you some context and paint a larger picture that hasn't been captured through the media or through conversations that currently exist on line and in the broader New York City.

The Muslim American community isn't calling for the resignation of Kelly because we are offended and our feelings are hurt. Offended, I am. But so what. I'll get over it. This is not about sensitivity of a community, it is about RESPECT and RESPONSIBILITY. This is but one film and yes people make mistakes but to continuously lie to a community, there comes a point when enough is enough. We didn't wake up last week as a community to the revelations of this film. We have been addressing this particular issue since early last year. We sent correspondences to Commissioner Kelly and he wrote us back in a letter dated March 7th, 2011 that "The New York City Police Department did not participate in its production and we do not believe the content is appropriate for training purposes."

This is only one part of a larger history of bad judgment calls and inappropriate materials and portrayal of Muslims within the NYPD. In 2007, NYPD released a report entitled "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat" that depicted every day things that Muslims do could potentially be red flags or preludes to terrorism activity. I will never forget one year when I attended a welcome Ramadan breakfast hosted by NYPD where over 300 Muslim leaders are invited to network, raise concerns and ask questions of senior level officials. That day, I walked in, sat down and the lights went out. A screen lit up and we were about to watch a presentation. The presentation was called "The Faces of Terrorism". The first slide was a picture of Wafaa Edriss, first Palestinian female suicide bomber. Picture after picture. No Timothy McVeigh, just a bunch of Arabs, South Asians and Muslims (most of whom never threatened or committed terrorism on US soil). Finally, I stood up and walked out and many other attendees did the same. What were they thinking? Who did they think was their audience? I thought we were welcoming Ramadan? A letter was immediately sent, NYPD apologized and supposedly changed the powerpoint.

Bad judgment after bad judgment. We have been lied to time and time again, and quite frankly, we are tired of it. If this would have happened to any other community, this would have been addressed immediately, someone would have been fired and an immediate response would have been issued. No one community in New York City is better or more worthy of a response than any other community.

For the past 10 years, many activists and community leaders have spoken about and brought to light issues of discrimination, abuse of power by law enforcement agencies including NYPD, FBI, TSA and CBP. We are not bringing up new issues. The reason why the media is focusing on it now is thanks to the Associated Press. While we have been banging on doors, screaming into an empty tunnel, and being accused of paranoia and victimhood mentality, the August revelations by the Associated Press that the NYPD in partnership with the CIA has conducted illegal spying on the Muslim communities of New York City finally confirmed the story we have been telling for the past decade. It's all documented. The Demographics Unit, the 28 "ancestries of interest" including Black American Muslims, and a list of 250 individuals, Islamic institutions and businesses. All on paper. Undeniable.

Undeniable. Well the NYPD doesn't think so. Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg continue to deny these accusations and say that reporting done by the Media is exaggerated. Ok. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, both gentleman should ask for an independent investigation of the NYPD and share the results with the public and let's put all of this to rest. That doesn't seem to be something they will call for any time soon, so the Muslim community, advocates and their allies will continue to demand accountability. Work in the community has been underway. CAIR and CLEAR CUNY continue to conduct Know Your Rights workshops across NYC, NYU Brennan Center for Justice with input from community members and allies are working on an oversight proposal for the NYPD, engaging elected officials, activists writing opinion pieces, etc. Work is being done. This is part of a long term strategy. We are not just reacting anymore. Very proud of the work of my colleagues in the movement to create law enforcement accountability.

Our critics, both from outside and within our community continue to ask us why haven't we engaged? We have written two letters, and most recently one to Mayor Bloomberg. No response directly to our community just responses through the media behind podiums and written statements released from public relations departments reviewed by lawyers. Mayor Bloomberg was recently quoted saying that Commissioner Kelly has visited more mosques than people from with in that faith. Maybe he's right, may be he's wrong but I don't get his point. Commissioner Kelly was not doing the community any favors, he was "we thought" treating us like every other community in NYC.

During this latest controversy, you have multiple perspectives from within the Muslim American community that emerge. Every one is entitled to their own opinion but before criticizing tactics of members of their community and throwing out suggestions, a conversation is in order as well as the questioning of oneself. What brought the community to this point? What are we missing? What is it really like for every day people in these Muslim communities? Most recently I saw a laundry list of all the "good things" Commissioner Kelly has done for our community. I did a fact check. Nothing he did for us he hadn't done for other communities. Of all the communities that the NYPD engages with, I would confidently say that the Muslim community, specifically the Arab American Muslim community has been a partner and has shown only hospitality and respect to Commissioner Kelly and his staff. (I am speaking about the Arab Muslim community because I am the most familiar with the experience of this community.) Visits to mosques? Yes, Commissioner Kelly has visited our mosques. On one of those visits, to Southwest Brooklyn's Beit Al Maqdis Islamic Center, they designed, produced, and paid for a banner, that read "Beit Al Maqdis Islamic Center Welcomes Honorable Raymond W. Kelly, Police Commissioner, New York City Police Department." (pictured below)

The banner was only used once and for the community, the investment in the banner, the event, the outreach, the dinner was all worth it to have face time with the "Honorable" Raymond W. Kelly. Our community has always operated on an open door policy. Unfortunately, while we were letting them in the front door, their informants were infiltrating our mosques, and our community was illegally being spied on.

They have great sports programs? In 2009, the Arab American Association of New York "Brooklyn United" Soccer Team won the NYPD Commissioner Cup. (picture of me carrying our Trophy) We trained our kids on a weekly basis and they competed city-wide, kicking soccer butt across NYC.

In 2010, we honored Captain Eric Rodriguez at the Arab American Association of New York's 9th Annual Benefit Gala. We are a pro-law enforcement community and we have a great relationship with the 68th Precinct in Southwest Brooklyn. We work hand in hand to ensure that our community is safe and that we have the security we need in various situations. We have organized town hall meetings for the NYPD with youth, invited them to break bread with us during Ramadan, gave walking tours to local officers, and invited them into our most sacred institutions. In the meanwhile, undercover officers and paid informants were already amongst us. Do you still want to ask us about engagement and reconciliation? The ball is in the court of the NYPD leadership. We have done our part, it is now time for them to take responsibility and to do their part.

What's the big deal that NYPD is spying on the Muslim American community? So as long as we are not doing anything wrong, we shouldn't worry. Right? Wrong. The recent confirmations that we are being spied on compounded with the showing of films like Third Jihad hits at the very fabric of our community. It creates an environment of fear, paranoia and uneasiness. People become more isolated and try as hard as possible not to have to interact with law enforcement. You say that's not a good response and it is our duty as a community to do so, then YOU come tell the community that. When you think that officers are being trained that you are dangerous, that you can be a potential terrorist and that the very religion you practice is being accused of wanting "to take over the country", you probably wouldn't feel comfortable either. Knowing that the coffeeshops and mosques have informants doesn't allow you to engage in normal conversation or speak honestly and openly about your political views because you don't know what could be taken out of context. Our tax payer dollars go to the NYPD so they can protect and serve us not instill fear in our communities. Our community does not feel safe. This is the essence of the problem. Everyone should be alarmed.

You ask us about the Muslim officers and what their role is in all of this? They are of the most honorable, sincere and dedicated in our community. I have the utmost respect for them and the work that they do. I am very proud to have them represent us in the NYPD, but the issues we raise are beyond their control. They are pieces of a humongous puzzle. They continue to protect and serve and I speculate that deep down in their hearts, they know that the relationship between their employer and their community has been broken and that it must be fixed.

Every day I wake up to serve and be a resource to my community through the Arab American Association of New York. We hear first hand accounts of the issues our community members face. Language access, domestic violence, substance abuse, unemployment, fear and mistrust, homesickness, worry for their families abroad and yes, their concerns over law enforcement. I am not an expert, I am just a mouthpiece, a voice that carries the experiences of my community to panels, conferences, media, the internet and to my allies. I was born and raised, live and work in this community. I walk their streets every day, I shop in the same stores, my children attend their schools, I feel their pain, I feel their tension.

So before others speak about what "we" should do as  a community maybe you can come down from your pedestals and spend time on the ground in our communities amongst those most affected by the issues "we" speak about. Tell their stories. They need to be told. Learn first from those you speak on behalf of.

I am not a leader. I wasn't elected to "represent" the community. I am merely their storyteller.

I could probably write a book about this and may be I will in the future - but in the meantime, if you have any questions, please feel free to email me at If I don't have the answer, I will direct you to where you can find more information.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Reflections on Muslim Prayer at OWS

Reflections on Muslim Prayer at OWS

By Linda Sarsour

What do we have to do with Occupy Wall Street? What’s so Islamic about Occupy Wall Street? Are we just going to show up or were we actually invited to be there? These were just some of the posts on the facebook event’s page for the Friday Prayer at Occupy Wall Street last week. I was shocked that there was so much doubt, uncertainty and lack of clarity as to what was the role of Muslim New Yorkers in Occupy Wall Street.

First off, Muslims have been part of and many have supported OWS since day one. Second of all, we were invited to have Friday prayer at OWS and graciously accepted that invitation. Friday prayer is the most sacred part of our lives to share with our fellow Americans. Muslims all over the world congregate in mosques to pray together, shoulder to shoulder, rich and poor, educated and non-educated to bring themselves closer to God. Third of all, it is our obligation as Muslims to stand up against injustice and to defend those who are defenseless.

This was a public visible opportunity to show OWS, fellow Americans, Wall Street, and our government that Muslim Americans are also part of the 99%. We are concerned with the infringement on our civil liberties and the lack of opportunities available to our community. As someone who runs a non profit organization that serves low income and immigrant Arabs in NYC, I see firsthand the issues affecting our communities. High rates of unemployment, threats of eviction, difficulties accessing public benefits and healthcare, are compounded by the discrimination and hostility a minority of New Yorkers face, that also includes targeting and spying by the New York Police Department.

If you haven’t noticed, its damn hard being an Arab let alone an Arab and a Muslim in New York. We are not exactly the most loved and wanted but what we have experienced at OWS is quite the contrary. Protesters of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, educational levels and ages have welcomed us with open arms. We have never been questioned about our presence but more about how else we can be involved. After the Friday prayer last week, many random folks came up to me and simply thanked me for being there. That’s it. I was thanked for being present. The presence of those who came to pray was recognized, acknowledged and appreciated. It was an inspirational and motivational experience for me and the many Muslims who came out. A highlight of the day was while doing our Mic Check, a Christian woman came up to the step I was standing on and spoke out to the crowd. She introduced herself as a Christian and apologized to Muslims for ever stereotyping them, or treating them differently. She voiced to the crowd that we are all brothers and sisters and that we should stay committed to treating each other this way. It brought tears to my eyes. When she finished, she turned and embraced me. It was genuine and reflected the true sentiment of OWS. Inclusivity.

Was I inspired by the Arab Spring to be there? Yes, but I would caution us from comparing OWS to the Arab Spring. We as Americans do not go to OWS with the risk of being shot by a sniper or run over by a military tank. While we may want the same things, the nature of our environment is completely different and it wouldn’t be fair to the martyrs of the Arab Spring if we said OWS is our version of the Arab Spring. It’s not the same. Can we be inspired by the brave men and women of the Arab world? Absolutely, they inspire me everyday.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Justice Before Breakfast

Why I Skipped Mayor Bloomberg’s Breakfast 

Linda Sarsour

On August 23rd of this year I was invited to Gracie Mansion to attend Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Annual Iftar, a break of fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. For the duration of the evening I sat next to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. We discussed the significance of Ramadan and I pressed him on his department’s lack of response to letters we sent requesting to meet with staff of the NYPD training department. He nodded and said that he’s sure his people would get back to us. They never did.

This was not the first time I had engaged Commissioner Kelly or NYPD senior level staff on issues of concern to my community. Arab and Muslim New Yorkers have worked closely with the NYPD for as long as elders in our community can remember. As a matter of fact, my organization’s soccer team, Brooklyn United, won the NYPD Commissioner’s Cup in 2009 -- a triumphant moment for our youth. We have also invited members of the NYPD to events, town halls, and religious services.

In the 10 years since 9/11, I have worked as director of a social services organization in Brooklyn called the Arab American Association of New York, and as the advocacy and civic engagement coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities. In these roles I have done my best to increase understanding between Arabs, Muslims and other New Yorkers, as well as to advocate for local and national policies that keep us all safe and united.

As part of my job to provide social services to residents of Brooklyn, I have had to counsel Muslim New Yorkers, especially immigrants and youth, who have suffered at the hands of law enforcement agents engaging in misconduct. On numerous occasions I delivered firsthand accounts of these abuses to senior officials of the FBI, NYPD, and Department of Justice, as well as to local, state and federal elected officials. Many refused to believe that Arab and Muslim Americans were being ethnically and racially profiled by law enforcement.

The skeptics were given a jolt when the Associated Press confirmed 10 years of speculation by releasing an investigative report in August outlining a broad surveillance program targeting Muslim community members simply because of their religion – not because of leads or suspicious behavior. The report also alleged that the CIA had been violating a ban on domestic spying by collaborating with the NYPD. Ironically, this report was released at 6:00 am the morning after I sat next to Commissioner Kelly at Mayor Bloomberg’s Annual Ramadan Iftar.

Instead of joining the growing number of elected officials and community activists calling for accountability and rule of law, Mayor Bloomberg defended the police department’s suspicionless surveillance of New Yorkers at schools, businesses, and mosques. By pretending to befriend their Muslim neighbors in order to spy on them, law enforcement officials were betraying the very people who considered themselves allies and partners in keeping our streets safe.

Some people have asked why I didn’t show up to “engage” Mr. Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly on the issue. Before, during and after the breakfast, both leaders continued to reassure New Yorkers that they are not engaging in religious and ethnic profiling. Our very own Department of Justice defines religious and ethnic profiling as “any police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin rather than the behavior of an individual." The AP investigation revealed that there is, in fact, a demographics unit coupled with a list of 25 ancestries of interest used to conduct intelligence gathering. If that’s not ethnic and religious profiling, I don’t know what is.

Not only are racial and ethnic profiling practices wrong and unconstitutional, they waste taxpayer dollars and they make us all less safe. According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union in October, "empirical data show that terrorists and criminals do not fit neat racial, ethnic, national-origin or religious stereotypes, and using such flawed profiles is a recipe for failure. The heinous acts of terrorism committed by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and John Stacks, the man who flew his plane into an IRS building in Texas, confirm that effective law enforcement techniques must be based on criminal behavior and not race, religion or nationality in order to ensure our nation’s security.

Muslim community leaders have sent numerous letters to Commissioner Kelly in the past year regarding bigoted and sensational training materials being used by the NYPD that instill hatred rather than prepare officers to police Muslim communities. To this day, we have received no response. Civic engagement is a two-way street and the Arab American and Muslim American community are doing their part. It is time that New York City’s leaders do theirs.

Last week the CIA announced that an internal watchdog had found nothing wrong with the agency’s NYPD collaboration. But how can we trust the CIA to investigate itself? All we are asking for at this juncture is that Mayor Bloomberg initiate an independent investigation of the NYPD intelligence gathering program and make public the conclusive reports of the investigation. Mayor Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly are accountable to the citizens of New York City and we will continue to demand that accountability.

As for now, rhetoric of any kind will not stop me from standing up for the right of New Yorkers to live their lives without having to fear being spied on simply because of their religion or the color of their skin. I owe it to myself and to my children to continue to defend the very rights afforded to us by the Constitution of the United States.

I spent the morning of Mr. Bloomberg’s interfaith breakfast explaining to my children why I turned down an invitation from the mayor of New York City. As I spoke to them about the importance of always standing up for what you believe is right, I paused for a moment to look down at my iPhone to scan the latest news. While reading remarks made during the breakfast, I found a perfect quote to end the conversation with my children: “discrimination against anyone is discrimination against everyone.” These words were spoken by none other than Mayor Michael Bloomberg. I will hold him to it.