Zienib Noori, 20, of Albany, NY listens to a speaker at the “Today, I Am A Muslim, Too” rally in New York City
(Photo by JessicaRinaldi/Reuters)
Since 9/11, the New York Police Department’s Pre-Ramadan Conference and Breakfast has become one of the largest gatherings of Muslim leadership in New York City. Last July, I sat among a sea of suits and uniforms, colorful headscarves, turbans, and maroon fezzes. Surrounded by American flags and silk banners with a star-spangled rainbow design, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s boxer stance commanded attention as he engaged a crowd of 150 Muslim police officers and roughly 250 Muslim community members.
Within the crowd, some Muslims were murmuring. These men and women were concerned about reports that police trainers had been showing The Third Jihad, a film made by Wayne Kopping and produced by Raphael Shore and the Clarion Fund,1 creators of the notorious propaganda film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.
The Third Jihad opens with a disclaimer that “this is not a film about Islam. It is about the threat of radical Islam.” However, the film’s narrator, Dr. Zahdi Jasser, says that he has found a document that reveals “the true agenda of much of the Muslim leadership here in America” [italics PRA’s]. In a series of interviews primarily consisting of neoconservative analysts, and featuring inflammatory footage of human rights abuses, violent political rallies, and images celebrating the enrollment of children in suicide missions, the film asserts that radical Muslims have a strategy to “infiltrate and dominate” America and transform it into an Islamic theocracy. Among other claims, the film cites a survey that “one in four young American Muslims condones suicide bombing” and implies that moderate American Muslim organizations, particularly the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), act deceptively to disguise their true radical agendas.
A local group, Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition (MACLC),2 had formed over three years earlier to challenge faulty NYPD threat analysis, biased law enforcement training, and community surveillance. The coalition is comprised of leading New York City-based Muslim legal and community advocacy groups, and, is advised by the Brennan Center for Justice. When rumors of NYPD screenings of The Third Jihad began to circulate, MACLC sent a series of letters to the Commissioner requesting a meeting.
There was no response.
The morning of the breakfast, Imam Talib Abdul Rashid, a respected elder and newly chosen Amir of the Majlis Ash Shura, took the floor. As head of the imams’ leadership council, the most established Muslim leadership group in New York, he shared his concerns about the showing of the problematic film. He offered to help form a committee to vet materials about Islam for use in future training sessions.
CAIR’s series of trainings and pocket guides called “Know Your Rights” provide Muslim students, employees, and airline passengers with a valuable overview of their rights. The guides can be used to identify and respond to hate crimes.
Following the imam’s remarks, Kelly said that The Third Jihad had been shown only one time, and only as “background visuals.” Notably, though he was to deny his direct cooperation for many months, Kelly himself had been interviewed for, and appeared in, The Third Jihad speaking about threats associated with young Black men who were “recruited” and converted to Islam while in prison, and about the terrorist threat associated with suitcase-sized nuclear weapons, or “dirty” bombs. Kelly minimized the significance of community concerns, adding that his department was exploring convening dialogue or advisory groups with Muslims but “did not know whom to include and whom to exclude.”
Kelly’s statements raised some eyebrows. Community complaints had led MACLC members to believe the film had been shown more than once. Beyond this, MACLC members knew that the NYPD had recently begun to convene a completely separate group of Muslims to meet with, a group MACLC members supposed would be comprised of more pliable community representatives.
MUslim Community Responses
The American-Muslim community is highly diverse and decentralized; many of the national leadership groups (the alphabet soup of CAIR, ISNA, MPAC, ICNA, MANA)3 coordinate on a regular, but quite loose basis. Emerging American Muslim civil society organizations also include independent groups reflecting a range of sects, religious styles, and opinions.
On a local level, Muslim, civic, and interfaith organizations have for many years responded to bias-motivated crimes and to attacks on the ability of Muslims to worship or freely associate. They are also increasingly successful in publicizing government attacks on Muslim civil rights through profiling, surveillance, detention and deportation, and biased training by public safety officers.
Coalitions (and temporarily activated social networks) play an important part in Muslim community activism. Muslim representatives from struggling new organizations may at first experience themselves as the “affirmative action member” in such groups, but over time most beleaguered Muslims gain safe and supportive spaces within these collectively organized civic efforts.
In March 2011, a major rally called “I am a Muslim, Too” was held in New York City’s Times Square to coincide with now-infamous House Homeland Security Committee hearings convened by Rep. Peter King (R-NY). The rally was supported by The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding,4 best known for its annual “twinning project” that now brings together more than 240 synagogues and mosques in 22 countries on four continents. This is one of a number of active coalitions working towards greater coexistence. Another, the New York Neighbors for American Values, a coalition of 150 civic groups, worked throughout 2011 to promote religious freedom and tolerance5 via research6 and through civic engagement activities such as 9/11 commemorations. It also has been raising questions about NYPD surveillance and Islamophobic training programs.
In Washington, D.C., a new interfaith campaign, “Shoulder to Shoulder Standing with American Muslims: Upholding American Values,” housed at Islamic Society of North America,7has organized an interfaith 9/11 commemoration. It issued a “Joint Statement Against Extremism of All Kinds In Support of American Values” signed by 26 national religious leaders and later released a statement opposing the widespread NYPD surveillance of Muslim students, religious leaders and communities.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been able to create an important national network for Muslim communities with more than 30 local chapters, frequent email alerts, and national and local advocacy campaigns. CAIR’s series of trainings and pocket guides called “Know Your Rights” provide Muslim students, employees, and airline passengers with a valuable overview of their rights. The guides can be used to identify and respond to hate crimes.
When it surfaced that Virginia agents at the FBI’s training center at Quantico were being shown a chart contending that the more “devout” a Muslim, the more likely that person is to be “violent,” Muslim activists responded immediately.
In recent years, CAIR has embarked on a series of high profile lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests pertaining to illegal anti-Muslim discrimination, harassment, and surveillance. Their efforts have prompted some politicians and interest groups8 to demonize CAIR as “the legal wing of Jihad in America.”9 In June 2011, in association with the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender, CAIR released its report, “Same Hate, New Target: Islamophobia and Its Impact in the United States 2009-2010.” The report provides detailed descriptions of Islamophobia effects, ranging from hate crimes and vandalism to political marginalization of affected communities.10 CAIR national legislative director Corey Saylor, one of the report’s co-authors, says he remains seriously concerned about the pace of government response to these challenges.
CAIR and other national and local groups have worked to empower targeted groups to identify and report suspicious activity, develop legal contacts, and establish security in mosques and public settings. In some regions, impacted groups have begun to confront the purveyors of Islamophobic training directly, with some success.
Community Groups Win In Local Skirmishes
One of the Muslim community’s first successes in organizing against anti-Islam counterterrorism trainings dates back to Washington State in 2008. That May, a training program run by private company Security Solutions International (SSI), called “The Threat of Islamic Jihadists to the World” took place at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission campus in Burien, Washington. It was billed as providing insight into the formative phases of Islam, but conflated the religion’s different branches with radical Islam and a discussion about how to respond to terrorist acts.
In response to community outcry and Muslim protests, the Port of dissociated itself from further cooperation with SSI. Port Police Chief Colleen Wilson met with local CAIR representatives and offered to have them come in to do additional training.
Two years later in 2010, however, alert Muslims noticed that SSI had scheduled a webinar that included presentations by the Seattle Police Department and Washington State Patrol. Responding to concerns expressed by CAIR Washington State, both law enforcement agencies announced that they would withdraw from the event. “We commend the Seattle Police Department and the Washington State Patrol for listening to community concerns about a group that promotes anti-Muslim stereotypes and conspiracy theories,” said CAIR-WA Executive Director Arsalan Bukhari.11
SSI had been in the news not long before. In Political Research Associates’ report ,Manufacturing the Muslim Menace, Security Solutions International, LLC (SSI)12 and two other private firms, International Counter-Terrorism Officers Association (ICTOA) and The Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies (CI Centre) were shown to have speakers and materials that promoted a range of harmful anti-Muslim teachings. Many of these trainings disseminated inaccurate and conspiratorial myths that could put the rights of millions of American Muslims at risk from the very public servants who have sworn to protect them. Sparked in part by the report, Muslim and community groups convinced Paul MacMillan, Chief of Police of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to cancel an inflammatory SSI seminar covering topics such as “Women in Islam and Female Suicide Bombers,” and “The Legal Wing of Jihad in America.”13
Sustaining Activism on a National Scale
Sustained organizing efforts are key to the Muslim community pushing back against the scores of campaigns demonizing Islam and institutionalizing Islamophobia since September 11, 2001. It is not difficult to recognize Islamophobia’s political usefulness:14 it perpetrates an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam resulting in bias, discrimination, marginalization and the exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life.
Writer Reza Aslan has recently observed,
Simply put, Islam in the United States has become otherized. It has become a receptacle into which can be tossed all the angst and apprehension people feel about the faltering economy, about the new and unfamiliar political order, about the shifting cultural, racial, and religious landscapes that have fundamentally altered the world. Across Europe and North America, whatever is fearful, whatever is foreign, whatever is alien and unsafe is being tagged with the label ‘Islam.15
When Manufacturing was released, the community group Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) knew how to use this research. The report’s publications coincided with the U.S. House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee hearing on American Muslim Radicalization. Even before that first hearing in March, 2011, Congressman Allen West (R-FL) claimed that he possessed the names of 6,000 Muslim Americans who secretly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in a supposed plot to take over the USA and install Sharia law.
MPAC knew what to expect from the anti-Islam hearings.16 Using data from the report, MPAC and other partners were able to convince Senators Lieberman and Collins to challenge the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice to investigate and halt any such support. The Senators later threatened Congressional action, setting off a flurry of activity within DHS.
When it surfaced that Virginia agents at the FBI’s training center at Quantico were being shown a chart contending that the more “devout” a Muslim, the more likely that person is to be “violent,”17 Muslim activists responded immediately. The national civil liberties organization Muslim Advocates called for the U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General to investigate “the FBI’s use of grossly inaccurate and bigoted trainers and training materials for its counterterrorism agents and other law enforcement.” They raised further concerns about the agency’s new Domestic Intelligence Operations Guide (DIOG)’s expansive ethnic mapping guidelines in a comprehensive report18 published in October 2011. Following the exposé and outcry, the FBI went into damage control mode. The FBI was ordered to scrub its training materials of offensive and inaccurate anti-Muslim content and sources.
Click on this picture for a sidebar on law enforcement training and the institutionalization of Islamophobia.
Photo of Ray Kelly, NewYork City Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner
(Photo by BrendanMcDermid /Reuters)
Back in Washington state, a coalition of 19 Seattle-area community groups held a news conference at CAIR’s Seattle offices demanding an independent civil-rights investigation of FBI training methods. Ghada Ellithy, an engineer who sits on the board of the state’s largest mosque, described an item she received during an FBI Seattle Citizens’ Academy session the previous April. The handout was written by a local FBI counterterrorism agent named Gerry Sames19 and linked Islam to Nazism in a two-page discussion of Nazi and Arab alliances during WWII. It went on to discuss whether the current Arab-Israeli conflict is in fact a continuation of Nazi antisemitism.
Academic experts agreed the materials were distortions, inflammatory and offensive. After receiving no response to a formal complaint, the coalition decided to make the issue public.20 Eventually, a Seattle FBI spokeswoman confirmed that an agency review of the incident was underway at the local and national level. Jennifer Gist, civil-rights coordinator for CAIR’s Washington chapter, complimented the FBI for undertaking this review but emphasized the need for an independent monitor to ensure agents are not being trained to profile Muslims or demonize any group of people.
Nationally, the FBI stepped up its community outreach with a late December 2011 conference call with Muslim civil rights groups to apologize for offensive Islamophobic training materials,21 and to promise a “comprehensive review.” The Department of Homeland Security, which provides most funding for state and local training, has also recently issued a set of “Best Practices” recommendations for countering violent extremism training.22
Paranoia and Practical Success
As Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center noted,
At the same time as federal and local law enforcement agencies have expanded their monitoring of American Muslim communities, they have emphasized the need to build relationships with these communities…Such efforts have been criticized as uncoordinated and ineffective. It is rarely recognized, however, that even the best-coordinated outreach efforts are unlikely to succeed when paired with an approach to radicalization that emphasizes intelligence-gathering about religious behaviors and practices.23
In the past year, Islamophobes have found safe haven in Tea Party circles, actively advising presidential candidates, with Walid Phares advising Mitt Romney,24 and Frank Gaffney advising Michele Bachmann.25 Others have introduced bills against Sharia Law in numerous state legislatures, from Alaska to Pennsylvania, based on a legislative template created by David Yerusalami. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has joined a long list of politicians seeking to gain votes by running against the public stereotype of Islamic law.27 Among Christian evangelicals, some have taken the position that Islam is the false religion of the anti-Christ and therefore to be wholeheartedly opposed.28
Direct publicity can be very effective in countering Islamophobia. The creation of accurate film and video representation of Islam and Muslims has shown promise in countering misconceptions and hate among members of the general public. Offsetting the poisonous imagery of Obsession, The Third Jihad, and other such propaganda, interactive film projects like Change the Story,Islam Project (Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet and Muslims), New Muslim Cool and Hawo’s Dinner Party29 have been packaged along with curricula and teaching tools.
Taking a more critical approach to media literacy, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)’s “Truth Over Fear: Countering Islamophobia” campaign is a workshop and training program designed to empower local communities to counter Islamophobia “in a proactive manner.” MPAC’s hands-on training sessions are linked to the “Hate Hurts” campaign, with training modules directly critiquing Obsession, and rebutting its Islamophobic content.
While the Muslim community turns to public safety officers for protection, they may also be kept under watch. In October 2011 AP reported that the police were keeping watch on Imam Shamsi Ali and Sheikh Reda Shata, two community leaders who had been particularly close and open with the authorities. Moreover, a follow-up story in February, 201230 divulged the existence of undercover officers known as “mosque crawlers” who provided weekly reports on a wide range of mosques and imams regardless of their politics, and also conducted surveillance on Muslim student clubs throughout the Northeast.
A Muslim leader who positions himself as an insider risks a loss of legitimacy with the community, and in some cases may be suspected of being a confidential government informant.
Mistrust between the community and authorities has been an issue since the days of “COINTELPRO” yet the current situation has eroded trust and lines of communication even further. A Muslim leader who positions himself as an insider risks a loss of legitimacy with the community, and in some cases may be suspected of being a confidential government informant. This is especially problematic as such players often try to depict themselves as the “most moderate” of Muslims. Paradoxically, it is these self- proclaimed leaders –like Zuhdi Jasser– who find it easiest to obtain funding and support.
Stories of successful dialogue are emerging, however. In Oklahoma, police have been meeting with Muslim residents monthly since 9/11. Early dialogue meetings initially attracted very few participants, but the anti-Sharia bills spurred the community into action and into coalitions with other members of the public. “We defeated two separate legislative attempts to ban Sharia in Oklahoma …” says Oklahoma CAIR Director Muneer Awad. “We have partnered with the Chamber of Commerce, the Jewish community, and the interfaith community to defeat these bills.” He also noted that “our opponents have partnered with the same group of people heavily involved in the anti-Muslim training, especially ACT for America which helped fund the campaign to pass the first anti-Sharia amendment in Oklahoma.”
In places like Tennessee where anti-Sharia bills are also pending, new allies including the NAACP, ACLU, the immigration reform group PIRCC, and even the Scientologists, have come forward to get provisions of the bill watered down.
In Los Angeles, which in 2007 backed down from a law enforcement plan to map local mosques,31 LA County Sheriff Leroy Baca has developed a positive reputation among local Muslims and was invited to Washington D.C. to counter the assertions of Congressman Peter King. Nonetheless, Sheriff Baca has had to defend himself for his support of immigrants, engagement with Muslims, and he even has been accused of endangering Israel by this behavior.32
Sustaining ongoing relationships with the authorities is a double-edged sword. At an acrimonious 2011 event in Washington state, a Police Department detective observed, “The community is tired of seeing their images represented” in presentations about terrorism. FBI assurances that they do not profile were also unpopular: “When you say you don’t profile — and our reality is you do — you negate everything else you say,” said Jeff Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American member of American Muslims of Puget Sound.
In August 2011, an eye-opening report from the Center for American Progress, Fear Inc.,33 detailed how more than $40 million has flowed from seven foundations over the past ten years to fund projects promoting a politically paranoid and highly inaccurate view of Islam and Muslims. In large part due to such generous financial support, Right-Wing conspiracy theories on a wide range of anti-Muslim topics have become accepted wisdom, influencing political and media discourse. The need for accurate information about Islam and for clearer communication between Muslim community members and law enforcement officials has never been greater—yet community surveillance policies and an overall increase in government secrecy have made this extremely difficult.34
To gather evidence, 15 regional CAIR offices submitted 87 Freedom of Information Act public records requests35 to the government in November 2011, which sought information about possible Islamophobic training of local, state, and national law enforcement personnel. This was not the first time CAIR and other Muslim and interfaith organizations have asked for such information. In May, 2011 Judge Cormac J.Carney determined that the FBI and the Department of Justice had lied in response to a 2006 FOIA request for documents pertaining to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, CAIR’s California chapter, and other organizations. When the government appealed on the grounds of national security claims, Judge Carney rejected the appeal, writing that FOIA exemptions for national security and intelligence gathering “do not grant the Government a license to lie to the Court.”36
Back to Breakfast
On January 26, 2012, revelations emerging through Brennan Center FOIA requests and in the New York Times37 demonstrated that, contrary to its many public assurances,38 including the one made by Commissioner Kelly at the Pre-Ramadan Breakfast, the NYPD had cooperated with the making of The Third Jihad and promoted it much more extensively than previously admitted. The truth was consistent with NYPD’s anti-Muslim history. Widely published reports demonstrate extensive NYPD mapping and surveillance of Muslim individuals and institutions.
More than $40 million has flowed from seven foundations over the past ten years to fund projects promoting a politically paranoid and highly inaccurate view of Islam and Muslims.
Responding quickly, the Majlis Ash Shura Islamic Leadership Council of New York joined MACLC at a press conference39 demanding the resignation of NYPD Commissioner Kelly and his spokesman Paul J. Browne, and the creation of permanent and independent oversight controls, such as an Inspector General responsible for the NYPD. Though not all community leaders asked for the Commissioner’s ouster, City Council members and interfaith leaders demanded action40 from the Mayor; and civic leaders from such advocacy groups as 100 Black Men in Law Enforcement and the Center for Constitutional Rights joined Muslim community leaders in denouncing official lies and demanding accountability. This event was followed up by several more press conferences and rallies. After a year witnessing the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements, many local Muslims felt a surge of confidence and energy.
However, as plans were made for an ongoing campaign against NYPD profiling, the challenges of maintaining a consistent activist strategy within a diverse and decentralized Muslim community immediately became evident. Some activists insisted on demanding resignations, while other religious and community leaders—including City Council allies — felt the focus should be on policy change. Attempts were made to reach out to anti-Stop and Frisk activists and impacted communities of color. One Muslim group crafted a competing (and softer) set of demands, asking for an investigation but not a permanent oversight mechanism, which Muslim leaders friendlier with the Bloomberg administration quickly signed. A month before, when Muslim leaders boycotted an annual interfaith breakfast with Mayor Bloomberg41 in response to the reports of NYPD Muslim demographic mapping, others told reporters that they supported the mayor and the NYPD policy 100 percent. One such local leader (Imam Qayoom of Queens) even called the boycotters “extremists”. To respond to problematic NYPD policies, different groups of Muslim activists competed in their offers to help with training oversight and in their advice to the New York State Attorney General.
When Robert Jackson, the only Muslim Council member in New York City, was quoted in news reports42 saying that he had no problem with The Third Jihad, other Muslim advocates were aghast and were able to ensure that the Councilman quickly issued a strong statement of clarification.
Nonetheless, supporters of The Third Jihad seem to move in lockstep. In early February 2012, New Yorkers opened the morning news43 to find former DHS Director Tom Ridge and Former CIA Director Woolsey staunchly defending the film with strong statements of support for NYPD surveillance policies, attacking the notion of NYPD oversight and also once again attacking CAIR. At press time, Peter King’s latest hearing on “Islamic Terrorism” had invited testimony from Mitchell Silber, the controversial Director of NYPD Intelligence Analysis.44 With an election year barely underway, it seems clear the controversy is not yet over—and the struggle continues.
P. Adem Carroll is founder and former Executive Director of Muslim Consultative Network, which works to promote inclusion, dialogue and community strengthening in New York City.