Almost two months after a suspected terrorist visited New York, setting off a chain of law enforcement activities including police raids of homes in Queens, activists are methodically collecting and recording complaints from Queens residents who allege a spectrum of harassment by law enforcement from verbal abuse to home entry without a warrant. The complaints will be logged by CUNY School of Law and given to Joseph M. Demarest Jr., the assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York City office.
Ever since Najibullah Zazi, a Colorado resident born in Afghanistan who also lived in Pakistan and Queens, spent a night at the apartment of an old friend in Flushing, Queens, many Flushing residents have felt under siege by law enforcement. Zazi is in custody on terrorism conspiracy charges – after police found he had bought bomb-making materials and compiled bomb-making instructions on his computer – while his host for one night in September, Naiz Khan, is free. But others in the neighborhood say that since the Joint Terrorism Task Force raided several apartments Sept. 14 in an effort to find co-conspirators or evidence, everyday life has become more uncomfortable if you are – or might look like you are – Muslim or of Afghan or Pakistani descent.
“An entire community and religion should not be profiled because of an investigation,” said Monami Maulik, executive director of the South Asian advocacy group DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), which led a rally last month outside the Flushing branch of the Queens library. Yet some say this is exactly what has happened. In the weeks since the raids, staff from DRUM say they have spoken with more than 100 families in Flushing and have heard numerous stories of people being questioned on their way to or from work, and being asked for identification in their own homes, said organizer Ayesha Mahmooda.
According to Mahmooda, "We had one male who said he was questioned over 10 times, and the police searched his house without a warrant." Another man said he was approached by police and asked to be an informant, reporting back on activities at his mosque. He declined, but the officers continued to call him, Mahmooda said, and even showed up at his home after he had made it clear he didn’t wish to be an informant.
Incidents like these have led DRUM to partner with the CUNY law school on creating a complaint database, and to submit a series of recommendations to the FBI which it believes could help safeguard civil liberties and promote a better relationship between law enforcement and the South Asian community.
The recommendations include creating policy change and accountability mechanisms beyond "diversity training," and ending the use of agent provocateurs in mosques, Muslim businesses, organizations, and other neighborhood sites. “This practice makes a racial and religious presumption of criminal activity that is biased,” DRUM's letter states – and lower attendance at mosques in Flushing reflects the current climate of suspicion, some report.
Sultan Faiz, a member of the Abubakar mosque on Union Street where Zazi attended prayers, reported that numbers at Friday Juma prayer have dropped significantly since the raids. According to DRUM, members of another area mosque, Masjid-al-Saaliheen – whose imam was charged – reported similar drops in attendance.
Facing complaints in person at an Oct. 23 community meeting at Kabab King restaurant in Flushing, the FBI's Demarest got an earful, said Mahmooda. "A lot of the stuff I believe shocked him," she said. "He was really open to trying to create an FBI complaint form. I would say it was a very successful meeting." Organizers anticipate a follow-up meeting in coming months, as well.
Maulik from DRUM said it was the first time she's seen such a high-level FBI official come to a question-and-answer session. “It’s usually a lower-level person giving a presentation on the FBI,” she said.
Demarest, who's held the bureau's top NYC post for less than a year, values "an open dialogue with all communities," said FBI special agent Jim Margolin, a spokesman, calling the forum "a productive, constructive meeting."
Margolin said the FBI does not condone any kind of ethnic profiling. "We investigate individuals, and not religious or ethnic groups," he said, based on "the Constitution and our own more stringent investigation guidelines."
It's not clear whether Demarest will back DRUM's list of seven recommendations, however. One request was for his support of the End Racial Profiling Act, to be introduced in Congress, but Margolin said the FBI's role is to enforce laws, but generally not to lobby for their passage. And regarding ending "the use of agent provocateurs in mosques," he maintained that the use of "cooperative witnesses or informants ... is based on predications about particular people. We don't target religious institutions."
Advocates say the latest series of raids and interviews has rekindled fears in the community that began in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Tensions escalated again in 2007 when the NYPD released a report titled “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” which made sweeping generalizations about the city’s Muslim communities.
This September, the NYPD added a “statement of clarification” to the two-year-old report (on p. 11-12), which retracts the original report's statements linking the practice of Islam with terrorism, and states that increasing religiosity among Muslims "cannot be used as a signature of someone potentially becoming a terrorist." It also backs off from the conclusion that our area's Muslim communities have been "permeated" by radical ideologies.
Faiza N. Ali, community affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY), said the clarification was an important step, but additional measures should be taken in order to safeguard both civil liberties and national safety. They are laid out in a letter to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly from the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, of which CAIR is part. "We remain concerned that the standing report sends mixed messages: the clarification decouples religion from terrorism but the core language continues to criminalize religious behaviors,” Ali said. “The NYPD report risks alienating mainstream Muslims, and if translated into policy, will only deepen mistrust between law enforcement and community members.”
CUNY Law assistant professor Ramzi Kassem, who specializes in Homeland Security and civil liberties issues, echoes that concern. Kassem, who is working with DRUM on legal matters including the complaint database, pointed to several recent news accounts describing people who were not charged but who took time out of their day to go to the FBI, volunteered for fingerprinting and DNA swabs, and shared the information they had.
“You would expect federal authorities to reward people like that,” Kassem said. Instead, many have been treated like suspects, and found themselves without work, and have been told by their mosques not to come anymore “because it’s attracting attention from the authorities.”
DRUM is hoping that a series of “know your rights” trainings, the press conference and rally on Oct. 10, and ongoing door-to-door outreach will start to help people once again feel safe in their own neighborhoods.
Additional reporting contributed by Karen Loew.