Almost twice a week, I stand in front of a different audience — students, worshippers, activists, community leaders — and facilitate what we at CAIR-New York call a “Know Your Rights” workshop. The workshops are meant to instill in American Muslim communities an understanding of our American constitutional rights and how to defend them when police officers or federal agents show up to ask questions or search without a warrant. (If you have never been in that terrifying and confusing situation, chances are good that it has happened to someone you know.)
I used to be proud to tell our people that American laws protected them from discrimination – that civil rights law protected them from profiling, even if “counterterrorism” seemed to be getting more invasive. I told them that the institutions were not the problem, but individual “cowboy cops” sometimes got out of line.
Now, I feel so naive.
The Reality of Law and its Enforcers
That was before we read “Radicalization in the West,” the New York Police Department’s “research” report that cast all observant Muslims as potential radicals. That was before the FBI and NYPD started manufacturing terrorist plots, sending ex-con informants and undercover agents into depressed communities, badgering young Muslim men into agreeing to be accomplices to crimes. That was before the Associated Press uncovered a comprehensive and warrantless domestic surveillance program set up for the NYPD by CIA operatives targeting Muslim communities of 29 “ancestries of interest,” according to leaked NYPD documents.
That was before our right to due process and “a speedy and public trial” was obliterated by the National Defense Authorization Act. That was before Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests confirmed that FBI “community outreach” events were being used for intelligence gathering, and before the pattern of anti-Muslim bigots posing as Islam experts was found all over counterterrorism trainings from New York City to the Department of Homeland Security.
Still, the “Know Your Rights” workshops continue, but with a crucial preface: No interactions between Muslims and law enforcement occur in a vacuum. I synthesize these issues for an audience that isn’t always informed about deportations and indefinite detentions, warrantless surveillance, terrorism prosecutions based on statements and religious practices that should be protected by the First Amendment, systematic indoctrination of the public against minority groups, and the accelerating erosion of our constitutional rights. The picture I paint is not pretty. We have fallen so far from the ideals of this nation.
I remind our concerned constituents that the situation will not change by itself, that we all need to be involved and engaged with our communities. We need to organize, to vote, to remind our public officials that they are paid by us and responsible to us. We need to educate others about Islam, and be proud and public American Muslims.
Most urgently, though, we need to know our rights.
Television has taught us a few things. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney when speaking with law enforcement. You do not have to consent to a search unless the agents have a search warrant. Television programs where cops are the heroes, though, often leave out a very important reality:
Cops can lie to you.
No matter how often I say it, those words always have a chilling effect. Perhaps it is the seeming amorality of the concept — perhaps it is the sudden consciousness of one’s isolation. It is a reminder to community members that their openness will not protect them, that their willingness to answer questions and make “chai” for the agents investigating them puts their families more at risk, rather than less.
NYPD, “The Third Jihad” and a Breakdown of Trust
A Muslim detective walked into our office 18 months ago and reported seeing an anti-Muslim hate film, “The Third Jihad,” in a counterterrorism training session led by a contractor on NYPD property. We brought it to the attention of the department, and we were informed that it was “taken care of internally.” Six months later, New Yorkers woke up to the news that the film was still being used in training, thanks to a non-Muslim NYPD officer whose intelligence was so offended by the video that he went to The Village Voice and blew the whistle.
This felt like a tremendous betrayal from a police department that is the largest in the world, employs hundreds of Muslim New Yorkers, and expects us to trust them despite hundreds of instances of officers profiling and sometimes abusing community members. In a rush, we formed coalitions. We wrote letters. We held press conferences. We resurrected old coalitions.
Throughout it all, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and NYPD spokesman Paul Browne denied and callously dismissed allegations that NYPD training included the viewing of “The Third Jihad”. Asked about why Kelly is a featured interviewee in the film (a fact the extremist right-wing film producers at The Clarion Fund use as a selling point), Kelly sent a signed letter dated March 7th, 2011, saying 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.” Browne claimed that it was only shown once by mistake.Nearly a year later, documents recovered by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, in a court battle with the NYPD, showed that the film had been shown on a loop for more than three months in counterterrorism training sessions, reaching 1,489 NYPD officers. Browne reiterated that Kelly’s interview in the film was stolen from other clips. The Clarion Fund responded that Kelly had agreed to a 90-minute exclusive interview with them in police headquarters. All of a sudden, Kelly and Browne remembered the truth, after being caught in a big lie.
Their statements have been weak, their apologies rehearsed and off-topic and their attempts to shift blame have only made their credibility worse. The Muslim community and our allies from the New York City Council, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, Jews Against Islamophobia, and dozens of other organizations have united to demand the resignations of Commissioner Kelly and Deputy Commissioner Browne, immediate corrective training for the almost 1,500 officers who watched that poisonous film, and independent oversight over the NYPD.
These demands are not made lightly. They are the result of a year and a half of outreach on our part, and a year and a half of lies and disrespect on the part of NYPD leadership. We know now that Kelly and Browne knowingly participated in the production of a hate film and lied about not only their role, but also the extensive use of the film in police training — until a court battle exposed them. This outrage is a violation of the honor of our city and those who protect it. But, our demands are about correction, not retribution.
Defending Our Civil Rights
There may be some of us who think that this does not affect us. We must remember that Muslims are only the target today. When the next minority group comes under attack, let’s make sure that we still have some civil rights with which to protect them. When the chief of the largest police department in the world finds it okay to lie to another minority group, let’s make sure that a precedent is set that reaffirms the right of the people to honesty from those people paid by our taxes, paid to protect us..
It is not about Muslims vs. law enforcement; this is us helping law enforcement. We owe it to those brave women and men who keep us safe to help them do their job well, free from racist policies and bigoted propaganda. We understand that officers can lie to us to get information. That’s why we have free legal representation for community members who want to cooperate while protecting themselves from abuse. We also understand, though, that our public officials should never lie, that they are entrusted with a responsibility by the will of the people. As New York State Senator (and former NYPD officer) Eric Adams told a reporter once, “Police do not run this city. People run this city.”
But, our will is only apparent through our votes and our voices. We know too many victims of predatory policing and “preemptive” prosecutions (remember: the invasion of Iraq was also sold as “preemptive”). We cannot think for one second that we as American Muslims are safe in our silence. We must remember Ahmed Ferhani & Mohamed Mamdouh, the Newburgh 4 and Siraj Matin. Why must Fahad Hashmi sit in prison for 15 years? Why must Dr. Aafia Siddiqui be tortured for 86 years, kept in solitary confinement on a military base in Texas? Why must their families and communities be ripped apart? To bolster the budgets of local police departments? To justify the trillions of dollars spent on wars abroad? We must ask ourselves as Americans and as human beings: is it worth it? Why have we allowed our ignorance to be manipulated into fear and hatred of the unknown other?
This Friday, on February 3, Muslim New Yorkers and people of conscience will stand up and march in New York City. We will rally in Foley Square in front of the courthouses that have stolen lives. We will march to 1 Police Plaza in front of the building that sends spies into our schools and our mosques. We will demand justice. We will speak up about what is wrong. We will offer a better way.
We will speak truth to power, even when it is unpopular. Our community is awake. Do not lie to us.
Cyrus McGoldrick is an American Muslim activist and lyrical artist of Iranian and Irish descent. He is the Civil Rights Manager at the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America’s largest Muslim civil rights organization. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Getting Out & Staying Out, a program dedicated to helping young men coming out of prison to stay out of prison. He performs and records original music as The Raskol Khan, blending jazz and reggae melodies with hip-hop lyrics and Islamic activism. He has testified for the New York City Council and New York State Senate, and has been frequently interviewed on national and international media such as CNN, BBC, National Public Radio, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and Al Jazeera. The opinions expressed are only those of the author.