Muslims upset by NYPD to boycott mayor's breakfast

December 30, 2011 3:16:13 PM PST
Muslim leaders intent on showing Mayor Michael Bloomberg that they have no appetite for his support of the police department's efforts to gather intelligence on their neighborhoods are making an impression with their absence at his annual interfaith breakfast Friday.

A letter they composed made a controversy out of a normally sedate end-of-the-year meeting. In all, 15 Muslim clerics and community figures say they won't show up to protest the surveillance program first revealed in a series of Associated Press articles.

But one man who signed the letter, Rabbi Michael Weisser, said he will attend the breakfast after friends in the Muslim community urged him to attend and engage the mayor in conversation about the dispute.

The breakfast is traditionally held at the historic New York Public Library building on 42nd Street and has long served to showcase the city's diversity during overlapping winter holidays.

Weisser, who is one of seven people who will give invocations at the gathering, said he will not address it in his remarks to the group because he had already submitted his text to the mayor's office before taking sides in the dispute. Still, he said he saw parallels to what Jews have faced.

"From a Jewish perspective, it reminded me of things that were going on in the 1930s in Germany. We don't need that in America," he said. "The Muslim community is targeted. It's stereotyped. When people think of terrorism, they immediately think Muslim."

He said he had no problem with the police department following leads, but objected to the sense that the department is targeting Muslim organizations because they are Muslim.

"We can't be painting a whole group of people with the same broad brush," he said.

Bloomberg's office has said it expects about two dozen Muslim leaders to attend the breakfast. More than 350 people were in attendance Friday, more than last year.

The mayor said Thursday that boycott participants "are going to miss a chance to have a great breakfast."

On his weekly Friday morning appearance on WOR-AM, Bloomberg defended police, saying they don't target any ethnic group.

"It's like saying you are going after people that are my height with brown hair. If a perp is described that way in the neighborhood, you look at everybody in the neighborhood that's got brown hair, my height, you stop them," he said.

"But we have great race relations here. The communities whether they're Muslim or Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or whatever, all contribute to this city. We don't target any one of them. We don't target any neighborhood."

Dale Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary and one of the attendees, said he would like to hear the mayor address the issue during the breakfast.

"The mayor has a very good ongoing relationship with the city's religious leaders and has been very respectful in the past. I was surprised he shrugged this off," Irvin said Friday on his way into the event.

But another attendee, Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, said she didn't think the breakfast was "an occasion to express our differences."

Among those disagreeing with the boycott is Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.

"I believe that engagement is more important. I think everyone disagrees with the way the NYPD is penetrating the community, but I think generalizing everything else as bad is not appropriate," he said. "The mayor's not perfect, but there are many things about him we need to appreciate. And I think working with him is a way of appreciation."

Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have insisted their counterterrorism programs are legal.

"Contrary to assertions, the NYPD lawfully follows leads in terrorist-related investigations and does not engage in the kind of wholesale spying on communities that was falsely alleged," police spokesman Paul Browne said in an email Thursday.

Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid, president of the Islamic Leadership Council of New York, a group of 35 clerics and their congregations, said those who won't attend don't feel comfortable "going to have coffee and doughnuts with the mayor knowing that this civil liberties crisis that's affecting all New Yorkers is not going to be addressed."

He and other Muslim activists and clerics sent a letter to Bloomberg this week turning down their invitations. About three dozen other people signed the letter as supporters, including rabbis, a Roman Catholic nun, Protestant pastors and a Quaker, though it was unclear how many had been invited to the breakfast.

"I couldn't be there while knowing that the mayor supports, if not established, this warrantless spying apparatus," said Hesham El-Meligy, founder of the Building Bridges Coalition of Staten Island.

Activists accused Bloomberg of squandering the goodwill built up last year when he fiercely defended a proposed Islamic prayer and cultural center not far from where the World Trade Center stood.

The mosque is still in the planning stages.

Bloomberg had also won praise from Muslim leaders for criticizing anti-Islamic rhetoric and offering words of compassion after fires in the Bronx killed a large Muslim family and destroyed a mosque.

"However, despite these welcome and positive actions, very disturbing revelations have come to light regarding the city's treatment of Muslim New Yorkers," the letter said.

Records examined by the AP show the police department collected information on people who were neither accused nor suspected of wrongdoing.

The AP series detailed police department efforts to infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods and mosques with aggressive programs designed by a CIA officer. Documents reviewed by the AP revealed that undercover police officers known as "rakers" visited businesses such as Islamic bookstores and cafes, chatting up store owners to determine their ethnicities and gauge their views. They also played cricket and eavesdropped in ethnic clubs.

The surveillance efforts have been credited with enabling police to thwart a 2004 plot to bomb the Herald Square subway station.

Critics said the efforts amount to ethnic profiling and violate court guidelines that limit how and why police can collect intelligence before there is evidence of a crime. They have asked a judge to issue a restraining order against the police.

Participants in the boycott said they feel betrayed by the city.

"Civic engagement is a two-way street. We've done our part as a community; we're waiting for the city to do their part," said Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York.

The surveillance has revealed deep divisions in the city a decade after 9/11. Many New Yorkers say they empathize with Muslims living under the pall of suspicion, but also support aggressive police efforts against would-be terrorists.

The New York Daily News and New York Post defended the police in editorials this week, with the Daily News calling the AP's reporting "overheated, overhyped."

The AP's senior managing editor, Michael Oreskes, sent a letter to the newspaper Thursday in defense of the news organization.

"These were stories about where our city was drawing the line in protecting New Yorkers from another 9/11 attack," Oreskes wrote. "The stories were based on extensive reporting and documents. It is a journalist's job to report the activities of government. It is up to citizens to decide about those activities."

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