City Muslim organizations were not very visible in helping the city recover from Hurricane Katrina. Still, many individual Muslims and Muslim organizations helped their neighbors. Also, the Islamic Circle of North America mobilized several mosques to provide meals and other help. However, there was a lack of a unified response. This division carries over into other public issues.
City Muslims are divided about how to respond to the conflict with the NYPD over its anti-terrorism strategy. Some Muslim leaders are pro-NYPD. Others are very active against the police surveillance program. Many are waiting to hear from their leaders, but some imams are very cautious about taking a public stand.
Earlier this year, A Journey visited a number of mosques to gauge Muslim opinion about the controversy. On a brisk morning nearing 10:30 am, one man, Abdullah Salahuddin, was standing outside the mosque. He was wearing dress pants with a black button down shirt, and a blazer covered in a black coat. Since opening prayer didn’t start until 11:00, he had arrived early to see Imam Siraj Wahhaj.
“I’d like to find out his views on the NYPD surveillance,” Salahuddin said.
Looked at from the outside, Masjid At-Taqwa is a plain building with a black gate and hefty metal doors. It was started in the days when Bedford Avenue was extremely dangerous. So, Wahhaj is no stranger to the NYPD. He has had deep ties with law enforcement throughout his 30-plus years at Masjid At-Taqwa. In 1981 Wahhaj worked alongside the police department to force out drug dealers rampant in the vacant buildings along Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street. He started Masjid At-Taqwa to transform the dangerous Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street area into a Mecca for Islam in the city. Starting with only 25 congregants, the mosque now has more than 1500 attenders.
Wahhaj has become an iconic figure in American Islam. In 1981 he was the first Muslim to pray in the United States House of Representatives. He then traveled the world speaking as a leader among American Muslim imams. But his public image was also besmirched by a link to terrorism. Wahhaj had hosted and highly praised Sheikh Abdel-Rahman who was an Egyptian Muslim leader in Brooklyn but also the spiritual leader of the four men responsible for the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center. Before 9/11, many mosques featured preaching against the spiritual pollution in American culture. This preaching sometimes took on an anti-American tone and did not carefully examine the growing radicalism of some imams and their followers. In 1995, when the government disclosed a list of 170 people who may have been co-conspirators of the attacks, Wahhaj’s name appeared, though he was not indicted.
Wahhaj furiously rejected the claims and said that law enforcement was the real problem in the country, not terrorism. Since then, not surprisingly, the police have viewed the iman with suspicion. When some of the weekly NYPD Muslim surveillance reports became public, one secret document, dated Nov. 22, 2006, showed that the NYPD’s Cyber Intelligence Unit described in detail their surveillance of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) groups in the northeast region. Based on an announcement on the website of the Muslim student group at University of Buffalo, the NYPD listed the scholars who would appear at a Muslim scholar convention. Imam Wahhaj was one of the scholars. Consequently, Wahhaj and his mosque came under surveillance.
While the imam has not made known his views about the current revelations of NYPD covert surveillance of Muslim communities, some of his followers are critical. As he waited for the imam, Salahuddin cautiously but clearly made known his own views. “I don’t agree with the profiling. It becomes extreme. Just a few people in the Islamic world are insane, and they make it bad for the majority.” But Salahuddin wasn’t ready to divulge too much on his opinion. He said that he needed to get advice from the imam first about what to say. “The imam speaks for the majority of those in the faith,” he said.
Abdel-Rahman is now serving a life prison sentence at the Butner Medical Center in North Carolina. The new President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and has demanded that the United States release Abdel-Rahman. Some Muslim leaders absolutely opposed the sheik’s release. Some still dubiously claim Abdel-Rahman was set up by the police. Muslims have a hard time talking with each other on the issue because they are divided by ethnicity and politics.
Muslim scholar asks, why can’t Muslims unite and get along?
“Ethnic fault lines are pretty wide,” Ihsan Bagby, the head of the American Mosque Study, said. “The NYC Muslim community needs to be more organized as a group. There’s not a whole lot of work, cooperation across ethnic lines.” As the number of Muslims in the United States grows, the divisions are getting more complex.
Ten years ago when Bagby released the 2000 American Mosque Study, he counted 1,209 mosques in the country. When he released the latest study in February 2012, the results showed a whopping 74 percent increase in the number of mosques in the country. Out of the 2,106 mosques counted in the nation, New York City contains almost 10 percent of that number. A Journey has visited almost all of them in the city.
The growth of Muslim communities will likely continue in New York, the United States, and throughout the world as well. A January 2011 project by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life projects that the world’s Muslim population will increase by about 35 percent in the next 30 years. This is a projected increase from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion by 2030. However, the report also noted that the rate of growth among Muslims seems to be slowing down.
“New York remains for many immigrant groups the first port of entry,” Bagby told A Journey through NYC religions said. He observed that after 9/11 there was a short time of decline in New York City’s immigration. After the inception of the Patriot Act in 2001, many Muslims fled the country. “New York Muslims suffered a lot after 9/11,” Bagby claims. “Immigration service swept through the community and a lot of people were arrested. Lots of people left, and it hurt a lot of mosques.” But now the city is seeing another rush of immigrants—particularly Muslims.
The study explained that one of the main reasons for the recent surge in mosques was due to the increased number of Muslim refugees and new immigrant groups. Bagby said that more recent groups of Muslims entering the country – Somalis, Iraqis, West Africans and Bosnians—are bringing into the country their own cultural Islam that is rooted in their homeland. The already well-established mosque communities – such as the South Asian groups of Pakistanis, Indians and Afghanis – are adding to their already large number in the city.
In regards to the NYPD surveillance, Bagby believes the outcry of distrust toward the police department is due to the secrecy and broadness of its investigational target. “I don’t think anybody questions the need for the NYPD or the FBI to gather intelligence,” he said. “But I think the Muslim community is demanding that it be done in the proper way and not blanket the Muslim community as if the Muslim community as a whole is the problem—that becomes simply discrimination.” Muslims have become divided by the distrust caused by the NYPD secret surveillance. The only thing that unites a majority, particularly those in the mosque-going community, is an outrage at the surveillance.
“If there’s no trust and a sense that people are being betrayed, then it hurts in the long run,” he said. “It’s better to have strong relations with those people who can really help you identify hot spots where radicalism occurs.” After years of building trust with the NYC Muslim community, the NYPD now faces that it is breaking down.
Bagby believes that the controversy will ultimately be the occasion for New York Muslims to dialogue with one another as one faith community. “My hope is that the Muslim community can become more united across ethnic lines,” he said. “Maybe this will help them.” But will this unity be a bigger thorn in the NYPD’s side? If the police continue to act as a spy service against Muslims as if they are a foreign country, will we reap a disaster?