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Prominent Muslim leader opposes NYPD anti-terrorism strategy

As a leading figure among NYC Muslims, Daisy Khan quickly made public her opposition to the NYPD strategy of covert surveillance of city Muslims. Trouble peace series Part 4.

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Daisy Khan. Photo by Carolina Kroon

As a leading figure among NYC Muslims, Daisy Khan quickly made public her opposition to the NYPD strategy of covert surveillance of city Muslims when it became known through the Associated Press stories.

Two days ago, the Associated Pressreported that an informant, Shamuir Rahman, 19, was paid to “bait” local Muslims into making inflammatory statements by which investigative files could be opened on them. One of Rahman’s earliest assignments was to spy on the Muslim Student Association at John Jay School of Criminal Justice. The police were particularly interested in talks by prominent leaders from Masjid At-Taqwa on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. The iman there, Siraj Wahhaj, is one of the most prominent Muslim leaders in the United States and in 1991 was the first Muslim to give the opening prayer at the U.S. House of Representatives. The AP started publishing its revelations about the NYPD covert surveillance in August 2011.

Police informant Shamuir Rahman "baiting" Iman Siraj Wahhaj at John Jay College. Photo courtesy of Jamill Noorata.

The journalists reported that the police monitored websites and finances and used “mosque crawlers” to ferret  out extreme Islamists here in NYC and the tri-state area. The AP found that the scope of field officers operations was recklessly expanded to encompass innocent Muslims.

“All it does is create deep distrust,” Khan says. “I don’t know what [the surveillance] has amounted to. If there was open engagement and mechanism by which we could cooperate, we could work with law enforcement.”

Khan has spent her life pushing back against the prejudice against Muslims in the United States. Arriving in New York City 38 years ago, the Kashmir native faced an uphill battle as a minority Muslim teenage girl. Landing at a mostly Jewish suburban enclave in Long Island, Khan recalls having to explain her religion in class and debunk myths about her camel riding abilities. Her aunt and uncle were doctors who helped to found the Islamic Center of Long Island. Yet, she also felt the battle would be worth it. She dropped her given name of Farhat in favor of Daisy and plunged into American teenage culture of field hockey and guitar playing.

She was attracted to the truly colossal flavors of the city. “It’s a really unique place,” Khan told A Journey. “I don’t know of any other place where everyone can enjoy their freedoms and help others.” The contrast between American culture and authoritarian Islamic cultures shook her faith.

The Iranian revolution in 1978 turned her off to Islam, but she felt adrift without an alternative. While working in Manhattan, she met a young iman Feisal Abdul Rauf who loved the city and preached meditation and openness. A "NYC Islam" seemed just the ticket to Khan. She and the iman were married in 1996.

So, living in New York City revitalized her passion for the Islamic faith. She decided to become a full-time activist for the Islamic community in 1997, leaving a successful career as an architectural designer. Co-founding the American Society for Muslim Advancement with her husband, she now travels around the world talking about her faith.

“[Islam] appeals to both the spiritual side and the activist side,” she said. “We are in constant communication with our creator, but we are also mandated to pay as much attention to really serving humanity and God’s creation in general. It’s a very vertical and horizontal religion in that there’s direct communication between man and God.”

In the first few years of ASMA’s existence, the organization was a center for Muslims to address the issues of their own faith in the context of modern-day Western culture. But what was an in-reach organization for the Muslim community instantly turned upside down into an outreach organization after 9/11.


Defending the faith, fighting terrorism

Suddenly faced with the pressure to defend the Muslim faith, Khan and her husband launched ASMA into interfaith programs.

Khan's husband ran into opposition to building a mosque. Khan's uncle also ran into opposition with his expansion of the Islamic Center of Long Island in 2011.

In 2010, the duo ran headlong into a national furor after they spearheaded the development of Park51, a 13-story Islamic community and mosque in Lower Manhattan two blocks from Ground Zero. Since then, the funding for the $100 million community center has stalled, but their efforts to fight prejudice against their religion have increased. Khan has taken on the NYPD for what she considers its callous treatment of Muslims.

In an Huffington Post editorial on January 27th entitled “Is the NYPD Really Against Muslims?” Khan called into question NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s anti-terrorist policy for its poor communication with New York Muslims. Surely, Khan asked, if the commissioner had discussed with NYC Muslims about approaches to policing against terrorism, all parties would have benefited. Instead of talking with Muslims, Khan argued, Kelly has substituted an incendiary film “The Third Jihad,” to acquaint officers about Islam. Khan said that the documentary taints all Muslims with the terrorist brand. Calling it a “derogatory film,” Khan believes that the usage of the film for training purposes created distrust between the police and Muslims and so did more harm than good to the public safety.

“Right now America is getting all their information about Islam with the events going on overseas. That is their lens—they don’t see Islam as another faith tradition,” she told A Journey. “We are misunderstood because of the actions of a few abroad. We have to restate that we are a peaceful people who are very loyal citizens. We have to do that on a regular basis.”


Khan’s anti-terrorism strategy

Instead of undercover surveillance inside Muslim communities, Khan believes the NYPD should work openly with ASMA and other groups in a common quest to promote peace and stop terrorism inside the Muslim community. Khan points to the effectiveness of a social justice program that she founded in 2005 called the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE).

Khan believes the time is ripe for cooperation with NYC Muslims in the fight against terrorism. She points out the battle is as much theological as criminal investigations.

“At one of our early conferences, we asked (Muslim) women what the biggest barrier to their advancement was,” she said. “We discovered it was distorted interpretations of [Muslim] scripture, and we decided to address these critical issues.”

Muslim women wanted the topic of terrorism and Muslim scripture to be addressed also. Khan believes that radical groups become terrorists because they overgeneralize certain passages about medieval warfare  in the Quran as if they apply to modern conflicts. Muslim women see the similar overgeneralizations about how gender roles.

In order to properly educate Muslims, Islamic women started the Shura Council. In 2008, a global group of 40 women put together its first project entitled “Jihad Against Violence” that combined a study of the Koran and linked condemnations of domestic violence and violent extremism. The women found that the word “jihad” has had many different meanings depending on the historical and social context in which it is used.

Their 27-page study defined jihad as a “striving or endeavoring in the way of God.” The term is actually best understood as a call for combating all forms of violence, especially those carried out in the name of Islam. Khan says that an analysis of the Quran demonstrates that the violent passages applied to ancient battles and that there is little support for the extreme violence such as practiced by modern terrorists.

In Arabic, the word “jihad” translates to “struggle.” Although the “Dictionary of Islam” defined “jihad” as a “religious war with those who are unbelievers in the mission of Muhammad” scholars of religion like Clinton Bennett in “Muslims and Modernity” point out that since early Islam, theologians have used various meanings for the term. Currently, moderate and liberal Muslims like Khan summarize the semantic history by using two terms to distinguish “jihad.” The ‘greater jihad” refers to a fundamental foundation of Islam, the striving for a pious life while the “lesser jihad” refers to exceptional moments when fighting must be with the sword.

These varying interpretations of course can become confused. Overseas, American Muslims have to defend their American values. In August Khan demanded the release

Khan's strategy involves defending the religious freedom and safety of women.

from a Pakistan prison of a handicapped girl falsely accused of blasphemy. Today, Khan is on an overseas speaking trip defending her Islam from both the terrorist-inclined and anti-Muslim critics. At home, American Muslims face skepticism about their loyalty of to the United States. Khan hopes that a common ground in the postsecular society between Muslims, other religions, and non-religious can be found through her educational efforts.

She believes that her group’s success in engaging the international Muslim community in exposing bad theology for justifying domestic violence is evidence that a strategy of engagement, cooperation and theological reflection with Muslims will produce better long-term security benefits for the United States. She worries that widespread covert police surveillance of Muslims degrades trust and the effectiveness of a strategy of engagement and cooperation.

“This is the kind of document the law enforcement should be reviewing,” Khan says. “We see how ordinary Muslims reject extremism and view it the same way (non-Muslims) do.” We need a cooperative spirit of the peaceful to be strong in this world.

“We want to take back the word jihad from the extremists,” Khan says. “We have to educate Muslims about their own theology. It’s a very big stress to put on us. There are so many competing forces trying to compete for people’s attention. There are all kinds of information that is usually not even authentic. We are doing excruciatingly important work by going right into the text and showing our own faith and tradition. It’s not only educating the general public, but also educating Muslim individuals.”

“At the end of the day, we are citizens of this country,” Khan states. “We don’t want to lose our trust with law enforcement, but they border on infringing the privacy of the individual.” That doesn’t support American democracy which is trying to spread the value of freedom of religion. “We want to work together and make sure extremism doesn’t take root. That’s the irony of it--we both want peace.”


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