In his final speech as mayor Michael Bloomberg turned toward the representatives of God for affirmation and vindication.
After quoting the pope about the importance of cities, Bloomberg observed, “The fact that a Jewish kid who'd quote the Pope, in a secular building built by Protestants, in front of Hindu, Muslims and Sikh leaders. Really, I think that's all you need to know about New York City.” The appreciative crowd of clergy burst out with laughter.
At his thirteenth interfaith breakfast since right before he was sworn in as mayor of New York City in 2002, Bloomberg told a crowd of about 300 religious leaders gathered at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street that, “I have always been envious of you because you work at the real level where the real problems are.” The religious leaders have to deal personally with people who have lost loved ones, a homeless person asking for help or a criminal who is repentant. The mayor sees these human details from afar.
“At my level, you talk about them, you look at the grand scheme, you look at averages,” Bloomberg continued. As mayor “you have to deal with big numbers. Big numbers are easy to deal with. It’s much tougher when you deal one on one, looking at a person right in the eye who has a problem.”
The mayor emphasized that he highly valued that the opportunity to work with the religious leaders to improve the city. “Serving as mayor, working alongside you for the betterment of New York City has been one of the greatest privileges of my life,” Bloomberg said.
Among those giving invocations and praise were Bishop Nancy Rosario from Church of God's Children in the Bronx in the Bronx, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Unger of Wagner College in Staten Island, and Sheikh Moussa Drammeh of Islamic Cultural Center of North America in the Bronx. Unger declared, “This great City of New York has never flourished more than today…We have been blessed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s presence among us.”
However, the Bloomberg years sometimes agitated the city's religious communities, as Bloomberg opposed worship groups leasing from public schools as other community groups do, allowed an extensive program of mosque surveillance, and defended the construction of an Islamic center in close proximity to the World Trade Center site.
Bloomberg’s positioning the city’s law enforcement after the 9/11 attacks created contradictory responses from the city's fragmented and sensitive Muslim community. Some Muslim leaders refused to attend previous interfaith breakfasts with the mayor because they charged that Bloomberg’s support of the police’s surveillance of Muslims in New York City ended up discriminating against Muslims.Yet, the mayor won over several Muslim leaders who defended the mayor’s policies in regard to anti-terrorism and policing.
During a visit with Sheikh Moussa Drammeh at his mosque, Al-Imani Masjid, in the Bronx during the controversies in 2012, he told A Journey that he supported the mayor. Asked what what he would do to change the city if he were mayor, the sheikh said, “I would do exactly what the current mayor is doing.”
Yesterday at the Interfaith breakfast, which was covered by A Journey through NYC religions, Sheikh Drammeh expressed his gratitude directly to the mayor. Standing on the podium with his mouth close to the microphone, Sheikh Drammeh said, “The city will forever benefit from your generosity, boldness and activism. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your contributions to this great city. God bless you and your administration.”
In a follow-up phone conversation, Sheikh Drammeh discussed why he felt Bloomberg was “the best that could have happen to the Muslim community.” The Bronx Muslim leader cited safety as the number one reason.
Drammeh says that his neighborhood of Parkchester in the Bronx has been transformed into a community with less violence and more peace. He attributes the change to Bloomberg’s policing policies. “If a legacy such as the mayor’s save lives, those are the benefits we should care about,” Drammeh said. “His legacy is a life-saving legacy.”
For Muslim leaders like Drammeh who oppose terrorist extremism, Bloomberg's contribution is a matter of life and death. They are aware that they are caught between the hostility of certain extremist Muslims on one side and a suspicious American public on the other side. Consequently, they fondly remember when Bloomberg stood by their side as the most vocal defender of the attempt to build a mosque near Ground Zero mosque and how the mayor passionately tied his support to religious freedom. In a surprising declaration in a speech on August 3, 2010 to a gathering of religious leaders and others on Governors Island the mayor declared that “there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God's love and mercy..."
Several imams, whom A Journey interviewed after yesterday’s gathering, cited Bloomberg’s actions during the Ground Zero Mosque, which is also called Park51.
“He supports religious freedom, one of the best cases is Park51,” said Shamsi Ali, imam of the Jamaica Muslim Center and previously associated with the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. “Bloomberg positions himself as the mayor for all,” continued Imam Ali. “We Muslims feel he's a mayor for Muslims and others.”
Ali remembers the time when Bloomberg, a Reformed Jew, attended a worship service at the Islamic Cultural Center. After the imam preached his sermon, Bloomberg’s remarks to Ali indicated that the mayor listened closely to the sermon. Bloomberg remarked, “It clears a lot of things in my mind about Islam.” The mayor explained to the imam that he was new to interacting with the community and wanted to compare for himself what he had heard and read with the actual functioning of the community. Over the last twelve years Ali has concluded that Bloomberg is good for religion. “He’s very inclusive and really gives opportunity for all religious communities to grow.”
Still, the next mayor will need to be particularly watchful of maintaining good relations with the Muslim community. In December the Muslim Advisory Council to the New York Police Department submitted a memo of proposals to improve relations. The council, which includes the participation of Drammeh and Ali, noted that it regrets that some of the police department’s past policies had eroded the trust of the Muslim community and made it harder for them to opposed violent extremism. The imams have served notice that religion is an urgent urban planning issue for the new mayor.