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Troubled peace in NYC’s Muslim community. Part 1

Controversies over anti-jihadist subway ads & NYPD surveillance.

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Out of the commotion on Bedford Avenue, the longest street in Brooklyn, a step through the doors of “Muhammad’s Place” is like entering a gateway to peace. The noise is muffled by stores of clothing, books and compact discs of sermons of the famous imam at Masjid At-Taqwa around the corner.  Sweet smells of oils, incense, and soaps fill the air. A pantry is filled with jars of musk which Muslims believe is the purest of all perfumes. The soft-spoken owner, Muhammad Harby Elgendy, offers visitors smells of the samples.

From among the dozens and dozens of jars, he picks out one on the top shelf. He open the jar, hands it over and asks visitors for their opinions. It contains a mixture of spices and herbs called sandalwood and rose, but the only possible scent that a visiting Scandinavian nose deciphers is a sweet tinge of honey. Taking in another slow breath, the visitor begins to smell the unique aroma of the fragrance. It is a smell that serenades the senses and calms the body.  It is an otherworldly experience.

But nowadays peace in New York City is elusive for Muslims. In late September advertisements decrying “jihad” (meaning war or struggle in Arabic) as the work of “savages” went up in ten places in the subway system. Some Muslim groups decry the ads as anti-Muslim. However, a federal court cited freedom of speech  as a reason for overruling the MTA’s refusal of the ads. Christian and Jewish groups have put up counter-ads.

Tensions between law enforcement and the Muslim community have also escalated. Ten days ago, additional plaintiffs joined a suit against NYPD surveillance activities in New Jersey. And last week, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Muslim Advocates filed suit in New York state court against the New York Police Department over its refusal to provide a full accounting of its spying activities on Muslim Americans.

The current troubles started August a year ago when the Associated Press released its first of over fifty articles about  the New York Police Department’s covert surveillance of local Muslim communities.

On June 6th eight Muslim Americans filed the first lawsuit against the NYPD’s covert surveillance of Muslims. The plaintiffs, which includes United States Army veteran Syed Farhaj Hassan, claim that Muslims were unconstitutionally targeted. Hassan believes that if he was put on a surveillance list because he went into one of four targeted mosques in New Jersey, then his work in government could suffer a career ending  “derogatory” on his Army record.

The increasing troubles that are engulfing the city’s Muslims have left their community divided on how to respond. NYC Muslims wonder how they can recover their communal unity.

“Everybody claims peace,” Elgendy said from behind the counter of his store. But the bookstore manager is not sure how Muslims will find it. “We have to pray for it and put in an effort for peace.”

Currently, the way to find that peace is one with many possible routes and no set destination. The NYPD stands firm in its claim about the necessity of their covert surveillance to uproot terrorism. A prominent group of Muslims support the police’s work in their community. Yet, many city Muslims feel forced into the role of social outcasts by their government’s actions.

Tensions like these could increase as the Muslim population in the city grows. A recent census entitled “Mosques in America 2011” found that New York City is the country’s most fertile soil for mosques. Dr. Ihsan Bagby, the lead researcher of the census and an associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, told A Journey through NYC religions that his study indicated that the number of mosques has increased by 70 percent since 9/11, with the NYC metropolitan area having almost 200 mosques, the largest number of any area in the country. More up to date figures compiled by A Journey through NYC religions reveal that there are over 209 mosques in New York City itself.

As their numbers increase, mosques have recruited more imams from overseas. The foreign-born imams’ interests diverge from the Western-educated mosque board members. Karen Isaksen Leonard, an anthropologist who has studied the tensions that have arisen within the Muslim community, summarized in her book Muslims in the United States: The State of Research that many American Muslim congregations have foreign-born imams trying to maintain home country cultural traditions about Islamic practice that conflict with the efforts of Western-educated mosque board members to incorporate American culture into Islam.

New York City Muslims feel as if they have been thrown into a cauldron of conflicting interests agitated by the anti-terrorist activities of the police and anti-jihadist groups. “We are definitely caught in the middle,” said Daisy Khan, who is the executive director and co-founder of Manhattan based American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA). As Muslims decidedly differ on how to move forward on the controversy over the police surveillance, their progress toward Muslim incorporation into American culture has stalled.  “We are going through a dark period right now,” Khan told A Journey through NYC religions. “I look forward to the day when we are seen as just another faith tradition.”

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