Muslims in the United States feel themselves vilified as friends of terrorists. Ten years after the attacks, they fight for a bit of normalcy in everyday life.
For 10 minutes, the woman in the hijab patiently observed through the window what the stranger with the camera was up to in front of her boutique on Bay Ridge Avenue. Now nothing was keeping her among the clothing racks of her fashion shop “for the modern Islamic woman,” as it reads on the green awning. Cautiously, she steps in front of the door and politely asks what was so photogenic on this street where Arab vegetable and fish dealers alternate with shawarma stands and hookah cafés.
She is not angry, she even apologizes for her curiosity; but the fact of the matter is that one has become somewhat more nervous here in Bay Ridge lately.
Bay Ridge is barely a dozen blocks in southeast Brooklyn, an hour away from Manhattan by subway. In the perpetual game of tag among the New York ethnic groups, Bay Ridge transitioned from a predominately Jewish population to Arab New Yorkers about 25 years ago. Roughly 45,000 Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese and Egyptians have lived here since they were forced out of their original area near the present-day ground zero by gentrification.
Police Informers as Provocateurs
They had found their niche here, a safe enclave where they could practice their customs and their belief in peace. However, since Sept. 11, 2001, things have become unsettled in Bay Ridge. The community is scrutinized closely. By the CIA. By the FBI. By the New York City police.
It is for this reason that the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY) was founded here in 2002. The association maintains a small storefront, where lawyer Lamis Jamal Deek offers his services on the upper floor. He helps residents if their apartment is searched yet again without probable cause, or if, due to a minor offense, they are pressed to report to the police about purported terrorist activities in Bay Ridge
The director of the AAANY is Linda Sarsour, the daughter of a Palestinian immigrant. Her outward appearance leads one to initially assume that one is dealing with a particularly straight-laced Muslim. She wears her head scarf so that no hair is visible from under it. Yet from under her long dress, tight jeans and stylish leather boots peek out.
Linda Sarsour does not keep her opinions to herself. When she talks about authorities’ attempts to infiltrate the Muslim community, her rant sounds like an Eminem rap, and more than once the word “fuck” slips out. There was, for example, this guy who obviously bore a false Arabic name and hung out all day in Arab cafés. “No one trusted him from the start; no one wanted to talk to him,” she relates. Naturally he turned out to be an agent of the New York police. And when he did not find any indication of terrorist activity, he simply fabricated them.
“Kamil Pasha,” as the agent called himself, met regularly with small-time criminals in Bay Ridge. After a hundred such meetings — according to Linda Sarsour’s version — he succeeded in inciting the group to plan a bombing of a Manhattan subway station. The man secretly recorded the conversations. In 2007, a young man named Shahawar Matin Siraj was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The New York Police Department celebrated their success in the anti-terror fight.
When Linda Sarsour explained to anyone who would listen that her community was the target of secret intelligence activities without any concrete, suspicious evidence against them, she was dismissed by many as paranoid. In the meantime, her charges have been confirmed: In August, an AP journalist uncovered a secret cooperation between the CIA and New York Police Department, with the sole goal of spying on Arab-Muslim groups in New York. More than 250 houses of prayer and Muslim groups were supposed to have been monitored.
In Bay Ridge, one calls the task force’s unofficially recruited collaborators “mosque stooges”; they collect information about their fellow citizens in bars, cafés and houses of prayer. “Our whole neighborhood is unsettled because of it,” says Sarsour. One must feel today in Bay Ridge the way one felt back in the days of the German Democratic Republic.
Hassles with state authorities, however, are not the only problem the Arabs in Brooklyn must grapple with. “When anti-Muslim resentments flared up after Sept. 11, 2001, we thought everything would normalize again,” explains Linda Sarsour. A fallacy: In 2010, the civil rights organization Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) recorded twice as many discrimination complaints as in 2009. This year, the number is expected to double again. The palette of complaints ranges from open acts of violence to being denied a bank account. “In the meantime, we have become the most hated group in America,” says CAIR spokesman Cyrus McGoldrick. “Islamophobia has become mainstream.”
The Lesser Evil
Even the energetic Linda Sarsour sometimes loses courage. “I feel tired,” she says. “Again and again, I must answer the questions of where I am from and why I hate America. It is difficult for me to stay friendly and patient. Why do I need to explain additionally that I am an American, a New Yorker?” She would sometimes prefer to give free rein to her anger. “I would like to ask in return: ‘Where are you from, asshole?’ But I don’t want to add more fuel to the fire.”
The worst for Linda Sarsour is that her reason for loving her homeland is appreciably being lost. “I like America, because anyone here can remain what he is, whether Jew, Indian, Chinese or African, and that he can be an American in spite of that.” Only, this right for Muslims is increasingly being contested: “Being Muslim is more and more viewed as un-American.” In spite of everything, however, she says that among all countries to which Muslims immigrate, the U.S. is “the lesser evil.”
The lesser evil. What a distinction for this nation.