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Surveillance controversy still has Muslim community on edge

Published: Friday, May 18, 2012

Updated: Friday, May 18, 2012 12:05


 

HACKENSACK, N.J. — A Paterson mosque backs out of a meeting with an FBI official, saying the timing is “too sensitive.”

A community leader who worships in Teaneck says he rarely calls his law enforcement sources anymore.

College students in Piscataway are advised what to do if they are questioned by federal agents.

A sense of anxiety and unease continues to grip some members of the Muslim community in the fallout from the New York Police Department’s surveillance controversy — and that distrust has undermined cooperation with law enforcement agencies that rely on Arab— and Muslim-Americans as partners in the fight against homegrown terrorism, some local leaders say.

“I would tell people not to cooperate,” said Khader Abuassab, a leader of the Arab American Civic Organization in Paterson. “I can’t promise people they will be safe or not be spied on again.”

“You start to wonder after a while: Is everyone out to get us?” said Iqbal Khan, president of the Dar-ul-Islah mosque in Teaneck, noting that people develop a defensiveness that comes from being watched. “Who is going to look after us?”

But some Muslims who live and work in South Paterson said their views of law enforcement have not changed. Samer Abdallah, a business owner, said Muslims have been watched more closely than other communities since Sept. 11, but he does not hold it against police who are doing their jobs.

“We all need law enforcement to help us,” he said. “We’re never going to feel hatred toward those officials. They’re taking orders.”

The NYPD surveillance program targeted Muslims at businesses, universities and mosques, including one in Paterson and several in Newark, as well as student groups at 16 Northeast colleges, including Rutgers University. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Police Department have defended the spying program — first detailed in a series of articles by The Associated Press — as lawful and necessary, while civic groups and some lawmakers have called for investigations into civil rights and jurisdictional matters. The U.S. and New Jersey attorneys general are reviewing the requests, but have made no commitments to investigate.

New Jersey law enforcement officials have expressed fears that any backlash will hurt their counterterrorism operations and information gathering, but NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said the idea that law enforcement operations would be harmed is “preposterous.”

“The notion that somehow the Islamic community or Muslim community at large is a wellspring of information about terrorist plots makes no sense,” Browne said in an interview Tuesday.

He said information about terrorist activity was “closely held” and that it was unfair to assume that average Muslims would have insight into terrorist plots.

“It’s not something they’re telling everybody going to religious services or mentioning it at the grocery store,” he said.

Browne said the NYPD had good relations with the Muslim community that extended from holiday celebrations to sports leagues to police officer recruitment. But for tips on terrorism, he said, police rely on other sources, such as people who rent trucks or sell blasting materials.

“What has been most effective, in terms of bringing terrorists to justice, have been undercover operations,” Browne said.

Law enforcement officials in New Jersey, though, have maintained that cooperation from Muslims is a pivotal part of counterterrorism work. Michael Ward, FBI special agent in charge in Newark, said in March that the agency was losing credibility with Muslims who have embraced and aided the counterterrorism mission, creating “additional risks.”

Muslim-Americans tipped off law enforcement in at least a third of the 161 terror plots discovered since the attacks, a 2011 study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found.

“We can’t rely totally on tips from the community, but the community is a force multiplier and I feel their input is vital,” said Maj. Gerald Lewis, head of state police community affairs.

Despite reports of a backlash, Lewis said he has not noticed a shift in attitudes among Muslim leaders and that they continue to meet and talk by phone.

“Our relationship remains strong,” he said.

Mohamed Younes, president of the American Muslim Union in Paterson, also said the relationship hadn’t suffered. He noted that many of New Jersey’s top state and federal law enforcement leaders were at the group’s March 18 annual brunch in Teaneck. They also held a meeting March 3 in Trenton to talk about the surveillance controversy with Muslim leaders.

“I can see they are really committed to try to solve those problems,” Younes said.

But while Mahmoud Attallah, public relations director for the Omar Mosque in Paterson, said he did not blame New Jersey officials for the surveillance, the mosque canceled a meeting with Ward because the timing was “too sensitive.”

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