This week I witnessed history.
As a native New Yorker involved in Muslim community activism for years, I’ve been to my fair share of events, but this week was different. Never have I heard of, or seen so many Muslim organizations collectively gathered in one place; united in one cause. It was hot, inconveniently timed, potentially derailed by a fight on the 4 train platform nearby, and I couldn’t hear any of the featured speakers at this action; but despite all these things, there was clearly a strong sense of community and purpose.
We all gathered at One Police Plaza on Tuesday June 18, 2013, as a community who has lived through the crippling effects of an NYPD spying program that has demonized American Muslims, and stripped us of our constitutional rights. But the visual before us was not one of shame or fear. On this day concerned New Yorkers, including American Muslims, expressed a courageous stand for the Constitution in the face of injustice.
One after another, individuals and organizations who have been unlawfully targeted by the NYPD spying program came forward and shared their stories—stories characterized by suspicion, distrust, and a fear that has damaged our community. Stories that expressed vulnerabilities exploited by NYPD informants. Stories that echoed the calls for justice and equality of marginalized communities of the past. Stories that reflected the aspirations of all New Yorkers of all faiths and all backgrounds—to be protected, not preyed upon, by our law enforcement officers.
The stories shared were ones I could relate to. When I heard the brave testimony of Asad Dadia, who befriended someone who would later be revealed to be an informant, I felt empowered to share my own story. When I heard him bravely speak-up for American Muslims, I felt empowered to take a stand with him, and alongside everyone else at One Police Plaza on this day.
Like Asad, and potentially like many other New Yorkers, I also had an encounter with an informant. I remember being approached by an older gentleman when I worked at a library. He asked me to translate some Arabic words on a sheet of paper for him. He expressed his desire to become a better Muslim and I referred the man to a Quran teacher I knew. I then referred him to other people in the community. I wanted to welcome this man in accordance to my religion. I ignored any suspicions I may have had, and gave him the benefit of the doubt. I made excuses for his awkward behavior in an attempt to soften my own heart to him as my faith guides me to do.
However, a background check by a friend suggested the man was not who he claimed to be. My friend urged me to be cautious around him. But how? I already introduced him to people I know. People I trust. People who trust me. That will remain on my conscience. But perhaps more damaging, how will I approach the next stranger in need of help? The next Muslim I meet in NY? Will I ever discuss my faith with others?
Few may understand how crippling supicionless and unlawful spying can be on the psyche of an individual. Many often claim “If you have nothing to hide, what’s the problem?” But these individuals have either ignored or are unaware of the roles informants have played in our communities. Aside from the invasion of privacy, these informants have instigated, entrapped, and baited individuals to say or do things that would designate them for monitoring and even arrest by law enforcement.
The NYPD has defined Muslims as being different-- undeserving of equal treatment. As a result, Muslims can become isolated, less likely to engage with others out of fear and suspicion, and even experience shame for being Muslim. Racist policies and our own insecurities that have developed because of them, can only serve to further marginalize our community.
This is why this week's action was so momentous. American Muslims and our friends from across New York’s diverse communities united to say emphatically we will not be marginalized. We will not be victims. We will not be made out as villains by our own government. In fact we stood together as heroes on this day. Heroes for New York, heroes for America, and heroes for our Constitution.
The ACLU, NYLCU, and CUNY CLEAR announcement to challenge racist policing in the courts has made our stories the headlines. The courageous announcement and action by these organizations, along with the brave stand of their plaintiffs and supporters, made June 18, 2013 a historic day for me. I look forward to our next historic day together. A historic day where all New Yorkers can celebrate the abolishment of NYPD programs that have criminalized our communities.
Zahra is a Civil Rights Intern with CAIR-NY. She is currently a J.D. candidate at CUNY Law School.