Bloomberg’s Fear of Muslims Helped Drive the NYPD’s Shameless Spying

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's defense of the NYPD's spying on Muslim communities shouldn't come as a surprise. The Mayor's had a tense relationship with Muslim and Arab communities for nearly a decade.

By Seth Freed Wessler Mar 15, 2012

After months of radio silence, the New York Times editorial page on Sunday condemned the New York Police Department’s widespread and unchecked religious profiling of Muslims. For many Muslim New Yorkers, the statement was long overdue. But the piece ended with a misplaced generosity on Michael Bloomberg’s past record vis-à-vis Muslim and Arab communities. "We are wondering what happened to the Michael Bloomberg who stood up for fairness and religious freedom by backing a proposed Muslim community center near ground zero," the editorial lamented. "We hope that mayor re-emerges soon to restore trust."

The paper of records’ incredulity over what it seems to think of as Bloomberg’s sudden move to defend religious profiling is, sadly, historically incongruous. Trust between Mayor Bloomberg and the Muslim community has been thin at best for a decade and a quick look back reveals why.

Bloomberg is a mayor with a profound apprehension about Muslim and Arab communities and a track record of articulating that through biased policy. When in 2010, Bloomberg defended the right of a group of Muslims to build an Islamic cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center Towers, that was the exception. The spying program and Bloomberg’s defense of it falls more squarely in line with his administration’s general operating procedures.

Get Caught, Keep Lying

When the Associated Press first revealed that the NYPD was spying on Muslims in and around New York City, Bloomberg chose denial. "If there are threats or leads to follow, then the NYPD’s job is to do it," the mayor said at a late August press conference. "The law is pretty clear about what’s the requirement, and I think they follow the law. We don’t stop to think about the religion."

Then in September, after evidence to the contrary mounted, the mayor broadly defended categorical profiling, saying, "If you want to look for cases of measles, you’ll find a lot more of them among young people. That’s not targeting young people to go see whether they have measles or not." But even then, he refrained from an outright defense of religious spying.

Then last week, in the face of growing evidence that made his lies increasingly apparent, the mayor changed his line again, now effectively admitting to suspiciousless religious profiling. "When there’s no lead, you’re just trying to get familiar with what’s going on, where people might go and where people might be to say something," Bloomberg said on a local radio show, according to the AP. "And you want to listen. If they’re going to give a public speech, you want to know where they do it."

The statement, which came even as he continued to defend the NYPD’s practices as legal and justifiable, paint the clearest picture yet of the degree to which Bloomberg accepts infringements on the rights of Muslim New Yorkers and the depth of his distrust of the community.

Bloomberg’s New McCarthyism

In the last decade, New York City has become a hotbed of debate about cultural pluralism and freedom of speech vis-à-vis Muslims and Arabs, and specifically about what educators are allowed to say about the Middle East. The debates often begin when a conservative political leader or pundit gets wind that something’s been said or done in public that even hints at being anti-Zionist. Accusations of anti-Semitism fly and in some cases, the subject of those accusation loses his or her job. In at least two of these cases, Mayor Bloomberg has put his stamp of approval on the oustings.

In 2007, right-wing groups ferociously attacked the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the nation’s first public dual-language school. The New York charter school’s curriculum included intensive study Arabic as well as classes in Middle East history. As soon as word spread that the New York Department of Education had given the charter school the go-ahead, detractors launched a volley of attacks–pundits called the public charter school a Madrassa and pegged it as a purveyor of "creeping Sharia". At the center of the target was the school’s founder and principal Debbie Almontaser, an Arab American teacher who’d been tapped to lead the school and for a time had the full support of the DOE and the mayor.

But when the heat turned to flames, city officials changed course. Late in the summer, before the school was to open, Bloomberg sent one of his deputies to give Almontaser an ultimatum: resign as principal or the school will be terminated. Under duress, she resigned.

Several years before this Khalil Gibran school affair, the mayor’s administration had similarly banished Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Arab professor. Khalidi was told that he could no longer be part of a teacher-training program that he’d lectured in after he was attacked for anti-Israeli views.

Theory Into Unchecked Practice

All of this derives from a rather bare world view that holds that anyone acting Muslim or gathering with Muslims may become radicalized and consider acts of violence. It’s a theory of the world that’s been actively endorsed by Bloomberg’s administration.

As I wrote previously:

In 2007, the NYPD released a report called "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat." It articulates a broad rationale for spying on Muslim community spaces, including "cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organizations, hookah bars, butcher shops and book shops." It essentially holds that Islamic religious practice, or even the plain congregation of Muslims, can lead to radicalization and violence.

The rhetoric of Islamic radicalization that’s propelled the spying program is the same rhetoric that pushed Bloomberg’s administration to oust Khalidi and Almontaser. It’s based on a long held belief about Muslims. Bloomberg appears to believe unequivocally that he is confronted by a rabid homegrown radical Islamic threat. Of course, there’s no evidence that the NYPD has stopped a single terrorist attack, at least not one that preexisted the department’s own entrapment program. But Bloomberg and his police Commissioner Ray Kelly have built an infrastructure that’s come unhinged.

Bloomberg has on numerous instances since the AP began rolling out its investigation, publicly recalled his response to the Park 51 Center as evidence that he’s not an Islamophobe. Last week, speaking on the WOR local radio, Bloomberg said, if "you go back to things that are controversial–the mosque–people should have a right to build their place of worship and pray the way they want to pray." But Bloomberg’s act of toleration is a thin exception to the rule.