Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg gestures as he speaks during a campaign event, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Muslim advocates demand Bloomberg apologize for NYPD spying program

(RNS) — Calls are growing for Mayor Mike Bloomberg to apologize for his role in the New York Police Department’s long-running warrantless surveillance of area Muslims, which has seen renewed scrutiny since Bloomberg announced his candidacy for Democratic presidential nominee.

A coalition of leading Muslim advocacy organizations sent a letter to Bloomberg this week demanding he apologize for the blanket surveillance in the decade after 9/11 and condemn the use of similar spying programs.

“The NYPD’s mass surveillance program ostracized our community, created a rift between law enforcement and Muslims, chilled free speech, and resulted in long-lasting psychological trauma,” advocates wrote in a letter to Bloomberg. “Countless children and young adults who were befriended by individuals they later realized were undercover officers today mistrust new acquaintances. Many people stopped participating in religious life out of fear they might end up on NYPD’s Muslim database for the simple act of practicing their faith.”

Bloomberg apologized for his controversial stop-and-frisk policy since launching his campaign but has continued to defend the secretive surveillance program that launched in 2003 and lasted until after he left office in 2013.

“I’m the biggest supporter of the Muslim community...The police only went in when the mosque, when the imam asked us to go in," Bloomberg told one activist in December at the opening of his Milwaukee campaign offices, per a video recording of the encounter. "Period. End of story.”

But, according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation series by The Associated Press, the NYPD surveilled minority neighborhoods, mapped hundreds of mosques and Islamic organizations as well as bookstores and bars, monitored sermons, eavesdropped on conversations and placed paid informants in places of worship and Muslim student organizations.

Surveillance cameras. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh/Creative Commons

This month, when Bloomberg’s campaign met with Muslim and Arab community leaders in Michigan and published an Arabic-language campaign ad in Dearborn newspaper The Arab American News, advocates called the moves “hypocritical.”

“Under then-Mayor Bloomberg’s Muslim spying program, reading an Arab American newspaper in public or even just speaking Arabic would have been justification enough to be surveilled and profiled by the NYPD,” Muslim Advocates Public Advocacy Director Scott Simpson said. “Bloomberg is campaigning in the same language he once flagged as a warning sign. The NYPD’s Muslim spying program profiled people based on their ethnic origin, the types of restaurants they went to, the language they spoke or simply whether they attended a mosque.”

The NYPD focused on neighborhoods associated with African American Muslims as well as 28 so-called “ancestries of interest” — though it explicitly excluded non-Muslim groups from Muslim-majority countries, such as Iranian Jews or Egyptian Copts, from its surveillance.

Police have said the program, which has been praised by President Trump and which Bloomberg upheld as a national counterterrorism model, did not generate any leads.

Instead, advocates argue, it violated minorities’ civil rights and further stigmatized these communities.

“In the past, you have defended this illegal attack on religious liberty by saying you wanted to ‘keep this country safe,’” the letter notes. “Your insinuation that being Muslim represents a public safety threat plays into dangerous tropes about Islam that are typical of white supremacy discourse. In perpetuating bigoted stereotypes, your actions (... have) put the lives of American Muslims at risk of prejudice and violence.”

The letter was signed by Linda Sarsour, who heads MPower Change and formerly led the Arab American Association of New York; Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; Mohammed Missouri of Jetpac; and Wa’el Alzayat of Emgage, which made headlines this week for endorsing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy.

A separate coalition of Muslim, Arab and South Asian organizations have also expressed concern over reports that a landmark report on Islamophobia from the liberal Center for American Progress think tank was censored to remove a chapter on the NYPD spying unit.

Drafts of a 2015 report, "Fear Inc 2.0: The Islamophobia Network's Efforts to Manufacture Hate in America," originally included a 4,300-word chapter detailing the NYPD surveillance and mentioning Bloomberg’s name eight times.

But sources informed reporters at The New York Times that the think tank, which had accepted about $1.5 million from Bloomberg in donations up to that point, decided to pull the chapter to avoid a "strong reaction from Bloomberg world." The Center for American Progress, which disputed the account, according to the Times, argued there had been substantive reasons to revise the section.

"We are deeply alarmed that CAP officials may have excluded critical documentation and reporting related to Muslim communities in New York City for fear of alienating a donor," advocates wrote.

The letter, signed by 15 organizations including MPowerChange, Justice for Muslims Collective, Muslim Justice League and American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, urged the think tank to release the withheld chapter and explain the decision to remove it.