Namia Sulaiman, center, speaks out on anti-Muslim sentiment at a New York City press conference August 14. (Photo: Ali Haridopolos)
Namia Sulaiman made her way to the subway like it was a normal day. It was mid-April 2013, in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, and the Muslim teenager was trying to take the train. But instead of an easy subway trip, Sulaiman was stopped by a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer who asked to search her bag.
“Now I’m thinking it has to be because I’m Muslim,” said Sulaiman. While she eventually got on the subway, the next day she was searched again by the police, who told her they search large and suspicious bags. Sulaiman was carrying a purple flowered backpack. “This made me feel angry, because I am not accepted in a country I call my own. I’m standing here today to make people aware that the issue of Islamophobia is real, and it needs to stop before it destroys us as a community.”
Sulaiman told her story in front of New York’s City Hall yesterday as part of a press conference where Muslim youth spoke out against anti-Muslim sentiment. Over a dozen young Muslim women stood beside Sulaiman, waving American flags and holding signs that read, “Youth Against Islamophobia.” The press conference was the culmination of the MY NYC (Muslim Youth NYC) summer leadership program started by the Muslim Consultative Network (MCN), a local advocacy group. The MCN works to empower the Muslim community–which boasts of more than 800,000 people in New York City–through a variety of programs that encourage dialogue, interfaith solidarity, and activism.
Over the summer, Sulaiman and her colleagues joined together to take on the issue of Islamophobia in New York City, and to learn about combatting anti-Muslim sentiment. The press conference was held to make “our voices heard,” said Ahlam Almoflihi, a 15-year-old from Brooklyn, in an interview before the press gathering was held. “People basically look at me different because I wear a scarf…It’s not fair, it’s not right for a whole group of people to be targeted…But it’s kind of made me stronger because I know that we have to speak up about it.”
Other young Muslims told similar stories of feeling discriminated against in New York City. Sauleha Husain, who is about to enter her junior year in high school in Brooklyn, spoke out about the New York Police Department’s surveillance program targeting Muslims. In 2011, the Associated Press began to expose the NYPD’s program of suspicion-less spying on Northeast Muslims. When all was said and done, the AP had blown the lid off of how the police infiltrated student groups and catalogued Muslim-owned businesses all across New York City, as well as in New Jersey and Connecticut. Despite revulsion at the program within the Muslim community, the spying continues.
“The NYPD is still unconstitutionally profiling us with their informants,” said Husain. She was referring to how the NYPD’s spy program employs an untold number of informants who infiltrate Muslim groups and mosques. One of them named Shamiur Rahman denounced his former work in 2012 as unconstitutional and said he was tasked with what the police called “create and capture.” That phrase, according to court testimony from Rahman, meant that he was to “pretend to be a devout Muslim and start an inflammatory conversation about jihad or terrorism and then capture the response to send to the NYPD.” Before quitting, Rahman was paid $1,000 a month.
The police department was also criticized in early 2012 for training its officers with an Islamophobic film called “The Third Jihad.” Produced by a right-wing, pro-Israel group with settler connections called the Clarion Fund, “The Third Jihad” is “72 minutes of gruesome footage of bombing carnage, frenzied crowds, burning American flags, flaming churches, and seething mullahs,” as the Village Voice’s Tom Robbins wrote in 2011. The aim of the movie is to inform Americans that Islamic organizations in the U.S. are taking part in a “cultural jihad” to impose their agenda on the U.S.
The young Muslims who spoke out at the press conference say that the NYPD’s Islamophobia and the media have contributed to a climate where being Muslim is seen as suspect.
“What they need is fairness, opportunity, justice and equality,” said Ashleigh Zimmerman, the executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network. “We need you to act today” to end NYPD spying.