The NYPD's Mistreatment of Muslims, Part II

America's biggest city is still engaged in religious profiling.
Reuters

There's getting arrested for a minor crime in New York City. And then there's getting arrested for a minor crime in New York City as a person of Muslim faith or descent. In the latter case, you're prone to being flagged by detectives seeking new informants, held in custody for extra time, and pressured to spy on your co-religionists. This has nothing to do with your crime and everything to do with your religion.

Technically, you're free to say no. But for many Muslims in these situations, the requests are uncomfortable, coercive, and often don't seem voluntary at the time. This is particularly true of immigrants operating in an unfamiliar system.

Take a dispute over a parking ticket. If arrested in such a situation, a Catholic or a Jew of European or Latin American descent could expect to be released pretty quickly. The New York Times reported on how the situation played out with a Muslim immigrant:

Bayjan Abrahimi, the food cart vendor from Afghanistan, was expecting to be released quickly after his arrest in March 2009 because of a dispute over a parking ticket. But three detectives came to interview him at the Harlem station house where he was being held. They wanted to know “about Al Qaeda, do you know these people?” recalled Mr. Abrahimi, 31, who moonlights as a D.J. at Afghan weddings in Queens.

Mr. Abrahimi pleaded ignorance, but the questions continued. Detectives asked him about the mosque he attended and the nationalities of other Muslims who prayed there. They wanted to know about his brother, a taxi driver in Mazar-i-Sharif, in eastern Afghanistan. In the end, they made him a proposition: Would he be willing to visit mosques in the city and gather information, maybe even travel to Afghanistan?

“I say, ‘O.K., O.K., O.K., because I want to finish,’ ” Mr. Abrahimi said. “At this time, I’m really scared.”

He wasn't merely pressured to become an informant. NYPD detectives also took it upon themselves to pry into his personal life—not because it had anything to do with his arrest or because they suspected him of radicalism, but because they want assets.

The detective’s report on Mr. Abrahimi offered a sense of just how far into his personal life they had plumbed, noting that Mr. Abrahimi’s father had died fighting the Russians in Afghanistan a generation before and that Mr. Abrahimi now lived with his mother and a brother in Flushing, Queens. He spent his “free time in library reading and learning English,” according to the report.

The report noted that Mr. Abrahimi agreed to provide detectives with the overseas phone number of his brother, the taxi driver. “Subject believes other family members would help if asked,” the report stated. Mr. Abrahimi was willing ... “to attend services at other locations and travel,” according to the report, which concluded by endorsing Mr. Abrahimi as “suitable for assignments locally and outside the city” and described him as showing “high potential to be used as an asset."​ After his release from jail—Mr. Abrahimi is uncertain but said he believed that the charges against him were simply dropped—he never heard from the detectives again, he said. In a recent interview, however, he remained troubled by the 2009 episode, trembling at the memory.

Thousands of interviews with Muslims have proceeded in circumstances much the same. "Unlike longstanding informant programs in which those recruited are asked to provide information about crimes or criminals they know about, the NYPD team sought to recruit Muslims regardless of what they knew and apparently based solely on their faith and ethnicity," the Council on American-Islamic Relations complained in a press release issued Sunday. "Seeking information about crimes and criminals is appropriate. Coercing people who have no knowledge of criminal activity to spy on law-abiding members of their faith is not."

That's a key distinction.

The current approach creates a perverse incentive for police. It's now in their interest to arrest Muslims who would otherwise be left alone, even on a pretext or a niggling charge, to increase the number of informants that they've got.

The NYPD recently disbanded a controversial effort to spy on Muslim Americans directly, using undercover officers. It stoked dysfunction and stress in affected communities. This effort to spy on Muslim Americans using human assets is similar, insofar as it unfairly imposes costs on Muslims just because of their religion. As Muslim Advocates put it, "The NYPD's unlawful assumption remains that members of entire Muslim communities are inherently suspect." This is yet another vestige of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's prejudicial tenure that ought to be undone.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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