By Marwa Helal
A few weeks ago, the New York Police Department (NYPD) made headlines when it was discovered that a controversial film, “The Third Jihad”, which claims to explore radical Islam in America, was shown to nearly 1,500 officers during a counterterrorism training in 2010. Due to the sensationalist tone of “The Third Jihad” – which portrays Islam as one of the main culprits for violence and terrorism in the United States – some Muslim Americans worry that the police department was training officers to treat all Muslims as suspects. Recent media reports point to continuing problems between the NYPD and Muslim communities, including new reports of NYPD surveillance that took place between 2006 and 2007 on local Muslim Student Association chapters in universities in the northeast. On the one hand, these reports clearly risk inflaming mistrust between American Muslims and the police, but they also offer an opportunity for greater engagement.
Within the general state of tensions between law enforcement and Muslim communities there are also encouraging examples of efforts to build bridges. In Los Angeles, California, the Los Angeles Police Department has developed a regular “Muslim Forum” with the community in an attempt to undo the damage of spying on, and suspicion of, Muslim Americans. The opportunity created by a forum such as this opens lines of communication and decreases the likelihood for future inappropriate police spying.
The silver-lining to this particular controversy in New York has been the overriding concern and support for Muslim Americans shown by the greater American community. To begin with, the fact that this story made the front page of The New York Times suggests a commitment to portray the Muslim American experience with more sensitivity and respect.
Such high profile coverage sends a strong message that community profiling or stereotyping, which has escalated since 9/11, is not acceptable to the majority of Americans.
Another heartening aspect of this story is that the story was actually first brought to public attention by the police officers themselves. As it turned out, one of the officers who took exception with this film was a good friend of Tom Robbins, a former Village Voice columnist who initially brought the film to light almost one year ago in a piece titled “NYPD Cops’ Training Included an Anti-Muslim Horror Flick: Experiments in Terror” on 19 January 2011.
Yet the full details of “The Third Jihad” only surfaced this year, when New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requesting to see the training videos, following suspicions that NYPD was targeting Muslim American communities in the New York area with greater surveillance without any evidence of wrongdoing.
In response, Muslim-American activists have called for the re-training of the nearly 1,500 police officers exposed to this video, as well as a US Department of Justice inquiry into why the film was shown in the first place. At this time, there has yet to be a direct response to the Muslim community from the NYPD. However, both Kelly and Browne have stated via interviews with news outlets that they regret having shown the film.
Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York, takes a positive view on how she and other Muslim-American leaders have reacted: “I think our community is learning to work from a place of self-worth and pride. We are no longer just victims, we are survivors who will fight for what’s right and for the respect we deserve.”
While there are still some information gaps in the NYPD’s story, New York University’s Brennan Center sees this as an opportunity to create more accurate curricula they can use for future trainings.
Perhaps the situation is as Sarsour says, quoting an old Arabic proverb, “the snow will melt and everything underneath will be exposed.” As the media reveals more of these incidents, one hopes that it is only a matter of time before the NYPD decides to take a more positive approach in engaging with Muslim Americans.
Marwa Helal is a non-fiction writer and journalist. She is Co-Founder and Creative and Editorial Director of FEN Magazine (www.fenmag.com), which is dedicated to covering Arab American art and artists.