Why do Muslim American organisations still support the police?

Despite decades of police violence and dirty tactics, Muslim American groups still seek close ties with law enforcement.

People hold signs while attending a rally to protest New York Police Department surveillance
People hold signs while attending a rally to protest the New York Police Department's surveillance tactics near its headquarters in New York on August 28, 2013 [AP/Seth Wenig]

Since the August 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and certainly, since the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, discussions around the destructive nature of American law enforcement have gone mainstream. Even city councils have echoed calls to defund the police – an idea widely deemed impractical only a few months ago.

Despite these developments, conversations within much of the non-Black Muslim community in the United States continue to reflect an overreliance on and a deferential attitude towards the police. Leaders of multiple American Muslim institutions appear more concerned with protecting their delicate relationships with law enforcement than allying with subjugated communities protesting state violence. 

This was most recently exemplified by the popular scholar and imam, Yasir Qadhi of the East Plano Islamic Center, who held a virtual talk on June 16 with Plano Police Chief Ed Drain in a spectacular display of tone-deafness. The event proceeded despite strong local and national criticism from Muslims, outraged by the video capturing the gruesome and slow police murder of George Floyd in broad daylight.

As a liberation movement ripped across the country, catalysed by widespread calls to abolish the police and increasingly brutal displays of violence against protesters, Qadhi bent over backwards to amplify the voice of a police chief. 

This callous decision was further exacerbated by the actual content of the interview, which was essentially an hour-long police propaganda session on a mosque platform. Not only did Qadhi fail to offer a meaningful critique of police violence and murder, his meek performance featured only a few remarks – most notably to praise Drain for his “dedication”, “thorough answers”, and “stellar resume”. The police chief himself used the event to justify the use of tear gas against anti-racist protesters and recruit Muslims to sign up as members of the police force.

Qadhi’s interview showcases an undue trust of law enforcement shared by many Muslims in the US. More disturbingly, it reveals how Muslim Americans – primarily those of privileged-class backgrounds – have internalised the logic of the national security state, which classifies us at once as enemies of the state but also as potential recruits to police the “threatening” segments within our community. 

There are several other examples across the country that highlight the problematic relationships between Muslims and the police. In Brooklyn, New York, Muslims established the Muslim Community Patrol (MCP) in the aftermath of the Christchurch Massacre in 2019. The MCP presents itself as an “extra set of eyes and ears for the police”, working to protect the community – a questionable positioning considering the police department’s criminalisation of the Muslim community.

Since at least 2002, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has “singled out Muslim religious and community leaders, mosques, student associations, organizations, businesses, and individuals for “pervasive surveillance”. These measures include infiltrating Muslim spaces with police informants to track community leaders. 

Although it is understandable that Muslims want to protect their congregants, championing security through the NYPD has consequences of its own. A report on the impact of the NYPD surveillance programme revealed that Muslims felt the police infiltration of their community “suppressed their ability to practice freely”, pushing many, in particular youth, away from these religious spaces.

These “community mapping” programmes are common throughout the country. The LAPD, for example, lied about the extent of its Muslim “community mapping programme”, which aimed to “identify [Muslim] communities … susceptible to violent, ideologically based extremism”.

Since 9/11, there have been hundreds of wrongful prosecutions of Muslims targeted in the domestic “war on terror”. Many of those falsely accused and imprisoned were regular attendees of mosques and active members of their communities.

One example is the case of Hamid Hayat, a Lodi cherry picker, whose case, built on a false confession and the use of a paid informant, was hailed as the first “terrorism” and “sleeper cell” case in California after 9/11. Despite the corrupt tactics used by the FBI, and what was widely recognised to be a controversial and wrongful-conviction case, Muslim leaders in Sacramento opted to deepen their ties with law enforcement officials in an effort to “join forces to battle would-be terrorists”.

Eventually, Hayat was released from federal prison after serving 14 years when a US district judge in Sacramento overturned his charges in July 2019. Family members of Muslim political prisoners, including Hayat’s, have often described their trauma and isolation from their communities, after their loved one was targeted by the government.

Worse still is being forced to watch as Muslim leaders not only fail to protect their constituents against politically-motivated prosecution but actually increase their cooperation with the same agencies that sent their loved ones to prison.

There is an inverse effect within Muslim communities and institutions where many feel that in order to ensure their safety at the hands of the state they must prove their dedication to it. The fear of political isolation and of being treated as enemies has left marginalised Muslim communities seeking protection and help from the same violent actors that target and criminalise them.

Muslim leaders and representatives of our communities who establish these relationships with law enforcement, seem unwilling to consider how such actions result in fewer Muslims wanting to participate in mosque activities or even enter such spaces.

In too many cases, mosque leaders have gone further than just inviting police officers to mosques; in fact, they have actively coordinated with law enforcement on a far more in-depth and insidious level. For example, Masjid Muhammad, the oldest established Muslim community in Washington, DC, accepted a grant from the Countering Violent Extremism programme of more than $531,000 to address the spread of “extremism” within the DC region and beyond.

A portion of the grant paid for a “counterterrorism expert” to monitor Muslims’ online activities and produce alternatives to “radicalisation narratives”. Further, the terms of the grant required Masjid Muhammad to collaborate, engage, and partner with imams and community organisations to ensure the project would be holistic in its targeting of “various ethnicities”. The mosques and community centres with which Masjid Muhammed worked include the popular Virginia mosque, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS). 

This comes as no surprise, given that in 2016, the FBI awarded the ADAMS Center the Director’s Community Leadership Award for its influential role in “building partnerships between law enforcement and the Muslim community”. 

CVE is a counterterrorism strategy that uses dystopian “pre-crime” targeting methods to identify individuals that may be “at-risk” of becoming “terrorists” or “extremists”. CVE programmes “almost exclusively” target “Muslims and employ spurious criteria, such as religiosity and political activism and vague feelings of alienation, as proxies for violent tendencies”. 

The CIA itself stated that “despite decades of research … we still do not know what leads people to engage in political violence”. It is crucial to address CVE in our broader discussions around Muslims’ relationships with law enforcement because the program makes our leaders and institutions the enforcers of disproven and Islamophobic policies on behalf of the state.

Some might dismiss these examples, and cite other mosques that have rejected CVE funding from the Trump administration. Yet, what most do not realise is that Muslims continue to face unrestrained surveillance and infiltration, as CVE continues to be rebranded and resold to our community in various forms, and counterterrorism budgets within the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Taskforce (JTTF) remain at dangerously high levels. 

Unfortunately, it is not only our mosques that have decided to actively coordinate with law enforcement against the interests of the Muslim American community. Ta’leef Collective, an organisation that brands itself as a safe haven to the most vulnerable in the Muslim community – even supporting the formerly imprisoned – and functions as an alternative to traditional spiritual spaces, partnered with Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to apply for a $500,000 grant from CVE.

Approximately $270,000 was supposed to go to the organisation for provision of services “to support [former Muslim inmates’] successful reentry to the community and decrease the risks of recidivism and radicalization” and “increase understanding of and build stronger relationships with the Muslim community in Alameda County”.

Although Ta’leef ultimately withdrew from the programme after community members expressed concern, Micah Anderson then-Ta’leef Director of Wellness, participated in a revised version of the same programme as director of The Mind Body Awarenewss Project. According to the East Bay Express, Ta’leef denied it had a formal relationship with the MBA Project and defended Anderson’s work at the organisation.

The Muslim American Law Enforcement Association (MALEA) is another organisation that prioritises support for law enforcement over support for the victims of its brutality and injustices seeking transformation. It aims to “provide training, mentorship, and promote diversity in the field of Law Enforcement”.

Diversity in the police force has been a constant reform policy that many have advocated for and still do. However, a 2019 study revealed it does not necessarily translate to fewer shootings of Black men and women. The study concluded that “the race of a police officer did not predict the race of the citizen shot, in other words, Black officers were just as likely to shoot Black citizens as white officers were.” 

The Muslim community’s cooperation with police even extends to its educational institutions. The first accredited Muslim university in the US, Zaytuna College, has a record of subservience to law enforcement. Zaytuna shockingly hosted an “active shooter drill” for Urban Shield, a global weapons expo and SWAT training force that encourages the militarisation of communities. Engagement with Muslims helps forces like Urban Shield bolster their PR image and dispel the idea that they do not work with minority communities. 

Zaytuna’s cooperation with law enforcement is more nefarious considering that, following Michael Brown’s murder by Ferguson police in August 2014, its administration sent out an email, announcing that “in the interest of your safety and security we must deny permission for students to even go near these protests should they continue”. The email further stated that this directive was supported by none other than President of Zaytuna College and influential Muslim figure, Hamza Yusuf. 

A Zaytuna student who witnessed this decision unfold spoke to me on the condition of anonymity and said: “There was a convenient convergence of the ideology of respectability politics and being good, law-abiding American Muslims, and the interests of the financial, political and cultural wellbeing of the academic institution. The message that the letter and the mandate sent was reinforcing that ideology and that the institution itself was more important than Black lives.” 

Of course, bigoted and bullying tactics against Muslim communities should not be the only reason one must actively oppose cooperation with law enforcement and call for abolition. The Black American community has faced a violent police presence since the inception of US law enforcement.

As many commentators, including renowned prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore and reparationist, Mariame Kaba, have famously noted, there are important continuities between slave patrols of the 1700s and 1800s and contemporary police forces. The police oppression Black communities, Muslim or not, have faced should be enough for us to consider severing our deep and entrenched ties with them. 

The desire to be seen as a “law-abiding American Muslim” and to prove ourselves to violent state actors have only benefitted us in superficial ways. Meanwhile, the murder of unarmed Black men and women has only gotten worse.

Muslim Americans have a choice to make: Do we seize this historic moment by taking a principled stance and joining the fight against structural racism and entrenched Islamophobia or do we continue to feed our complacency against our interests and the interests of other marginalised communities?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.