More than a dozen Muslim clerics and civic leaders skipped Mayor Michael Bloomberg's annual interfaith breakfast Friday, saying they were upset that he supported police department surveillance efforts in their neighborhoods.
The 15 leaders wrote a letter to the mayor, saying they were protesting the spying program first revealed in a series of Associated Press articles. The letter made a controversy out of a normally sedate end-of-the-year meeting.
Bloomberg didn't directly address the boycott during the event, though he did quote his father as telling him that "discrimination against anyone is discrimination against everyone."
He also said: "We have to keep our guard up, but if we don't work together we won't have our own freedoms."
The breakfast is traditionally held at the historic New York Public Library building on 42nd Street and has long served to showcase the city's diversity during overlapping winter holidays.
Rabbi Michael Weisser signed the letter as a supporter but said he would attend anyway in hopes of engaging the mayor in conversation about the dispute.
"From a Jewish perspective, it reminded me of things that were going on in the 1930s in Germany. We don't need that in America," he said. "The Muslim community is targeted. It's stereotyped. When people think of terrorism, they immediately think Muslim."
He said he had no problem with the police department following leads, but objected to the sense that the department is targeting Muslim organizations because they are Muslim.
"We can't be painting a whole group of people with the same broad brush," he said.
More than 350 people attended Friday's breakfast, more than last year.
Bloomberg: 'We don't target any one' group
On his weekly Friday morning radio show, Bloomberg defended police, saying they don't target any ethnic group.
"It's like saying you are going after people that are my height with brown hair. If a perp is described that way in the neighborhood, you look at everybody in the neighborhood that's got brown hair, my height, you stop them," he said.
"But we have great race relations here. The communities whether they're Muslim or Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or whatever, all contribute to this city. We don't target any one of them. We don't target any neighborhood."
Dale Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary and one of the attendees, said he would like to hear the mayor address the issue during the breakfast.
"The mayor has a very good ongoing relationship with the city's religious leaders and has been very respectful in the past. I was surprised he shrugged this off," Irvin said Friday on his way into the event.
But another attendee, Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, said she didn't think the breakfast was "an occasion to express our differences."
Among those disagreeing with the boycott is Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.
"I believe that engagement is more important. I think everyone disagrees with the way the NYPD is penetrating the community, but I think generalizing everything else as bad is not appropriate," he said. "The mayor's not perfect, but there are many things about him we need to appreciate. And I think working with him is a way of appreciation."
Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have insisted their counterterrorism programs are legal.
Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid, president of the Islamic Leadership Council of New York, a group of 35 clerics and their congregations, said those who won't attend don't feel comfortable "going to have coffee and doughnuts with the mayor knowing that this civil liberties crisis that's affecting all New Yorkers is not going to be addressed."
He and other Muslim activists and clerics sent a letter to Bloomberg this week turning down their invitations. About three dozen other people signed the letter as supporters, including rabbis, a Roman Catholic nun, Protestant pastors and a Quaker, though it was unclear how many had been invited to the breakfast.
Records examined by the AP show the police department collected information on people who were neither accused nor suspected of wrongdoing.
The AP series detailed police department efforts to infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods and mosques with aggressive programs designed by a CIA officer. Documents reviewed by the AP revealed that undercover police officers known as "rakers" visited businesses such as Islamic bookstores and cafes, chatting up store owners to determine their ethnicities and gauge their views. They also played cricket and eavesdropped in ethnic clubs.