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Bloomberg's Democratic debate rivals must push him on Islamophobia ahead of South Carolina

Bloomberg’s method of policing Muslim Americans during his tenure as New York mayor hardly occurred in a vacuum.
Image: Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg in the New York Police Department's lower Manhattan security center in 2010.Timothy Fadek / Corbis via Getty Images

In the opening minutes of last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg was filleted by his rivals. Bloomberg’s galactic funds and rising poll numbers made him a predictable target, and most likely will again at Tuesday night’s debate in South Carolina. But though Bloomberg’s expansion of the New York Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk and allegations that he has used profane and misogynistic language about women are certainly deserving of indignation and collective censure, Democrats have thus far missed the opportunity on prime-time television to confront him on one of his most damning mistakes: Muslim surveillance.

Democrats have thus far missed the opportunity on prime-time television to confront him on one of his most damning mistakes: Muslim surveillance.

Bloomberg’s anti-Muslim activism provided a blueprint for Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump, who said he wanted to establish a Muslim registry, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who pledged to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods.” During Bloomberg's tenure as mayor, the NYPD’S covert Demographics Unit cataloged mosques, eavesdropped on conversations and spied on Muslim neighborhoods, in order, as he has said, “to keep the country safe.” Unlike stop-and-frisk, however, which Bloomberg has apologized for, the now-Democratic presidential candidate remains unapologetic for this violation of Muslim civil liberties.

The silence from the current pool of Democratic presidential candidates is equally alarming. As Jamelle Bouie noted recently in The New York Times, liberals “should be appalled by a man who, when he was entrusted with the power of the state, used it to terrorize innocent people on the basis of race and religion.”

Little about this liberal Islamophobia is new or surprising. Democrats have been generally quick to rebuke Trump and his ilk when they fan the flames of anti-Muslim animus and Islamophobic hysteria. But as Deepa Kumar, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University observes, “The way liberal Islamophobia works is that it roundly criticizes Islam-bashing, thereby pre-empting charges of racism, but then it goes on to champion programs that target and vilify Muslims.”

For party luminaries like former President Barack Obama and almost-President Hillary Clinton, Muslim American identity remained inextricably linked to terrorism during the 2010s. Obama and Clinton revealed their party’s ugly underbelly through policies and rhetoric that viewed Muslims mostly through the lens of radicalization, like support for the counterterrorism framework known as Countering Violence Extremism. This is undergirded by the belief that terrorism stems almost exclusively from Muslim religiosity. And it is this lens, coupled with the bile of media personalities like Bill Maher, that informs liberal Islamophobia.

Bloomberg’s three-term tenure as mayor produced a joint NYPD and CIA program to surveil Muslims with thousands of informants. These informants were tasked with infiltrating mosques, student associations, restaurants, businesses and other social spaces to monitor, bait and eavesdrop on ordinary Muslims in New York and surrounding states.

None of this was benign for Muslim communities. As Asad Dandia, a college student whose charity was spied on by an informant in 2011 told The Washington Post recently, “it dampened organizing, reduced religious practice and caused people to self-censor their political speech. It engendered social mistrust and fear among Muslims, and also between our communities and law enforcement.”

The details of Bloomberg’s program, which did not produce a single actionable terrorism lead, came to light in a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation by The Associated Press. And though Bloomberg has undergone, as Matthew Yglesias describes in Vox, a “wholesale makeover,” his intransigence on the issue of Muslim surveillance is instructive. For him, an apology for this policy appears unnecessary if it is likely to be inconsequential at the ballot box.

But again, Bloomberg’s method of policing Muslim Americans hardly occurred in a vacuum. Money flowed from the White House to fund the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program.

During his presidency, Obama implemented an anti-terror program that focused solely on the surveillance of Muslim communities and ignored other forms of violent extremism like right-wing terrorism. This was birthed from the recurring notion — now slowly changing — that Muslims have a unique potential for radicalization. As Khaled Beydoun notes for Al Jazeera, under Obama, surveillance expanded while more explicit expressions of prejudice were “sugar-coated with tolerant language, Ramadan dinners and belated mosque visits.”

in the 2016 presidential primaries, Clinton occasionally reinforced tropes that distinguished the “good” Muslims from the bad ones. After her victory in the Pennsylvania primary, Clinton spoke of “hard-working, terror-hating Muslims” and (Muslim) terrorists. This binary characterization implies that a good Muslim should be, as Clinton has added, a “part of our eyes and ears” at the front line against terrorism while a bad Muslim is deserving of suspicion and surveillance meted out by the government.

More recently, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the first hijab-donning black Muslim congresswoman, has faced a spree of withering Islamophobic attacks from the right. Particularly notable was an inflammatory video tweeted by Trump that took video clips of Omar out of context and intercut them with news footage of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Most Democrats were either tepid in their condemnation of Trump or silent. It is hardly shocking then that Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., one of three Muslims currently serving in Congress, has found Islamophobia to be "very present on both sides of the aisle.”

According to Asma T. Uddin, a religious liberty lawyer and author of “When Islam Is Not a Religion,” this has made the Democratic Party and its politics difficult to parse for Muslims. “Because liberal Islamophobia is not as obvious, it is ultimately more manipulative. It festers in full daylight, but we have a harder time seeing it or putting our finger on why it’s so destructive. The result: Muslims end up supporting ideas, policies and politicians that look friendly on the outside but are, in reality, very problematic,” she told me.

But Muslims, who are an increasingly influential voting bloc in key swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Virginia, are learning to ask for more than superficial niceties. As Abdul El-Sayed, a former candidate in Michigan’s 2018 Democratic primary for governor, said, “But there’s another side to this: You have to come and listen to the things we’re asking of our government if you want to leverage our pain.”

And as the debate shifts to South Carolina on Tuesday night, Muslim Americans are hopeful that the Democrats on stage do more than just hold Bloomberg accountable for the skeletons in his mayoral closet. They must show that Muslims are more than a national security issue.