Ray Kelly to DHS? Here’s Why Not

This was originally posted on AAI’s newsblog on July 19, 2013 under the title, “Why Commissioner Kelly is the Wrong Choice to Lead Homeland Security.”

Recent press reports have suggested that President Obama may be considering Ray Kelly, Commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD), for the recently vacated position of Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, formerly held by Janet Napolitano.  Last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) praisedCommissioner Kelly, saying, “There is no doubt Ray Kelly would be a great DHS Secretary” and “Kelly’s appointment… would be a great boon for the entire country.”


Under Commissioner Kelly’s leadership, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has violated the civil liberties of Arab Americans and American Muslims in New York City and surrounding areas. In addition, Commissioner Kelly has a history of making inflammatory and slanderous comments about Islam and Muslims. In so doing, he has compromised the efficacy of the NYPD by damaging relationships with communities who should be his partners.

AAI has published extensively about the NYPD’s widespread and warrantless surveillance of Muslim American communities in New York and across the tri-state area.  Over a period of ten years, at least 550 places of worship, privately owned business, non-profit organizations, student associations, schools and more were unknowing subjects of NYPD surveillance and intelligence collection activities. These communities were targeted and profiled solely on the basis of religion and national origin without evidence of suspected criminal activity. Furthermore, the Commanding Officer of the NYPD Intelligence Division himself, Lt. Paul Galati, admitted during sworn testimony that this surveillance program did not produce once single criminal lead in his six years of oversight.

Many have spoken out against this program and taken legislative measures to prevent a recurrence. New York’s City Council passed two bills last month to establish an independent Inspector General to provide New Yorkers with oversight and accountability over their police force. There’s an irony here that should not go unnoticed: these bills are collectively known as the Community Safety Act, a testament to the reality that many New Yorkers feel less safe as a result of Commissioner Kelly’s persistent and aggressive profiling measures.

Federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the CIA have voiced concerns about the lack of oversight and unethical tactics that have characterized the surveillance of these communities. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security itself found that $4.1 million in grants to the NYPD were awarded without following the appropriate procedures, wasting valuable resources.

Programs under Commissioner Kelly’s direction aren’t the only thing that reveal his views about American Muslims. He was interviewed in a propagandistic and Islamophobic film, The Third Jihad, where he stated that Muslims want to “infiltrate and dominate” America. The egregiousness of that comment stands on its own, but it gets worse: the film was later used as part of a standard training program for nearly 1,500 NYPD cadets. Use of the film and Commissioner Kelly’s comments in it are both dangerous and counterproductive, fomenting unwarranted suspicion against a community, and, in so doing, eroding the trusting relationship necessary for effective counter-terrorism enforcement.

Commissioner Kelly’s record of profiling goes far beyond the Muslim American community though. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), since Commissioner Kelly’s appointment in 2002, the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk Program has stopped over five million persons, 86% of whom were black or Latino.

In a recent interview with Chris Hayes, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) echoed our concerns about Commissioner Kelly’s potential appointment: “He’s been a good administrator, and perhaps I could even support his potential appointment to this position in the absence of the massive aggressive stop-and-frisk program that he’s run, and the unconstitutional Muslim surveillance program, but that’s kind of like saying, I had a good year, if you don’t count the winter, spring, and fall.” He continued,

“There’s got to be an effective balance between national security or effective law enforcement on the one hand and a healthy respect for our civil rights and civil liberties on the other. Ray Kelly, during his tenure as police commissioner under Michael Bloomberg, has consistently disrespected that balance, and that’s why I think he would be a poor choice for Secretary of Homeland Security.”

Because of his disregard for the rights, liberties, and trust of thousands of Americans, and his consistent inclination toward profiling despite its inefficacy, Commissioner Kelly would be a highly inappropriate choice for Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.


Remembering Andrew Pochter, مصلح

“Every act of violence is a betrayal of language.” -Naomi Shihab Nye

“I detest any form of violence.” -Andrew Pochter


Pochter wrote that in an e-mail to a group of Kenyon students which included myself following violence in Gaza and Israel last November. A month and a half after losing him, I still don’t have the words to express the devastation we continue to feel. As I watch events unfolding in Egypt, the pain I feel in our losing Pochter is magnified because of the barrage of images and descriptions of mob violence which trigger my grief, the great losses Egyptians continue to face, and my consideration of what his response to such horrific violence might have been.

I was asked to write this brief memorial of Pochter for AAI. It was originally published July 1, 2013.

The news of Andrew Pochter’s death has been devastating and heart-breaking. Not only did I lose a friend, but we all lost an ally in the cause of peace and mutual understanding.

Andrew and I met on his first day at Kenyon College, in Gambier, OH, where he was to be a rising junior. I was assigned to be his “Upper Class Counselor,” a mentor for first-year students to assist in the academic and social transition to life at Kenyon. Even from his first few days in Gambier, I was impressed with his curiosity and enthusiasm for the Middle East. He had just returned from a gap year in Morocco, and on his first night he regaled the other two students in our group and me with stories from his travels. I had just finished an internship here with the Arab American Institute, and he peppered me with questions he’d been mulling over after reading Arab Voices by Dr. Zogby over the summer. Even from our earliest conversations, we were connected in our belief that religion, despite its reputation for inciting bloodshed and war, could also be a tool of peacemakers and justice seekers. He quickly became involved in Kenyon’s Middle East Student Association, and became an integral member of our organization. We took Arabic and religion classes together, we debated news and politics and which region or country of the Middle East had the best food, and we organized campus events to raise awareness and educate the campus about the Middle East. He spoke to me about pursuing documentary filmmaking in North Africa upon graduation.

Arabic word “sulh” means reconciliation or cooperation; it means peace, as it refers to the cessation of conflict. Its derivation “sulha” is the term used for a traditional process of conflict resolution and mediation in much of the Arab world, including historic Palestine. One of my last memories with Andrew was watching he and Sarah Gold, one of AAI’s summer 2013 interns, perform a poem they co-wrote, what they dubbed a “hip-hop sulha” as a final project for a class we were taking about Israel-Palestine. This video of their piece is a beautiful reflection of his spirit and the work he did at Kenyon. Through his leadership in MESA, he played a tremendous role in shifting campus culture surrounding discussions of Israel and Palestine. Andrew Pochter built bridges, organizing lunch dates with disparate friend groups, and always inviting new people to our meetings and events. He especially believed in the power of music and poetry to expand people’s appreciation of different cultures. He was a compassionate listener. He was never satisfied with a debate that didn’t include as many perspectives as possible. He wanted to understand the region through first-hand experience, not the banter of pundits or ideologues. While Andrew was excited to work with children while in Egypt, I know he was also looking forward to learning the Egyptian dialect, visiting historic sites, and immersing himself in Egyptian culture.

The Egyptian struggle for free and fair governance was not Andrew’s battle, and I think he knew that. Undoubtedly he was inspired by it, but he was a participant in a revolution of a different nature: an uprising of humanity to demand that all people have narratives and all people have rights, and that everyone should be treated with love, dignity and respect. This struggle is one that we now undertake with new vigor and purpose in his memory.

Interview With Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad

I had the honor and pleasure of tag-teaming an interview of Jad Abumrad with Matt Haugen for AAI. The published interview appears below, and was originally posted on July 26, 2013 on AAI’s newsblog. 

Jad Abumrad is a musician, producer, and host and creator of WNYC’s wildly popular radio show and podcast, Radiolab.The show won the George Foster Peabody Award for broadcast excellence in 2010 and Jad was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “Genius Grant”—in 2011. After listening to some of Radiolab’s programs on race and identity, and reading a superb interview with him by Discord Music Magazine, we reached out to chat with him about Radiolab, how he understands his identity, the interplay of music and storytelling, and Arabic food.

We began with a simple question: Do you identify as Arab American?

Jad: Yeah, I feel very strongly Lebanese and it’s sort of impossible for me not to. It informs every decision I make and yet informs none of the decisions I make, in some way. It’s just kind of the background of my life. It’s sort of like a fish in the ocean, you know? You don’t even notice the water if you’re a fish, I imagine, it just sort of is your world. My parents are both first generation immigrants…or would that be me? Well they both immigrated to the US shortly before I was born and they’re both from Lebanon, sorta kinda neighboring villages, both Christian Arab. There has always been a sense within my family that religious identity and sectarian identity are dangerous and my parents fully assimilated as scientists. And so for me, more than anything, growing up Lebanese, it was never explicitly a part of my upbringing. I remember more than anything, 1980, watching them watch the TV. And never being fully commented on, but seeing some kind of sadness and drama in the way that they were watching it, and when I got to be in college, I became very interested in Middle Eastern politics. I think like a lot of children of immigrants, I tried to reclaim my identity and I got really interest in Palestinian rights and doing that whole thing in the way that a lot of college kids do. Following that interest out of school I did a lot of radio at WBAI which was centered squarely on Middle Eastern politics, but the thing is that if you’re smart and not interested in simple answers, then you discover quite quickly with Lebanon and with the Middle East in general is that it’s so complicated and there are no longer any easy answers. I think Lebanon is the shining example of that. If I could sort of pick the high-altitude view of it now, I think that my Arab American background—particularly my Lebanese American background—gave me a heightened sensitivity for nuance and for the ways in which seemingly simple truths are never simple and the way in which binary realities are never binary. So that’s something that I hold very deeply and that I carry into every story that we do. To that degree, I think my upbringing is the vehicle for every one of the decisions that I make, you know, programmatically.

AAI: Has your perspective ever influenced a piece you’ve worked on? I know you’ve talked a little bit about it in the Race episode, but does your Lebanese heritage especially connect you to any of these stories?

Jad: I thought a lot about it during those episodes. I mean, you know in the Race episode—the first one that we did—it began almost as a stunt. Like: “Oh, let’s just test my DNA and see what happens.” But, once I had swabbed my cheek and put it in the envelope and sent it off, there’s like a two week period where you wait for the results—or maybe it was a month, I forget—during that time, I remember thinking: “Jeez, this is kinda weird. What does it mean to be from where I’m from?” There’s that sort of definitional weirdness that you get into, which is: what’s a race and what’s a sect and what’s a simple arbitrary cultural divide versus something that’s more etched into your physical being because you and your ancestors lived in that land. It got very confusing, you know? I remember as I was waiting for the results, because so often Arab culture is misidentified as Muslim culture, in a way, and so I thought a lot about that, that this is a moment where I might get an interesting answer to those larger questions of race, at least as it applies to me. I’m not sure I walked away with anything concluded, but it was certainly something that made me reflect on my upbringing and my quote “race”, whatever that means. It came up again, the latest short we did, I don’t know if my Arab-ness had anything to do with that story, but it certainly resonates with my own experience. You know, the history of Lebanon: it’s this country that’s been destroyed over, and over, and over, and over, and over again and hundreds of thousands of people killed during the civil war. So, I carry with me a sensitivity for that trauma: a sensitivity to the people we speak to who carry similar traumas with them. There have been some pieces we’ve recorded where we’ve talked to people who’ve suffered and I think about that through the lens of my own upbringing.

AAI: Do you think that radio and music and how you use those change how you interface with your identity?

Jad: To the degree that I sort of see my identity as not static. The sonic landscape of the show is about flux. It’s about things fading in and out, and comingling, and one thing transforming into another. On the level of craft, I freaking hate a music bed. A bed that just sits there. I can’t stand that. It has to change. It has to move from background to foreground. It has to evolve from something thick to something thin; from something rough to something smooth. That’s just sort of the landscape of the show. It’s all about movement and flux and never being able to put your finger on what you’re listening to, and I feel that way about my identity, you know? It’s hard for me to give you a one sentence description of my family history, because it’s very complicated, and it comes from a land that’s full of complicated people. And so I think I am playing in some neighboring dimension with these ideas when I’m working the sound. I wouldn’t say they’re directly related, but they’re certainly moving in parallel.

AAI: Was there any element of storytelling in your childhood—whether related to Arabic storytelling traditions or not—which drives your inspiration for Radiolab?

Jad: Hm, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know, let me think about that for a second. I didn’t have what you’re describing in my upbringing. I didn’t actually have a lot of storytellers around. I’d love to say I did, but I didn’t. Where does it come from? I don’t know. It was sort of reverse-engineered for me. I came in as a musician and I remember some things on the radio where the story leads you step by step by step by step to this feeling of suspension and of wonder and that was the feeling I loved. I remember hearing this one particular piece—I wanna say it was about Tennessee Williams from the Lost and Found Sound series, this was maybe 20 years ago at this point—and I had been driving to Oberlin and we might have been driving through this part of Ohio which is utterly flat and it was pitch-black dark and I remember hearing this thing on the radio and it’s like the mixture of voices and the kinetic energy of all different cuts going into each other and the story was kind of receding so carefully. Suddenly, it got to this moment where you heard something or somebody said something and you could hear the emotion in their voices and there was this sort of space and silence and music where you could just kind of sit with it. I remember being amazed at the feeling and having an early sense that the story is the architecture that leads you to that moment and it’s all about the moment. And that moment is a musical moment as much as it is anything. It’s like the feeling where the heart sings and the way that the heart sings when it hears a beautiful piece of music. Initially, I was more interested in that moment, in that feeling, and I had a sense that you couldn’t achieve that unless you seduce people and the way that you seduce people is through a story. It’s the path that you create, the bridge that you build, that allows people to come to that moment of wonder. So initially, I started to tell story simply for that reason: as a necessity. Then as you begin to understand how stories work, you become amazed at the story structures themselves and how you can monkey with them and how you can make the beginning the end and the end the beginning. So I got interested in it just as an aspect of this craft that I had fallen into. It never came out of the culture of storytelling that’s very strong in the Arab community, but somehow it was not strong in my family. My family is a bunch of introspective brooders. They communicate a lot with looks and with gestures, but not a lot with words. So that’s where it came out of for me.

AAI: We were curious if you have a favorite Arabic food?

Jad: Oh man, I have so many. My favorite Arabic food—which is only my favorite because it’s so hard to find done well, although I did find this Palestinian place in Bay Ridge called Tanoreen that is the only place outside of Lebanon where I’ve actually tasted it done well—mloukhieh. That’s my favorite because my grandmother in Jounieh, Lebanon, she used to grow the mloukhieh plant—I think it’s a specific plant—she used to have it right outside. The whole process, it’s such a freaking hard dish to make. I mean like you have to pick the plants and then you gotta mash them into this little goopy sauce and then you gotta cut the onions and bake the bread and then do the rice and there’s five other layers that I’m forgetting and you put them all in a specific order. It’s just such a heavy, heavy meal, but it’s delicious and I remember that somehow if I think about Lebanon and as the memories of being in Lebanon have faded for me—because I haven’t been back in a long time—somehow so much of it gets distilled into that dish. If I think about an afternoon where we ate mloukhieh, I can suddenly conjure everything else about Lebanon because somehow that dish draws it all in. So that would be my favorite. Well, that’s my narrative favorite. My actual favorite, just in terms of what taste the best, would probably be mana’eesh. You know, like my dad lives in Nashville now and he found this guy who does these fantastic mana’eesh and every time we go there we just eat far too many. There’s something about that taste I can’t get enough of. And kibbeh, I have a neighbor now who lives right down the street—one of whom is this Lebanese kid—and he makes incredible kibbeh. And now my wife makes it, she makes a ton of Lebanese food like way better than me. So she’s like more the Arab, at least culinarily, than me at this point.

Want to learn more about Jad and Radiolab? Visit their website here. Radiolab is also doing a live tour in cities across the US called Apocalypitcal focusing on the topic of endings. Find more info atwww.radiolab.org/live.

Mourning Anthony Shadid

The New York Times has reported that two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anthony Shadid, 43, died on Thursday of an asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.

Shadid’s writing advanced the causes dearest to my heart by deepening the public understanding of the people, languages, politics, cultures, and religions of the Middle East.  His knowledge of Arabic, talent, his humanism, and his passion informed his coverage, and in so doing, informed all those who read his work. Anthony Shadid covered the region with astounding courage, sustaining a bullet wound in 2002 while on assignment in Ramallah in the West Bank, undergoing physical abuse at the hands of the Gaddaffi regime in Libya last April, and facing harassment from the Mubarak regime. His writing was nothing short of poetic, rich with nuance which illuminated the humanity of his subjects.

As executive editor Jill Abramson  wrote, “Anthony died as he lived — determined to bear witness to the transformation sweeping the Middle East and to testify to the suffering of people caught between government oppression and opposition forces.” His death marks an enormous loss for the international journalism community, and for all those who seek truth and honest illumination of history as it unfolds in the Middle East.
Allah yarhamu. Wishing you peace.

Read below the work submitted for Shadid’s Pulitzer Prizes:

In 2010:

In Iraq, the Day After (Jan. 2, 2009)

New Paths to Power Emerge in Iraq (Jan. 13, 2009)

‘No One Values the Victims Anymore’ (March 12, 2009)

A Journey Into the Iraq of Recollection (April 1, 2009)

A Quiet but Undeniable Cultural Legacy (May 31, 2009)

Worries About A Kurdish-Arab Conflict Move To Fore in Iraq (July 27, 2009)

In Anbar, U.S.-Allied Tribal Chiefs Feel Deep Sense of Abandonment (October 3, 2009)

‘People woke up, and they were gone’ (Dec. 4, 2009)

2003 U.S. raid in Iraqi town serves as a cautionary tale (Dec. 24, 2009)

In 2004:

In New Iraq, Sunnis Fear a Grim Future

In Revival Of Najaf, Lessons for A New Iraq

For an Iraqi Family, ‘No Other Choice’

Attackers United By Piety in Plot To Strike Troops

Shiite Clerics Face a Time Of Opportunity and Risks


This post was also featured on the Yalla Change website.

The Third Jihad and the NYPD

My latest blog post for the Yalla Change campaign, called, “The Third Jihad: Dangerous NYPD Training Materials on American Muslims” can also be read here.

“This is not a film about Islam. This is about the threat of radical Islam. Only a small percentage of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are radical.”

So begins The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America, a 72-minute “documentary” which aims to show the infiltration of radical Islam into the United States. Though the film begins with this disclaimer, the method of argumentation throughout directly contradicts it with various misrepresentations of Islam. It describes the first two major jihads in Islamic history as Islam’s original expansion and Islam’s arrival in Europe in the 13th century, while the third jihad supposedly aims to establish a global Islamic state, which will be achieved through a combination of violence and deception. The film “exposes” the “creeping threat of sharia” over Constitutional law, and elicits concern for radicalization in prisons via conversion to Islam. The Third Jihad presents a clash of civilizations approach, with Islam portrayed as incompatible with modernity and democracy, and Muslim integration in to American society framed as part of a 1,400 year holy war. In doing so, the film fosters dangerous and counter-productive anti-Muslim sentiment.

The Third Jihad was produced by the Clarion Fund, the group responsible for the production and distribution of Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West to 28 million U.S. households in battleground states in the lead-up to the 2008 elections. An organization dedicated to producing films about “radical Islam,” the Clarion Fund’s advisory board is made up of such luminaries as Frank J. Gaffney Jr. and Daniel Pipes. Featuring interviews with “expert” Islamophobes including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Walid Phares, and Bernard Lewis, and government leaders including Tom Ridge, former Secretary of Homeland Security, and R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA. The Third Jihad  is a divisive and slanderous attack on the United States’ Muslim communities. It  was also used in counter-terrorism training by the New York Police Department.

Though news of the NYPD’s use of the film was first reported by the Village Voice over a year ago, the New York Times recently revealed that the film wasn’t merely shown “a couple of times,” as NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne originally asserted. Rather, it was shown for a period of three months as part of mandatory counter-terrorism training. Research by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School revealed that almost 1,500 officers watched this film as part of their training. The picture gets uglier: among those interviewed for the film were NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

This incident is just one in a series of affronts by the NYPD towards the Muslim community in New York. A recent report reveals deliberate NYPD targeting of Shiite mosques. The document also argues that, “The Palestinian community, although not Shi’a, should also be assessed due to presence of Hamas members and sympathizers and the group’s relationship with the Iranian government.” If this is the type of “research” that informs the NYPD’s counter-terrorism strategy, surveillance tactics such as these are unsurprising. In an article this summer, the Associated Press reported that, “the NYPD has become one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government.”

Having a police commissioner who says, as Kelly does in the film, that Muslims want to “infiltrate and dominate” America inhibits his ability to properly engage with that community. Interfaith and Muslim leaders have openly protested these surveillance tactics, some by boycotting  New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s annual interfaith breakfast. In addition, the Arab American Institute, a Yalla Change partner organization, has sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano regarding the film. The NYPD’s tactics obstruct their ability to successfully subvert terror plots  by breeding distrust and resentment. Honesty, discourse, and collaboration with Muslim leaders is the most effective way to keep America safe.
To learn more about the Yalla Change campaign, visit our website

Is Ignorance Politically Convenient?

My latest published post at the Arab American Institute, written in response to the first GOP Presidential debate in NH:

The GOP 2012 Presidential field is beginning to take shape, and as it does a common theme is echoing among the candidates: Islam is presented as a doctrine incompatible with American values. This discourse is non-factual, and has the potential to alienate and isolate Muslims and Arab Americans alike.

Though perhaps former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had a point when he stated last February that Americans are misinformed about Islam, he himself has repeatedly made inaccurate and offensive generalizations about Muslims and Islam. And while Former Speaker Newt Gingrich is known for flip-flopping, a recent Salon exposé suggests that his recent campaign statements mark a distinct shift in discourse from his days as Speaker of the House, when he won the favor of Muslim congressional staffers by designating a space for Friday prayers in a House office building.

Though these statements and the many more like them are deeply worrisome, what is perhaps most troubling is the possibility that the recent misstatements by Santorum, Gingrich, Herman Cain and others aren’t necessarily reflecting ignorant personal opinions, but rather are part of a calculated political attempt to appeal to their base constituency, and the American public at large. A 2010 poll by Zogby International revealed disturbing biases and a prevalence of misinformation about Arabs and Muslims throughout the American population. 41% of Americans agreed with the statement “Muslims tend to be religious fanatics,” and among Republicans, 60% agreed.

Numbers like these are unsettling and raise important questions about the role of cultural, religious, and ethnic biases in American politics today. The same Zogby poll found that 60% of Americans surveyed wanted to know more about Arab countries and people, and 49% wanted to know more about Islam and Muslims. Arab Americans can play a role in demanding factual and unbiased information about their cultural and religious practices from the media and the political candidates seeking to represent them. Political discourse that is rooted in fear of the “other” will not make America safer. Embracing the rich diversity that makes up America, including its estimated 3 million citizens of Arab descent, will only enforce our nation’s founding principles of equality, justice and freedom for all. It will be interesting to watch the presidential field find its voice on this issue, and though this campaign season has been particularly vitriolic, the next presidential debate will hopefully provide an opportunity for would-be leaders of the free world to step away from xenophobic fear-mongering, and move toward enlightened discourse about the issues facing America today.