Facing Muslim stereotypes in New York City by Richard Peres*

Facing Muslim stereotypes in New York City by Richard Peres*

A taxi driver watches a peace rally in 2010 during the controversy over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York. (Photo: Reuters)

May 27, 2012, Sunday/ 12:18:00

What I love most about New York City is its intense diversity, and its being a place where hundreds of languages are spoken and every nationality and faith is represented. So it was no surprise that the taxi driver that recently took us from Manhattan to JFK airport was from Benin, a poor yet democratic West African country.

The driver was initially silent and reserved, until he found out that we were from Turkey, at which point he suddenly got friendlier and blurted out, “I am also Muslim, and 99 percent of the taxi drivers in New York City are also Muslim.” Could that be true? A few days earlier, another taxi driver had told us, as he brought us to our hotel and other patrons tried to enter the cab, “Tell them that I cannot take them, I am going to pray.” Was this a coincidence? I thought for a moment that I had not left İstanbul.

My curiosity peeked, I found out that more than 90 percent of New York's 44,000 taxi drivers are immigrants mostly from South Asia, particularly Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, followed by Haiti, Egypt and the former Soviet Union. Indeed, it seems quite likely that a majority of NYC's cab drivers are Muslim, though not 99 percent.

NYPD surveillance of Muslims

In fact, last November it was revealed that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) with the help of an ex-CIA officer was carrying out a systematic surveillance program on Muslims in the New York City area and, in particular, targeted taxi drivers, including every Pakistani and Moroccan taxi driver registered with the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission. The NYPD was even spying on Muslims outside of New York City, in the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Last January it was further revealed that the NYPD was showing an anti-Muslim documentary called “The Third Jihad” to 1,500 officers during police training in 2010. One police officer, who was repeatedly shown the film in training, said: “It was so ridiculously one-sided. It just made Muslims look like the enemy. It was straight propaganda." According to NY television station WPIX, “The movie, produced by the non-profit Clarion Group, suggests even moderate Muslim groups can't be trusted -- as it presents violent imagery and fiery rhetoric from radical Islamists who want to annihilate the Western way of life.” NYPD Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has since apologized for the film being shown, while the surveillance program was denounced by several members of congress and civil liberties groups, including the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, led by a charismatic Indian-American leader, Bhairavi Desai.

The loss of thinking

So how is it exactly that people can make such erroneous conclusions about others and be so prejudiced? After all, more than 2000 years ago, Socrates, Plato and his student Aristotle helped us learn to think rationally and objectively. One method was the syllogism, which consists of two declarative statements and a conclusion. Syllogisms help people think logically and avoid making errors in judgment when premises are untrue or links have not been established between them. For example: (1) all cats are black; (2) you have a cat, therefore, (3) your cat is black. As noted by author John Hirst, the argument is valid but the conclusion is not correct because the first premise is not true.

While in New York I had dinner with some old friends and the notion that people can no longer think once again surfaced. One of them volunteered that he thought that “Islam causes extremism” and wanted our views on the matter. A colleague of mine, a political scientist, answered unequivocally: “No. Politics causes extremism, not Islam.” My friend seemed unconvinced. I looked at him, a lawyer no less, in dismay and wondered what it would take to change his mind. Perhaps he needed to talk to some taxi drivers -- or at least one -- in the city that he and I both loved. It's unlikely that he would ever live in a Muslim country and discover just how absurd his fears were.

No nation is immune to making such sweeping, incorrect generalizations. In America, one of the most notorious examples was the shipping of Japanese-Americans to concentration camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1942. Many of the families of these unfortunate people had sons serving in the US military and dying for the same government that locked them up. They were unfairly dealt crushing blows to their lives, and most lost all their property. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended the camps when it became necessary to secure votes for his re-election in 1944. Fifty years later the official apologies came.

Ground Zero

Before leaving New York ,we visited the 9/11 memorial at the site of the World Trade Center buildings, which was built on the two footprints of the destroyed towers. It is an overwhelmingly sad place, where gray waterfalls flow into what seems like an infinite pit in the center of each memorial, the names of the victims engraved on its borders. Those names are, like the citizens of New York, incomparably diverse in nationality and ethnicity -- it's obvious as soon as you start reading them. And, yes, dozens of Muslims were also its victims.

I remember indelibly the agony of that time because I lived in nearby New Jersey and saw the burning ruins for days, then visited the site a few weeks later. Hundreds of posters of missing people hung on the fence of nearby St. Paul's church, seeking answers that were never found, for the bodies were turned to dust.

It is a monumental loss of logic that also made Islam and Muslims the victims on that fateful day almost 11 years ago.

*Richard Peres is a writer and journalist living in İstanbul.