Queens is known for its diversity, but a recent incident is bringing back questions about discrimination in the borough.
Ray Laizer Lengend of Queens Village was arrested in connection with firebomb attacks on four buildings in Jamaica, two of which were mosques. According to a statement issued by the Queens District Attorney’s Office, Lengend allegedly said that he wanted to “take out as many Muslims and Arabs as possible.”
Imam Maan Al-Sahlani, who leads the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center at 89-89 Van Wyck Expy., said that the attack on his center was a shock.
“We’ve been in the community for 20 years, and we’ve never had any problems with anyone in the community. People in the neighborhood have been very supportive, especially now,” Al-Sahlani said.
He also said that, while Lengend’s comments were disturbing, they did not hint at any underlying discrimination in the neighborhood.
“He was clearly very sick,” Al-Sahlani said.
While it is believed that Lengend, who is currently being held at Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation, carried out his attack for personal reasons, his violent language against Muslims comes after a year when a number of public figures made controversial statements towards the Islamic community.
In June, Rose Marie Poveromo of the United Community Civic Association made controversial statements at a town hall meeting in Astoria that some Islamic leaders interpreted as discriminatory. Poveromo later apologized for the offending remarks. State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), who was present at the meeting, also issued an apology after coming under fire for not speaking out against Poveromo’s statements.
In August, Bob Turner, who was running for Anthony Weiner’s seat in Congress, ran a series of attack ads that focused on his opponent’s support of Park51, or the “Ground Zero Mosque.” A spokesman for now-Congressman Turner’s campaign said that the ads ran because “the congressman did not think that it was an appropriate site for the mosque and he wasn’t afraid to publicly say so.” However, the spokesman declined to say whether or not Turner felt his ads promoted discrimination of any kind.
Most recently, NYPD surveillance of religious groups was brought up during the press conference reporting Lengend’s arrest. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who spoke at that press conference, declined to answer any questions about NYPD surveillance programs.
Cyrus McGoldrick of the New York chapter of the Center for American-Islamic Relations has been critical of the surveillance programs and other parts of the NYPD’s counterterrorism program, saying that they encourage discrimination. He also criticized the Mayor’s Office for defending what he calls “the warrantless and comprehensive religious profiling of the NYPD.”
According to some Muslim advocacy groups, Islamophobia is on the rise in Queens and nationwide, and there are a number of reasons why.
“Islamophobia is caused more by ignorance than anything else,” said Imam Shamsi Ali of the Jamaica Muslim Center. “People who don’t know a lot about Islam or Muslims, and that ignorance can turn into fear, which can turn into violence or hate.”
McGoldrick agreed, saying that discrimination is a “uniquely dangerous problem” that “not only threatens our employment and relationships, but also the safety of our families.”
However, he added that ignorance isn’t a problem for Muslims exclusively.
“The problem with all intolerance is ignorance. Studies show that people with negative views on Muslims also have negative views on Jews, African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants,” McGoldrick said.
“A Time Magazine study showed that of the slight majority of Americans who had a negative view of Islam in August 2010, almost all of them admitted to not personally knowing a Muslim,” he said. “It’s this ignorance that is being manipulated by war-mongering politicians and the media into fear and hatred of the unknown ‘other.’”
He said that some politicians, including Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, have been “complicit in growing Islamophobia either through their actions or lack of action.” Goldrick also noted that some politicians have been working to discourage discrimination in their communities.
Both Al-Sahlani and Ali have praised the NYPD’s treatment of the case, and Ali said that having a good, trusting relationship with the NYPD was essential. However, McGoldrick had a harsher assessment of the NYPD, saying that Kelly and others have not listened to Muslim leaders’ issues about unwarranted surveillance and ethnic profiling.
In light of incidents like the New Year’s Day attack, Ali said that the most important thing that the Muslim community can do is continue to be active.
“Now is not the time for us to become insular. We have to continue to be active, to work with the communities we live in. That’s the best way to educate people about who we really are.”