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'Slap in the face': Muslims decry Bloomberg's upcoming appearance at Democratic convention

As New York mayor, Bloomberg oversaw a surveillance programme that targeted Muslim community gatherings, businesses and student groups
Michael Bloomberg
Mike Bloomberg has defended sending informants to spy on mosques as 'the right thing to do' (Reuters)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg oversaw a surveillance programme targeting the city's Muslim community for almost a decade. 

This week he will be speaking at the Democratic national convention - an event that has so far focused on pushing back against President Donald Trump's bigotry and divisiveness.

Muslim-American activists are decrying the former mayor's scheduled appearance at the party's convention at a time when Democrats are trying to unify their party around Joe Biden, in order to dismantle Trump's policies, including the "Muslim ban".

"For me as a Muslim woman, it's a total slap in the face," said Nadia Ahmad, a Muslim-American Democratic delegate.

Bloomberg, a former Republican, spoke at the 2016 Democratic convention, but criticism of his policies against the Muslim community was renewed this year as he sought the presidency himself in a short-lived campaign that ended in November.

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The ex-mayor, who has spent millions of dollars backing liberal causes, including gun control, announced last week that he would be speaking at the convention. He is expected to deliver a speech on Thursday - the night that Biden will accept the party's nomination.

'Right thing to do'

Several civil rights groups have scrutinised and denounced the mayor's record, including his "stop and frisk" programme that targeted communities of colour as well as the scheme to spy on Muslims. 

Bloomberg was elected mayor shortly after the 9/11 attacks. At the time, the police department under his watch created a "Demographics Unit", which mapped out the Muslim community and deployed undercover agents to monitor mosques, restaurants and community gatherings. Law enforcement officials even infiltrated Muslim student organisations and extended their spying operations to the suburbs in New Jersey.

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Bloomberg eventually apologised for "stop and frisk", but when asked about spying on Muslims earlier this year, he doubled down on defending the programme, which did not lead to any known terror-related arrests

In February, he told PBS Newshour that spying on Muslims was "the right thing to do".

"The people that flew those planes came from the Middle East and some of the imams were urging more of the same," he said. 

That statement stirred outrage from civil rights groups and some Democrats at the time, with Senator Elizabeth Warren accusing him of defending "bigoted practices".

Ahmad, the Muslim-American delegate, told MEE on Tuesday that rewarding Bloomberg with a prime-time spot at the convention, despite his "negative attitudes" towards Muslims, raises questions over Democrats' professed commitment to support Muslim-Americans. 

No Muslims on centre stage

Ahmad also noted that no Muslim speakers would be speaking on the main virtual stage - the late-night televised appearances. 

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) organised a Muslim-American panel on Monday night and a three-hour Muslim assembly featuring activists, academics and politicians on Tuesday. But there are no Muslims scheduled to speak during primetime.

"There's no reason why Keith Ellison, the attorney general of Minnesota, could not speak. There's no reason why Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib could not speak. They've earned their position in this country in terms of the way that they're working to build a democracy," Ahmad said.

"If we truly want to dismantle racism and end the negative consequences of the 'war on terror', we should work in partnership with Muslims as allies instead of continuing this constant stereotyping and sidelining of Muslims." 

Robert McCaw, government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said that while he appreciated the space that the DNC has allocated for Muslims through panels and virtual discussions, it would have been "all the better" if a Muslim person were able to speak on the centre stage.

McCaw also slammed the decision to give Bloomberg a primetime speaking spot.

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"Bloomberg's legacy in the Muslim community is tainted by his anti-Muslim surveillance programme," he told MEE.

"And no amount of platitudes can erase the long-lasting damage he has done to be Muslim community's relationship with the New York Police Department."

For her part, Hanieh Jodat Barnes, a California delegate, said the absence of Muslim representation on the main stage of the convention was "disappointing".

"We always talk about the importance of the Muslim vote, but it should not be taken for granted," Jodat Barnes told MEE.

"We are a large population in some of the swing states. We have a say in the direction of the election in November, so we do encourage the Democratic party to pay close attention to us as a community because we could turn those swing states."

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