In our community, eating pizza is suspect........
See political cartoon published today on the subject. At least some ppl have a sense of humor altho it's perhaps not so funny? -- J.
Topper to their pizza: an interrogation
Published 10:39 p.m., Wednesday, September 19, 2012 in the Times Union
Read more: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Topper-to-their-pizza-an-interrogation-3878988.php#ixzz271d56Agi
Stephen Downs, left, and Shamshad Ahmad, right, talk about a recent incident when they were interrogated by Albany Police after someone called police about their conversation with two other men, while eating pizza, which they felt was a case of profiling, on Monday Sept. 17, 2012 in Albany, NY. They spoke about the case at the Masjid As-Salam Mosque, in Albany. (Philip Kamrass / Times Union) Photo: Philip Kamrass / 00019280A
But the lunch took a decidedly unconventional turn when four Albany police officers walked into the Central Avenue pizzeria. They approached the table at which Shamshad Ahmad, president of a storefront mosque, sat with Stephen Downs and two Muslim women visiting from New York City.
The police asked Ahmad and the visitors to step outside, where more officers waited. Downs and an officer stayed inside.
"What were you talking about?" Downs says he was asked. "Were you talking about missile launchers?"
Now if police had interrupted my lunch with questions about missile launchers, I'd need to head home for a change of pants. But Downs is cooler under pressure, and he calmly answered the questions — making it clear to the officer that the group had not been talking about launching missiles at anything.
"I was more amused than anything else," Downs told me. "It was like, 'This can't be happening. This is so weird.'"
Outside, the others were asked similar questions. Then, the police departed after collecting personal information from each of the four, apparently convinced the group was not a terrorist threat.
The questioning lasted less than 10 minutes. The four returned to their pizza.
But they were understandably rattled. Why had they been questioned? Was this anti-Muslim bigotry? Had police approached them out of the blue? Or had someone called to complain?
The latter seemed unlikely. The restaurant is operated by a member of the mosque, and Downs and Ahmad didn't remember seeing other customers.
So the pair, in the weeks following the August incident, sought an official explanation. Last week, they met with Police Chief Steven Krokoff.
It turns out that police had, in fact, responded to a call from a customer who had been in the restaurant when the four arrived. Krokoff even played a tape of the call for Downs and Ahmad. (The tape was edited to avoid revealing the caller's identity.)
"This was a very unusual call for us," Krokoff told me Wednesday. "We don't get many calls where people are stating that they may have overhead a potential terrorist plot."
During the meeting, Downs and Ahmad were assured that the incident — and their personal information — would not be shared with federal authorities, since there was no evidence, of course, of an actual terrorist plot. The pair described Krokoff as understanding of their concerns.
Krokoff, in turn, told me he saw the meeting as "an opportunity to help bridge the gap between the department and the Muslim community."
"I think we did that," he said.
So let me ask you: What should we make of the lunchtime questioning? Was it just a curious incident that doesn't mean much? Or was it something more?
It'd be misguided, I think, to assume bigotry or otherwise assign too much blame. I mean, we don't know precisely what snippet of conversation led the alarmed citizen to make the call.
The group did spend part of the lunch discussing the 2004 arrest — and subsequent conviction — of two mosque members on charges of supporting terrorism that remain controversial. Perhaps what the caller heard was just dramatically out of context.
And the police? Well, they were obligated to respond to the call, and it's routine for Albany cops to request personal information from those they interview. "They were polite and professional," Downs said. "I want to emphasize that."
Still, there's much about the incident that's just plainly ridiculous.
First off, Downs and Ahmad hardly meet anyone's idea of a terrorist, Muslim or otherwise. Both men are older than 60, placing them well outside the terrorist demographic. They look and act like a couple of mild-mannered professors.
Ahmad, in fact, is a University at Albany physics professor. One of the officers who questioned him at the pizza parlor is a former student, he says.
Downs, meanwhile, is an attorney — although he's perhaps best known as the guy arrested at Crossgates Mall for refusing to remove a T-shirt advocating peace.
How's that for irony? Arrested one day for wearing a peace T-shirt and questioned a few years later about missile launchers. But I digress.
To Ahmad, the fact that someone suspected him and his lunch companions of terrorist activities was an eye-opener, because Albany's growing Muslim population, he says, has encountered relatively little discrimination. What lesson does he take from the incident?
"We have to do more work to make people believe that we are part of the community," said Ahmad, who was born in India.
"We are not dangerous," he added. "We are not terrorists."
Ahmad believes segments of the media perpetuate negative stereotypes of his religion. It's hard to argue with that, especially with Newsweek's disgraceful "Muslim Rage" cover sullying supermarket aisles. Of course, radical segments of the Muslim world deserve blame, too.
Some Americans may never divorce mainstream Muslims from those who attacked on Sept. 11. And recent rioting across the Middle East in response to a really stupid movie shows that some in the region don't understand or respect free speech.
But the questioning of Downs, Ahmad and the downstate visitors — welcome to Albany! — is a reminder that many Muslims in America aren't able to speak as freely as the rest of us. They have to worry about who's listening. They have to worry about being misunderstood, even in the most normal of places.
"These things are expected at borders or airports," Ahmad said. "But in a pizzeria?"