One of the most difficult things for a politician to do is offer a sincere apology that is accepted as such. Actions have consequences, and when elected officials err in word or deed or both, their public expressions of regret are often considered suspect by the general public. Rather than “I’m sorry for so and so,” what is heard by grassroots people is “I’m sorry I was caught.”
When political leaders are found to have engaged in corruption, graft, sexual misconduct or other such misdeeds, they are left with little recourse save contrition or resignation. However, when mayors, governors, presidents or others err in judgment that impacts the wellbeing of men, women, and children, more than an apology is needed. Some of them know this, and so they take the remedy of politically motivated public repentance.
Standing in a faith setting flanked by a religious leader or several, sometimes in a house of worship (usually Christian, regardless of whether or not the moral offender is one), and before a congregation, the disgraced or embarrassed public servant admits his or her wrong, often in a minimalist way, and says the words “I’m sorry.”
Throughout the years, the Black church has proven to be a forgiving sacred space, particularly receptive to appeals by powerful white men to Black and Brown congregants, to “Forgive me, for I knew not what I was doing.” The more prideful and arrogant the politician had been, the more forgiving the congregation has to be––nodding their heads in agreement with the penitent standing before them. Sometimes the nods are punctuated by shouts of “amen,” or, conversely, polite but skeptical looks. Then the moment passes with the singing of a hymn (usually “Amazing Grace”), and the politician goes onto his next scheduled stop.
According to media reports, this was precisely the political ritual enacted several Sundays ago, when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared at the Christian Cultural Center––the Brooklyn-based mega church led by Rev. A.R. Bernard. There, Bloomberg apologized for one of the two most controversial policies of his 12-year term as mayor. “Mike Apologizes for Stop and Frisk” proclaimed headlines the following morning.
Many understandable expressions of skepticism appeared in the press and on talk shows, in social media and on the lips of activists. Those comments are self-explanatory. The purpose of this essay is to raise a voice centered in a theological critique, according to a social justice standard. As a NYC-based Muslim religious leader who is an American of African descent, I was actively engaged during the Bloomberg years in open and public resistance to two of his cardinal sins committed during his three terms of office.
The Bloomberg stop-and-frisk strategy of law enforcement, implemented under the leadership of former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, was an abysmal failure. Under the guise of public safety, the human rights of some 600,000 young, poor, overwhelmingly Black American and/or Latino men where flagrantly violated.
When community and religious leaders, other public officials, and those grassroots people impacted by the arrests raised their voices in opposition to the NYPD policies and procedures, Mike Bloomberg was defiantly resistant to counsel and criticism. Eventually the federal courts ruled the practice unconstitutional. The passage of time has proven the decision to be accurate. What the NYPD called “stop-question-and-frisk” was ineffective, misguided, unpopular, and abusive.
Religiously speaking, was it enough for the previous mayor to say, “I was wrong?” Before answering that question, one must look at Bloomberg’s other cardinal sin of policy and procedure. It too was a violation of human rights based upon the wholesale targeting of a community by law enforcement authorities. It also proved ineffective and was addressed through the courts.
Unlike Mike Bloomberg’s eventual admission of error centered on stop-and-frisk––which had racial, ethnic, and class implications, his other sin has yet to be mentioned in the mainstream press––perhaps because it is not perceived as being of significant impact on the looming 2020 presidential election. However, this writer believes that calculation to be in error.
Mike Bloomberg’s other sin was his sanctioned policy of warrantless surveillance of the Muslim community in the New York metropolitan area and beyond. As noted in The New York Times, the Bloomberg policy of surveillance of Muslims by the New York Police Department resulted in years of litigation over a “broad, decade-long spying program in which Intelligence Division detectives eavesdropped on conversations in cafes, asked people about their views on drone strikes and designated mosques as potential terrorist organizations.”
Lawsuits against the NYPD (which were eventually settled) alleged that it had violated the United States Constitution by conducting surveillance on mosques, Muslim restaurants and retail stores, student organizations, and even grade schools. Courts in nearby Philadelphia upheld this view in a decision, contrasting surveillance of Muslims and intentional discrimination against them with past actions targeting “Jewish Americans during the Red Scare, African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement and Japanese-Americans during World War II” .
Under Bloomberg, Muslim religious identity was viewed by law enforcement as a “legitimate criterion for selection of law enforcement surveillance targets,” or “a legitimate proxy for criminality.” His covert program did not generate a single terrorism investigation in six years of monitoring communities. When he left the New York City mayoralty in 2013, Mike Bloomberg was equally unrepentant and recalcitrant regarding the surveillance of Muslims, as he was towards stop-and-frisk.
Only God knows the hearts, but Bloomberg gave every appearance then of a leader possessed by a spirit of hubris. He was unapologetic and defiant. Having secured the city for private real estate interests, chain stores and big business, Bloomberg subsequently immersed himself in laudable work related to public health and safety, ranging from the environment to gun control. To be fair, these initiatives began during his tenure as mayor of one of the world’s premier cities, and the argument can be made that they have proven to be of both national and global significance. Nonetheless, before weeks ago, Mike Bloomberg remained silent for almost a decade on stop-and-frisk. He still hasn’t mentioned his sanctioning of warrantless surveillance of Muslims. Was that wrong too? Both policies were hallmarks of the billionaire’s leadership in the Empire State. That cannot be overlooked or minimalized.
Both Islamic and Jewish religious law require acts of amendment by those who would repent sincerely, when their sins ( i.e. their harmful, injurious actions), impact others and not just the individual. The position of both of these faiths of the Abrahamic tradition, is that when one’s sin affects the individual, then penance can be effectuated by acceptance of responsibility before The Most High, admission of guilt, an appeal to that same Most Merciful God for forgiveness, and a solemn vow to abstinence from repetition of the harm done to one’s soul. Perhaps Bloomberg has done that. Only God knows.
However, these same faiths claim that when one’s sin has harmed others, then sincere repentance requires acts of atonement and amendment, for the purpose of addressing and alleviating the harmful effects of the wrong done. By that standard, that of the Qur’an and the Torah, saying “I’m sorry” is not enough when people have been sinned against. Sincere repentance requires acts of amendment in such cases, What else is the world’s 14th most wealthy individual willing to do, to bring justice to those whom his wrong-headed thinking and leadership affected?
Mike Bloomberg has demonstrated his willingness to place his considerable resources at the disposal of humanity’s environmental and health-related injustices. However, what about racial, social, and economic injustice, previously enabled if not perpetuated by Bloomberg himself as a public leader? Should he not also address those ills as he seeks to lead the nation? If he is sincere, should not his public apology be followed by acts of amendment? And if he’s unwilling to so, then why should Black folk generally, as well as Muslim Americans of every hue and ethnicity, vote for him for the U.S. presidency? Why shouldn’t we vote for those against whom he is running for the Democratic nomination?
According to the Pew Center for Research on American life, Black and Latino voters numbered some 29 million in the 2016 election. One wonders how many of those voters are additionally Muslims or Muslim supporters and sympathizers, who aren’t readily visible in such polls. Further, how many Muslim American voters are there––both visible and invisible to current
systems of voter identification? Does Mike Bloomberg stand any chance of being elected if these demographic groups decide that his apology is too little, too late? Many of us think not, no matter how much money he has or spends.
Lastly, it is written in the Bible that Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” So, when it comes to the meek and humble people of America––those who are least in terms of political and economic power, what does Michael Bloomberg, or other rich, white men have in common with us? On what basis is he capable of entering God’s kingdom on earth by empathizing with the needs, oppression, and societal struggles of those of us unable to hide behind race, wealth, and social privilege? What causes and resultant policies is he willing to commit to with a fervor equal to those he has embraced over the past six years? Why should Black and Brown folk on one hand, and Muslims of varying ethnicities, vote for Bloomberg? His answer to those questions might begin with “I’m sorry,” but it cannot end there.
Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid is the religious and spiritual leader of The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood Inc. The mosque, located in Harlem, is the lineal descendant of The Muslim Mosque Inc. founded by El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz/Malcolm X in 1964. The imam is the chairperson of The Association of African American Imams, and a former president of the Majlis Ash-Shura (Islamic Leadership Council) of New York.