Mind Your Language, Mr. Terrorist

Under the lens. Pic: MSNBC

If you walk into a New York restaurant and hear some people talking in Urdu, they could be terrorists. That is what NYPD wants you to believe.

It boggles the mind that after years of US occupation of Afghanistan, the city police have not figured out that the Taliban – assuming they are the biggest threat – do not speak in Urdu. If al Qaeda members are suspects, then Arabic is their chosen language. Besides, they are also targeting Bengali speakers. This effectively is then about a huge chunk of the South Asian population, some of who consider America not only their adopted but their first home.

It amounts to alienating immigrants who contribute considerably to society. Had this 'threat perception' originated in the mind of some rightwing punk, one would have seen it for what it is – a fringe group trying to elicit memories of 9/11. That it comes from Thomas Galati, the commanding officer of the New York police department’s elite intelligence division, is disturbing. He has formed an eight-member “demographic squad” that eavesdrops on conversations between Muslims in restaurants and stores in New York City, New Jersey and on Long Island.

“I’m using that information for me to determine that this would be a kind of place that a terrorist would be comfortable in. A potential terrorist could hide in here. Most Urdu speakers would be of concern.” In a casual manner he also added that Bengali-speaking people would be suspects too to determine where “I should face a threat of a terrorist and that terrorist is Bengali”.

Many of them are probably out for an evening meal with friends from their own country. They could converse in their language of origin because it is probably becoming rare to do so, unless it is with family members. I have Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi friends who live in New York and places in the vicinity. They are overarching Americans. It does not mean they won’t cook curries or speak the language of a home they left years ago. In fact, many of them struggle to ensure their children have some knowledge of their culture, often not succeeding.

Had the police department considered tourists as a threat, I would have seen this as extra cautiousness, more to soothe their own frayed nerves rather than those of the citizens.

Among the voices of protest is that of Attorney Jethro Eisenstein who has spoken about taking the Unit to court to stop its operations:

“This is a terribly pernicious set of policies. No other group since the Japanese Americans in World War II has been subjected to this kind of widespread public policy.”

Tactically, too, it is flawed. Do the cops think that terrorists have their meetings in restaurants and shops, carry a blueprint of their plans, and talk in Urdu or Bengali, thinking that no one will understand or suspect them? The police force undermines its reputation with this assumption. A terrorist could speak with an American drawl, the preferred language might be German, French, Spanish or English, and the person could be from anywhere, even Norway, you know.

Instead of trying to send out a positive message, a city like New York is being told to look out for anyone who does not sound like them, with specific languages mentioned. I wonder if Mr. Galati realises that his name is so Urdu-sounding. It is eerily similar to the most succulent kebab from a place where Urdu was considered tehzeeb (culture itself) – Lucknow’s galauti kebab.

How would Americans recognise Urdu or Bengali from, say, tens of others, if they have not been exposed to those? And suppose they do, will they keep casting backward glances as they dine to see what people at the next table are ordering – tikka masala, bingo! Whoever made it mainstream? – and call the cops? Would they stop in their tracks if they spot Urdu-speaking women at the store, especially if they are anywhere near the Victoria’s Secret aisle, which could be a sort of code word meeting point for potential terrorists who come from British colonies?

Paagalpan ki hadd hoti hai…These words would make me a suspect were I in New York, when all I am saying is there is a limit to madness.

(c) Farzana Versey


  1. FV,

    I often hear you (and many others) saying silently: "If you hear a guy speaking anything good about Narendra Modi, or about the positives of a BJP govt, or about the temple desecration and persecution of Hindus by Muslim rulers, he has to be a potential Hindutva terrorist and should be denounced as a mass murderer."

    How are you different from whoever it is in New York that you are talking about?

  2. for one FV no more chatting in urdu or bengali or else NYPD going to swoop you to their infamous precinct and you would be subjected to uncomfortable questions. Since you are a writer who has written about pakistan , oh baba they are going to ask more and more incl your personal life (my friend was asked ) so welcome to hysterical city NY btw there surveillance did not catch one single twerrorist and I posted a link to it, but they wasted millions in eavesdropping mosques and other cultural places and I fear one day they are going to place bugs in the house of urdu/bengali speaking people. whats more horrifying the guy who killed innocent sikhs did not speak urdu nor bengali nor the joker guy who killed so many in the western part of US, silence of this kind of crime so deafening and the intelligence gathering of these subjects are non-existential

  3. Rizwan;

    I have friends other than S.Asians and they are equally disgusted. The big example of democracy shows its true face. As I said, it's the government that creates the fear. Security measures are different and ought to be followed everywhere, instead of silly insinuations.


    Since you can't read me, you cannot read my silence. And I don't have to remain silent to pander to one-line verdicts that lie.


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