How Gov. Andrew Cuomo Deceived Muslim Clergy Into A Scandalous Anti-Palestinian Photo-Op

Jamillah Adbul Kareem was excited when she received the invitation from the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She had known the governor’s father, Mario, from her years of social and religious work in Nassau County, where she serves as a chaplain at Nassau County Correctional Center. So when Cuomo invited her to his mansion in Albany for a Sunday interfaith breakfast along with several other clergy members, Kareem eagerly accepted.

She had no idea that her image would be exploited by the governor’s office without her consent to promote an executive order that has been widely criticized as an attack on the First Amendment and an affront to Palestinians.

“It was a breakfast with the governor,” Kareem commented to me. “It was just breakfast and we were listening to him and what he said. I don’t even understand how it could be pulled off. I was just as shocked as everybody else. I had no idea that the picture would be taken.”

The picture in question was taken on June 5. It showed Kareem standing behind Cuomo’s right shoulder and smiling, her face framed by a white hijab. Clergy members of various faiths, almost all people of color, were arrayed behind the governor. Cuomo was holding a pen and appeared to be signing something. But none of those whom he invited for the Sunday breakfast knew what it was.

Later that day, the photo of Kareem and her colleagues appeared on the governor’s website and in a series of official press releases. It was accompanied by the following headline: “Governor Cuomo Signs First-in-the-Nation Executive Order Directing Divestment of Public Funds Supporting BDS Campaign Against Israel.”

And it was then that Kareem and her colleagues wondered if they had been part of some cynical photo-op. “[Cuomo] just posed with a pen but he wasn’t actually signing in the picture, it just looked like that,” she explained. “It was just to show diversity to the media — to show support.”

Cuomo’s executive order established a blacklist of corporations that had supposedly refused to do business with Israel and accused supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement of, in his words, practicing “the politics of discrimination.”

“This order sends the message that this state will do everything in its power to end this hateful, intolerant campaign,” Cuomo declared, referring to BDS.

As AlterNet reported, the executive order was the product of intensive lobbying from pro-Israel groups like the American Jewish Committee.

The executive order inspired criticism from a wide array of sources, from Marjorie Cohn of the left-wing National Lawyers Guild, who called it “unconstitutional,” to the right-wing pro-Israel lawyer Eugene Kontorovich, who tweeted that it “raises 1st amendment probs” and is “a bridge too far.”

Palestinians and their supporters viewed Cuomo’s order as an escalation in the wave of attacks on the grassroots movement they had invested so much energy in. The photograph showing Cuomo flanked by a seemingly approving cast of clergy members -- mostly people of color, and with a smiling Muslim woman in hijab right in the middle of them — added insult to injury.

Kareem said that when the photo appeared, she weathered a harsh online backlash that drove her to the emotional depths. “It was unfair,” she recalled. “I was in tears because I was attacked for taking the picture. I just caught a lot of flak over that. I could have went into depression if I didn’t have the skills I learned from my trade to watch myself.”

Months went by, and still the truth behind the infamous photo was unknown to the public. “I had my moments,” Kareem said. “It just hurt me. People were lashing out at me online. And I had nothing to do with that [executive order]. I just took a picture!”

With few other places left to turn, Kareem found encouragement from her supervisor, Rev. Marcos Miranda, a senior pastor at the Brooklyn-based Action in Christ International Church who has dedicated himself to training chaplains for work in crisis situations. “I had to calm her down because she was so upset, but at the end of day you have to stay firm,” Miranda told me. “She had no idea about anything that was going to be signed that day.”

Miranda was convinced that Kareem had been unfairly targeted for criticism because her hijab identified her as Muslim. “It was sad from what I saw that she got flak for being Muslim and being a female Muslim,” he said. “There were other Muslims there who were male who didn’t get flak.”

In the end, Miranda and Kareem came to see the fallout over the photo as a teachable lesson: “The key thing here is I tried to educate Sister Jamillah [Kareem] that when you’re dealing with politicians, these are the risks you sometimes take. Being at an event, being photographed at an event, there’s the risk that they’re gonna take a picture and all of the sudden they say you must be part of political party, or a communist, or whatever.”

For Miranda, the photo distorted the very essence of his and his fellow chaplains’ work. “We’re very non partisan and we just want to do the will of God," he reflected. "It was sad what they put [Kareem] through and now she knows better.”

A detailed request for comment was sent to Cuomo's Office of Communications. The office has not replied. 

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