NY: LIAISON STRIVES TO BRIDGE POLICE, MUSLIM CULTURES
At the headquarters of the New York Police Department, in a high-ceilinged, wood-floored room, Erhan Yildirim is speaking to a group of officers. As he lists facts about Islam, they crack their gum and tap their feet. Yildirim is slighter, shorter and snazzier -- in a sleek Turkish-made suit -- than most of his audience, and he speaks with a Turkish accent to their Brooklynese.
Yildirim, as the part-time civilian liaison of the NYPD to Muslims throughout the city, is a man assigned to bridge cultures.
"I'm the PR," says Yildirim, and the PR goes two ways: At once, he is trying to redeem the name of the police department to Muslims and the reputation of Islam to police officers.
Of course, the misunderstandings may also go every which way, even for Yildirim, a funeral director by trade who may or may not have become conversant in cop talk but who also doesn't speak the languages of the majority of immigrant Muslims in New York.
Arabs and South Asians form the largest immigrant groups among the city's 600,000 Muslims, according to a Columbia University study -- and Yildirim, born in Germany to Turkish parents and educated at an Islamic high school in Istanbul -- knows only prayers and hellos in Arabic and no Urdu at all.
He says that's no problem -- "For Muslim culture you know everything about them because you believe in the same faith. I know the terminology, I know the culture really well. I know the greetings."
When Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly holds meetings at mosques, Yildirim is right there at his side, fussing with the microphone and supplying the bottle of water. Yildirim briefs the commissioner biweekly and has produced a video and cheat sheet on Islam for police.