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Former U.S. Official Arrested After Racially Harassing a Halal Food Vendor

5 minute read

A former senior U.S. official has been arrested over online videos that show him harassing a halal food vendor in Manhattan on a number of occasions. 

Stuart Seldowitz, who served as a national security official under former President Barack Obama, called the food vendor—who has now been identified as 24-year-old Mohamed Hussein—a “terrorist” among a number of other xenophobic remarks as seen in videos posted on X (formerly Twitter).

The New York Police Department confirmed that Seldowitz was taken into police custody on Wednesday but did not share details of any charges, the BBC reported.

Hussein, an employee of Adam Halal Food Cart, spoke to VICE news on Wednesday about the instances of harassment, using his boss Islam Moustafa as a translator. “He asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I told him ‘I am from Egypt.’ After that he says to me, ‘You support Hamas, you’re a terrorist, you like to kill Jews,” Hussein said. “I couldn't continue working and smiling in the face of the customers.”

He added: “After I recorded the first two videos, I sent them to my employer. After he came the third time, I sent them to people working around me so that if [the] man comes to them, they can be aware.”

Moustafa, the cart’s co-owner, told the publication he felt “ashamed” that a high ranking official would use this language and blame Hussein for initiating the conversation. “I would appreciate it if he comes and apologizes and say[s] that he made a mistake.” 

The videos emerged amid heightened social divide and increased acts of Islamophobia and antisemitism in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. Since Hamas’ Oct. 7, attack on Israel, in which 1,200 people died and around 240 people were taken as hostages, Israel has carried out a relentless bombardment of the Gaza Strip. At least 14,000 Palestinians have been killed, 40% of which are children, and as many as 1.7 million people in the enclave have been displaced.

What happened in the Stuart Seldowitz videos?

In one video, Seldowitz taunts Hussein about his citizenship, accuses him of supporting Hamas, and says that not enough Palestinian children have died. “If we killed 4,000 Palestinian kids, you know what, it wasn’t enough,” Seldowitz says, before laughing and waving to the camera. 

In another altercation, which takes place at night, Seldowitz takes images of Hussein and threatens to use his political connections to call Egypt’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat. When Hussein says he does not speak English, Seldowitz can be heard telling the man, “That’s why you’re selling food in a food cart.” He adds, “You should learn English, it’ll help you when they deport you back to Egypt and the Mukhabarat wants to interview you.”

He proceeds to tell Hussein that people use the Quran, Islam’s holy book, as a “toilet.” Hussein can be heard in most videos asking Seldowitz to go away and reminding him that he is working. Seldowitz also makes provocative statements about the Prophet Muhammed in a third video.

Who is Seldowitz?

Seldowitz, 64, has held several senior roles across five presidencies, for both Democratic and Republican administrations. He served as acting director for the National Security Council South Asia Directorate, and deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs between 1999 and 2003. 

As of Nov. 2022, Seldowitz was listed as a foreign affairs chair for Gotham Government Relations, a lobbying firm in New York City. The firm confirmed Tuesday that it has cut ties with Seldowitz, who appears to have been removed from their website, according to Al Jazeera. 

Speaking of Seldowitz’s conduct in the videos, David Schwartz, Gotham’s president said in a statement that he is “personally outraged and offended by this language.” 

He added: “Islamophobia and antisemitism have no place in our world and must be eradicated.” He also made an offer of free legal representation to Hussein, whose identity was not known at the time.

What has Seldowitz said about the videos?

As of Tuesday, Seldowitz told the New York Times that he has not seen the videos in question but they began when he asked the vendor if he was Egyptian. Seldowitz alleged that Hussein expressed support for Hamas, which cannot be heard in any of the video footage and Hussein has since denied to VICE news. 

“At that point, I got rather upset and I’ve said things to him, that in retrospect, I probably regret, though—that I do regret,” Seldowitz said. “Instead of focusing on him and what he said, I expanded into insulting his religion and so on.”

Seldowitz went on to tell the publication he is not Islamophobic, saying that there are many Arabs and Muslims who “know me very well and who know I’m not prejudiced against them.”

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com