The NYPD and the Surveillance of Muslim Americans

Tuesday, Mar 13, 2012

Hyphen Magazine -- Muslim Americans in New York routinely work with the New York Police Department, providing them with tips, reporting suspicious behavior, and welcoming officers in their midst. In exchange, the NYPD sets up a massive clandestine intelligence network, spies on and monitors Muslim Americans in the greater New York area as well as across the Northeast, denies that it exists, declares it fine and dandy (as well as constitutional) once it's exposed, and condemns naysayers as naive and foolish. Muslim college students in particular are the subject of secret surveillance, both online and off, without the knowledge of university authorities, and, in some cases, without even the knowledge of other local law enforcement. Muslim Americans are shocked, disappointed, and hurt.

The stories, which first broke in the fall of last year, and for which a team of AP reporters recently won the Polk award in journalism, are the latest in a series of revelations in recent months about the NYPD's secret efforts to identify, locate and document the activities of Muslim Americans in the years after 9/11. Informants and undercover officers posed as fellow students in Muslim Student Associations (MSA) at universities across New York and surrounding areas, including New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. In one oft-cited report, an undercover officer posed as a student on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York. The officer reported that "[I]n addition to the regularly scheduled events, the group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature." He also noted names of the 18 students from the City College of New York MSA who attended the trip.

Several university presidents condemned the surveillance of Muslim students on their campuses. Yale's president Richard Levin, for example, said that "police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States." Like John Sexton of New York University and Lee Bollinger of Columbia, he was totally unaware that the NYPD was intercepting emails sent by Muslim students, posing as students in their MSAs, and recording, among other things, what they ate, how many times a day they prayed, and where they shopped. Bollinger also suggested that the reports are sure to produce a "chilling effect," such that Muslim students are less inclined to speak their minds and express themselves freely.

Indeed, Muslim students report that already they feel less safe attending Muslim gatherings, having political conversations and even talking on the phone with their parents. "I've spent the last four days rethinking every single interaction I've had here. Everything I've said in Middle East Studies class ... in the cafeteria," a Columbia student told Colorlines last week. "I don't even know if you might be the police." Another, Anum Ahmed, an undergrad at NYU, fears researching for her Arabic class online, and talking to her mother over the phone. "Sometimes I'm like, 'Should I be saying this out loud? I don't feel like I'm protected. I'm being watched.'"

Coming to the NYPD's defense, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg chided Levin. "We have to keep this country safe. This is a dangerous place. Make no mistake about it. It's very cute to go and to blame everybody and say we should stay away from anything that smacks of intelligence gathering." The implication is that intelligence on Muslim college students protects Yale. In Bloomberg's view, no one is under surveillance for the mere reason that he or she is Muslim. The NYPD just follows leads. "The police department goes where there are allegations. And they look to see whether those allegations are true."

But nowhere in any report the AP unearthed is there a single allegation against any one student or MSA, with a shred of evidence of wrongdoing. In fact, there are no allegations. There is no mention of any rightful cause for suspicion, no reasonable grounds to suspect that anyone was guilty of anything illegal, and no reason to gather intelligence on the affairs of Muslim students in particular. There is likewise no basis whatsoever articulated in the reams of reports compiled by the NYPD on Muslim communities in the Northeast that justifies their surveillance. In one instance, the NYPD produced nothing more than a guide to Newark, NJ's best halal restaurants. Anywhere there is a valid lead the NYPD should pursue it and, depending on the merits of the case, be permitted to set up appropriate modes of surveillance. But absent any reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior, the NYPD's surveillance constitutes a gross intrusion into the ordinary, everyday lives of Muslim Americans.

That the NYPD regards them as a perennial national security threat is clear from another set of stories in recent months concerning the NYPD's use of a fear-mongering, racist and Islamophobic film called The Third Jihad as a training video. The successor to Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, The Third Jihad was shown in training sessions to over 1300 officers on loop for months. Incredibly, it also features a 90-minute interview with the NYPD's chief Ray Kelly. Kelly initially denied that he intentionally interviewed for the film, claiming instead that the interview was composed from unrelated footage elsewhere. Kelly lied about the interview, for which he did intentionally sit, as well as about the number of officers that saw the film, and for how long.

The list goes on. A few days into February the AP reported that the NYPD "recommended increasing surveillance of thousands of Shiite Muslims and their mosques, based solely on their religion, as a way to sweep the Northeast for signs of Iranian terrorists" back in 2006. The revelation that the NYPD spies on and monitors Muslim college students is therefore just the latest in the string of allegations that together show the profound distrust with which the NYPD regards Muslim Americans on the basis of their religion. They also constitute egregious violations of civil liberties. FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni says of "mosque-rakers," or undercover officers who infiltrate mosques for purposes of intelligence, for example, that "[i]f you're sending an informant into a mosque when there is no evidence of wrongdoing ... you're running right up against core constitutional rights. You're talking about freedom of religion."

The NYPD's surveillance is not just a cause for alarm for Muslim Americans. Representative Mike Honda from California, for example, compares the NYPD's surveillance to treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In a column on the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 last month, he describes how he and his family were treated as "enemies within." "120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to evacuate their homes. My family and I were herded like cattle into [an] internment camp." In Honda's view, "[W]e cannot stand idly by as an entire American community is demonized as a 'religious enemy within.'" In both cases the group is demonized just because it shares incidental features with a perceived threat.

At first I was dismayed and angry at the lack of coverage in Asian American circles of the NYPD's surveillance, even admidst the Linsanity of the past few months. The issue of Islamophobia continues to receive less attention than is due among Asian Americans, outside the South Asian and Middle Eastern American communities. But I am heartened by Honda's support, as well as the growing outrage at the NYPD among Asian and non-Asian Americans alike. Join them, and condemn the surveillance of Muslim Americans as racist, illegal and Islamophobic.

Participate in the #myNYPDfile hashtag trend on Twitter, a humorous attempt on the part of Muslims to suggest possible contents for the NYPD's dossiers (One: "Sir, many of the students work at @DunkinDonuts. This must be a takeover plot, since America runs on Dunkin."). Thank elected officials, journalists and university authorities who condemn the NYPD's surveillance. Join a photo campaign, and affirm that Muslim Americans are not just terrorists in hiding. Really angry? Call for Ray Kelly's resignation. Demand that New York's attorney general investigate the NYPD for abuses. Finally, if you're Muslim and live in the Northeast, you can even compel the NYPD to disclose any files it has on you, via the Freedom of Information Act.

By Saif Ansari

Read at Hyphen Magazine >