NYPD’s Surveillance of Muslim Students

Published April 12, 2012

By Aisha Asif

“When will it end?” This is the thought going through the minds of Muslim Americans ever since the news first broke last August of the New York City Police Department spying on the Muslim community of New York. Not only were masjids, cafes, and other community locations targeted for surveillance and infiltration, but colleges all across the Northeast, and in some cases even Islamic schools attended by minors, were monitored. A total of 250 locations were scrutinized, not as a result of some questionable activity, reported or even suspected, but rather as “preventive measures.”

Every day more of our civil liberties are being trampled upon and all American citizens must be concerned

The NYPD apparently considered it acceptable to spy on an entire religious community to see if they could find a crazy few who might be of interest to them. This surveillance operation began in 2002, a year after the September 11 attacks, with the launch of the “Demographics Unit” set up with the help of the CIA to comprehensively map “29 ancestries of interest” within a hundred miles of New York City. While it is illegal for the CIA to spy domestically, we are supposed to accept the fact that the nation’s intelligence agency aided the NYPD to set up its own surveillance network to “monitor” Muslims. The NYPD claims they only follow leads. But how many leads could they have to account for spying on more than 250 locations, many outside of the state of New York? With such extensive monitoring, the message conveyed is that being Muslim is the only lead they need, despite their disclaimers about using racial or religious profiling.

The NYPD’s intelligence-gathering unit worked secretly – so secretly that the New York City Council, whose job it is to oversee the police department, was not informed of the all the details. Further obscuring the surveillance operation is the fact that the City’s comptroller does not audit the NYPD’s intelligence unit. New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised a more transparent police department when he first ran for office; it is now his third term and the NYPD, under police commissioner Ray Kelly, has never had such free rein, with so little oversight, as it has now.

As part of the surveillance operation, a report was issued by NYPD entitled “Radicalization in the West.” It called for officers to be on the lookout for Muslim individuals exhibiting signs of radicalization. These signs include the giving up of alcohol and smoking, avoidance of interest-based loans, growing a beard, or traveling to Mecca for Hajj. These are all indications of a Muslim becoming more devout. Yet to the NYPD surveillance operation, these are signs pointing to radicalization. This is not surprising considering the prevalence of inaccurate information which has been used to inform those involved in the operation. For example, as part of its training of officers, the NYPD showed a film by the Clarion Fund, a conservative organization known for its Islamophobic activities, called the “The Third Jihad” which depicts all Muslims in America as potential terrorists. The film ran “on a continuous loop” while officers were filling out papers and, according to Paul Browne, an NYPD spokesman, the officer responsible for that has been disciplined.

When the news first broke last year about the surveillance at local colleges in New York City, faculty members and administrators were quick to condemn the NYPD for these activities. There was an outcry amongst activists and advocacy groups for this attack on Muslim Americans’ civil liberties. The ones who were shaken the most, however, were and still are college students. According to the Associated Press, an informant befriended some Muslim students at Brooklyn College, and went on so-called “militant paintball trips” with them in 2006. Another infiltrator working for the NYPD took a whitewater rafting trip with 18 students from City College to upstate New York, noting particulars about each of the individuals including how many times they prayed each day. These tactics serve to create fear, paranoia, and distrust of government and police authorities amongst Muslim college students. Their trepidation is not unfounded when they end up in some NYPD file because they sent and/or forwarded emails announcing upcoming university events which included mainstream Muslim scholars, speakers, or activists.

Such attack on the privacy of American citizens is unacceptable in an open, democratic nation such as the United States. Every day more of our civil liberties are being trampled upon and all American citizens should be concerned. With the passage of such laws as the Indefinite Detention Bill, recently signed by President Obama, no one is safe from the increasing incursions on our civil rights. While all Americans share the goal of protecting the country, and certainly New York City, from any threat or harm, no one who cherishes our constitutional rights can condone the tactics used to ostensibly achieve that end.

Aisha AsifAuthor Aisha Asif is a graduate student in Journalism at Columbia University.

Related Posts