Stop the Reckless Spying on Muslims
The New York Police Department is out of control, and it's making Americans less safe.
The United States spends millions flying diplomats around the planet to bolster America’s relationship with the Muslim world. Meanwhile, its reservoir of trust among the Muslim community at home is rapidly being depleted — courtesy of the New York Police Department (NYPD).
On Feb. 20, Yale University President Richard Levin expressed his anger at the NYPD’s extensive surveillance of American Muslim students, which has included monitoring students’ emails and websites, events and speakers, and activities — not only at Yale, but at universities across the northeast. In one frequently cited incident, an undercover police officer accompanied students from the City College of New York on a white-water rafting trip, noting their topics of conversation and the frequency of their prayers. This type of surveillance, Levin wrote, "is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States."
New York City’s top officials, however, have shown no inclination to rein in the NYPD’s obsessive monitoring of American Muslims. Mayor Michael Bloomberg made light of the Yale president’s concerns, calling them "cute" and "ridiculous." He then attacked Levin: "Yale’s freedoms to do research, to teach, to give people a place to say what they want to say is defended by the law enforcement throughout this country."
Far from supporting academic freedom, the NYPD has done tremendous damage to campus life. Far from "keeping the country safe," as Bloomberg stated, the NYPD is making us less safe.
I’ve worked with Muslim students across the United States — offering media training, leading workshops debunking common and pernicious myths about Muslim history, and giving lectures on Islamic law, Muslim identity, and the value of civic engagement. These students are bright, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and remarkably civic-minded. Targeting them is not merely offensive and contrary to American values and principles, but clueless. Don’t take my word for it, either. The students on whom the NYPD is spying attend some of the highest-caliber universities in the world: Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and New York University, among others.
American Muslims are, in fact, the most accomplished and educated segment of the global population of 1.5 billion Muslims. Our successes are American successes, and they undeniable evidence of America’s pluralism and promise. Restrictions on our rights fuel extremist arguments that Muslims will never be accepted as equals in the West. For those like me who have spent years trying to shrink the trust deficit, this is a tremendous setback.
Put yourself in the shoes of an American Muslim student: One day, you learn that NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly cooperated in the production of a hateful pseudo-documentary on Islam — the film alleges American Muslim organizations are conspiring to take over the United States — even though his office initially denied his role in the project and hid the fact that the film was screened to some 1,500 officers. Would you feel that law enforcement still has your best interests in mind?
The NYPD’s surveillance efforts seem to be shockingly extensive and targeted specifically at American Muslims. As discovered by the Associated Press, which won a prestigious Polk Award for its investigation, the NYPD under Bloomberg has engaged in a massive effort to compile information on Muslims, including spying on New York City mosques. In the process, the NYPD has exceeded the limits set even by the FBI and has frequently pursued its investigations for no discernible purpose and based on no evident allegations. The only relevant consideration for the NYPD seems to have been that all Muslims are worth spying on.
On Feb. 22, we learned that the NYPD’s activities extend to Newark, New Jersey. The Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo reported that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was not told about what he termed the NYPD’s "disturbing" spying activities across state lines. Christie called for the state’s attorney general to investigate the NYPD’s actions, concluding on a note of frustration: "NYPD has developed a reputation of asking forgiveness rather than permission."
In his news conference, Bloomberg was dismissive regarding the concerns raised about the NYPD’s activities. He acknowledged that the department had to "respect people’s right to privacy" but argued that the NYPD had not violated that right. Confusingly, he also said that the NYPD had to be "proactive" and pursue "allegations" — though, again, no such allegations have come to light.
These revelations have produced tremendous frustration and disappointment in Muslim communities. On Feb. 20, the Muslim community at New York University held a students-only town-hall meeting to consider how to respond to NYPD actions. On Feb. 22, Columbia University held an open town hall that allowed many Muslim students to vent their concerns and fears. Similar discussions are taking place across the region.
Some might argue that the damage to American Muslims’ trust in the U.S. policing system caused by the NYPD’s activities is a necessary evil — a bearable cost in order to keep the city safe. They could hardly be more wrong.
The NYPD’s tactics have failed to yield any benefits to American security, in part because of the police force’s faulty assumption that religiosity causes terrorism. The equation of Islam with violence is the reason the NYPD believes it must spy on all Muslims. But this is ignorance masquerading as police work.
University of North Carolina sociologist Charles Kurzman has found that a remarkably small number of Muslims actually "radicalize," to use the common term, and subsequent research has demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of American Muslims reject terrorism. Gallup has also conducted polls finding that the more religious a Muslim is, the less likely he or she is to find violence attractive.
By undermining its relationship with American Muslims, the NYPD also risks making the United States less safe. Every U.S. law enforcement agency may have missed Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, but an immigrant Muslim vendor alerted authorities to the smoking SUV and in doing so saved many lives. He’s not alone. Blogger Aziz Poonawalla has exhaustively detailed the immense contributions American Muslims make to U.S. national security. For example, in the years following the 9/11 attacks, 40 percent of domestic terrorist plots by Muslims have been foiled through tips and assistance from American Muslims themselves. Since 2009, that number has jumped to 50 percent.
New York officials need to repair the damage that the NYPD has already done and take steps to ensure that its destructive tactics aren’t repeated. Bloomberg should acknowledge the NYPD’s wrongdoing, reveal the true scope of its clandestine activities, apologize for the real pain and harm it has caused, and establish a mechanism of civilian oversight to ensure that such activities do not take place again.
Targeting American Muslims for no other reason than their faith, across New York and the region — it’s worrying enough for Americans’ civil liberties. But the NYPD’s behavior also widens a worrying gap between law enforcement and the American Muslim community. "If you see something, say something," the NYPD tells us. But what happens when you have good reason to fear that if you say something, you’ll be the object of suspicion instead?
Let’s imagine you’re a young, alienated, impressionable Muslim college kid. Every day you hear common stereotypes about Islam and Muslims; when you turn on the news, all you see is inaccurate conflations of Islam with violence. You feel nobody understands you or your faith. There are only a few people you can talk to, who you trust will understand you, treat you with dignity and respect, and act with your best interests in mind. They probably include your local imam or college chaplain.
But you won’t ask the awkward questions if you believe everything you say is spied on, the places you go are monitored, and the police assume, based on your name or faith, that you are a danger to society.
Whom, then, will you turn to? And how does that make us any safer?