What It Feels Like to Be Spied On For Your Religion

PHOTO: New York University (NYU) students attend a town hall to discuss the NYPDs surveillance of Muslim communities.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Almost exactly a year ago, the Associated Press obtained a declassified document revealing that the New York City Police Department monitored student activities of Muslim Student Associations (MSA) in at least 15 colleges across the northeast, including at some of the nation's top schools, like Yale University and UPenn.

On Monday, civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit against the NYPD for routinely observing Muslims in restaurants, mosques and cafes without due cause -- practices which were uncovered in a series by the AP. Lawyers argue that the widespread surveillance of the Muslim communities violates a 1985 court decision and are seeking a court order against further surveillance of Muslims without evidence of wrongdoing as well as a new court-appointed overseer of police espionage activities.

When the declassified document came out last February, it sent a chill through the Ivy Muslim Conference, a gathering of 130 Muslim students that was taking place at Yale that weekend. In a large dining hall, the AP story circulated quietly on dozens of iPhones and BlackBerries.

"The first reaction of most students was just utter shock of being spied on when you haven't done anything wrong," said Omer Bajwa, the current Chaplain of Muslim Life at Yale. "And then came fundamental questions about why they are spying on us."

Bajwa said that Yale's MSA would be classified as "moderate to liberal" on scales used by some in the field to evaluate religious fundamentalism.

"Here is this group of well-intentioned, moderate Muslims, the farthest category of people from those the NYPD should be concerned about, and now we have to defend ourselves from the terrorism insinuation that comes with that news," Bajwa said. "We felt insulted, and humiliated, but also very perplexed."

The document obtained by the AP revealed that the NYPD tracked Muslim student websites and blogs daily and sent at least one undercover officer to monitor a white water rafting trip with students from the City College of New York. The surveillance occurred almost 6 years ago, and is said to have discontinued, but the paranoia that it may still be happening remains.

Bajwa said that students were fearful in the weeks following the news, approaching him to discuss the possibilities of there being informants in their classes who would misconstrue their words. Others, like women who wear head-coverings, expressed fear that they would be targets of islamophobia because the recent news would insinuate some sort of guilt on their part, he said.

Although Yale's President Rick Levin stood up in defense of Yale's Muslim study body, arguing 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," few other non-Muslims leaders or public figures publicly opposed the surveillance of MSA students.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended his program against Levin's attacks in an interview with the AP.

"If going on websites and looking for information is not what Yale stands for, I don't know.... It's the freedom of information ... Of course we're gonna look at anything that's publicly available and in the public domain. We have an obligation to do so. And it is to protect the very things that let Yale survive," Bloomberg said.

The NYPD denies participating in any activities that violate the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans, and says they do not run surveillance operations indiscriminately. Still, an AP interview with a former paid informant who said he was paid to 'bait' innocent Muslims into making incendiary statements directly countered the NYPD's claims.

The most senior intelligence chief in the NYPD, David Cohen, said that he wanted an informant in every mosque "within a 250-mile radius" of the city, according to AP reports.

"Take a big net, throw it out, catch as many fish as you can and see what we get," one investigator, quoted by the AP, recalled Cohen saying.

Glenn Katon, the legal director of Muslim Advocates, an organization devoted to protecting Muslim civil liberties, says that the news of the large surveillance structure has put the entire Muslim community on edge in the Northeast, for fear they are being watched at every turn.

"Somehow in our country we've come to accept discrimination in our country against Muslims as okay, because a very tiny handful of people committed terrible acts," Katon said. "But all kinds of people do all kinds of crazy things, even sometimes in the name of religion, and yet we don't use that to persecute an entire religion the way we have with Muslims."

However, supporters of the NYPD surveillance program say that singling out Muslims is an unfortunate side effect of fighting a real war on terror.

"Some of the most dangerous Western Al Qaeda-linked [or] inspired terrorists since 9/11 were radicalized [or] recruited at universities in MSAs," Paul J. Browne, the Police Department's chief spokesman told the New York Times at the time.

The late Edward Koch, former Mayor of New York City, echoed Browne's words in an editorial in March.

"The people living in New York City are entitled to protection from terrorists, whoever they are. Today, they are overwhelmingly, indeed nearly exclusively, Islamic terrorists seeking to destroy Western civilization," he wrote.

But, according to most recent estimates, this common conception isn't quite right. Sixty-one percent of the 337 people indicted for terrorism-related activities in the 10 years following 9/11 attacks were jihadists, and the remainder subscribed to unrelated ideologies, including white supremacy and extreme anti-government school of thought, according to recent data collected by the New America Foundation. Since 9/11, more people have died in terrorist attacks in the U.S. that were motivated by other ideologies that have nothing to do with jihadist principles, than those that were, the data set indicates.

CNN's National Security Analyst Peter Bergen argues these numbers "suggest enforcement's tendency to regard Muslim-American communities as the most likely source of terrorism risks missing the threat from other extremists." Check out Bergen's full breakdown here.

Recent controversy regarding the surveillance program is part of a larger debate over whether the erosion of privacy rights will lead to increased safety. In the more than six years of spying on Muslims, the NYPD's former unit devoted to surveilling Muslim Americans never generated a lead or brought about a terrorism investigation, the department admitted in August of last year.

Nafez Al Dakkak, a Palestinian from Jordan, graduated from Yale two years ago. There, he won the award for the best senior essay in the International Studies major. Now working in Amman for an education NGO, Al Dakkak professes that he's "in love with a lot of what America stands for domestically" despite his grievances with some of their foreign policy and for their treatment of Muslims at home.

"As an international college student, all I wanted to do was fit in, feel part of the U.S. and what it stands for. It's a great country," he wrote in an email. But Al Dakkak, like many of his fellow Muslim students, was aware the government was watching him carefully.

"I was fully aware that I was under surveillance at Yale. The way I was treated at JFK [Airport] left very little doubt," he said. Al Dakkak says he was placed on a special post-9/11 list called NSEERS based on Homeland Security formula of potential threats. Every time he flew back to Yale from summer break he would endure a 3-hour wait and interview process at the airport. The NSEERS program was ended last year after "input from community community groups and advocacy organizations."

"It got so bad they even made me give them all my credit card numbers. I'm not sure what they did with any of that information or if they ever thought of me as a serious suspect. I must say though it was very confusing and at times, demeaning," he said.

Al Dakkak says his parents asked him not to pray in public and not to identify himself as Muslim, so as not draw any added attention to himself. Despite his worries, Al Dakkak made Yale his home and came to love the U.S. and the friends he made there.

"But the officers at JFK never failed to remind me that I wasn't really welcome in the country," he said.

Some supporters of the NYPD program, which is said to have discontinued on college campuses, say that if the Muslim American students aren't doing anything wrong, then the extra surveillance shouldn't bother them.

Mostafa Al-Alusi, the President of the Yale MSA, says this an argument he's seen too often on internet comment sections, and its one with which he strongly disagrees.

"Just the fact that we were chosen by the NYPD makes the American public think that something must be up and that could cause real harm in the Muslim community in the future," said Al-Alusi in reference to the dramatic rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. In 2010 and 2011 combined there were more than 300 documented cases of such crimes.

The paranoia of being watched also adds another level of stress for Muslim students, Al-Alusi says. Wondering who might be gathering information, which of your words could be misconstrued and how that information could be used in the future is a constant worry for some students, he said.

Al-Alusi also believes that if the NYPD really wants to fight terrorism effectively, they would do well to partner with students like those Muslim students at Yale rather than spy on them.

"You're not going to find more thoroughly American Muslims than the Muslims at American universities," said Al-Alusi, a San Diego native whose parents are Iraqi.

"If the NYPD or any branch of government wants to understand how we think, or how other Muslims think, they should talk to us, we are a resource for them, we want to help them. They shouldn't presume a relationship of distrust."

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