NEW YORK – After 9/11, a secret New York Police Department (NYPD) program began targeting American Muslims simply because of their faith and no evidence of wrongdoing. The NYPD has been tracking and monitoring Muslim communities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and perhaps other regions as well. The program’s goal is to track the movements and activities of as many Muslims in the tri-state area as possible, including producing a secret report on each mosque located near New York City and recruiting an informant inside every mosque within a 250-mile radius. Over more than a decade, and at enormous cost to the taxpayers, this program failed to produce a single lead.
The reason that it has failed is that it is based on a premise that is flawed at its core: that faith can predict criminality.
For many of us, where and how we pray is a vitally important, personal aspect of our lives. It gives us strength through tragedy, a sense of community, and a way to make sense of the world. Faith is not a conspiracy. It does not indicate anything other than a common belief in a higher power. On Jan. 13, Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights presented oral argument in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to challenge the constitutionality of the NYPD spying program. Too many of us have been victimized by the police – the very people who are supposed to protect us – based on the assumption that we are threats. We must prevent this program from continuing and ever being considered again.
Farhana Khera (Photo Credit: Muslim Advocates)
Through this program, heads of the NYPD map Muslim “communities of interest” for surveillance, targeting Muslim immigrant and African American Muslim communities. The NYPD then spy and take notes on innocent American Muslims carrying out ordinary tasks during their day– from grocery shopping and visits to the barbershop to attending a girl’s middle school – every moment secretly captured by the NYPD on the off chance they would say or do something suspicious. After violating these Americans’ rights, in addition to yielding absolutely nothing to keep anyone safer, the program has alienated American Muslims who were trying to live their lives just like everyone else and reinforced for non-Muslim communities the misperception that anything associated with Islam is suspect.
This has a severe impact on Muslim individuals and communities. According to a study conducted in 2013, Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims, the domestic spying program discouraged Muslim New Yorkers from worshipping at mosques, studying with other Muslim students, and even contacting the police during emergencies. One of the lead plaintiffs in the case, Syed Farhaj Hassan, an Iraq War Army veteran, stopped visiting his certain mosques for prayer once he discovered they had been swept up in the NYPD surveillance program. He noted a simple reason for his departure: “I stopped going to a mosque because I was in fear that my security clearance would be in danger.” When people feel threatened by law enforcement, it fundamentally shifts the way they look at the world. What should be protection instead becomes a threat.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, several political leaders have suggested the bigoted notion that spying on American Muslims is justified. Representative Peter King (R-NY) claimed that the Paris shooting was proof that the NYPD surveillance program worked: “The fact is it’s coming from the Muslim community and it shows that the NYPD and Ray Kelly were right for so many years when they were really saturating areas where they thought the threat was coming from.” Interestingly enough, this week NYPD Police Commissioner Bratton admitted that, for a recently disbanded unit that spied on American Muslims: “Nobody can point to any particular terrorism threat or plot or information that was useful in deterring any of those threats or plots.” Rather, recent events in Europe remind us that law enforcement should be focused on following legitimate leads and credible intelligence, not innocent people, to thwart acts of violence and keep us safe.
The brave plaintiffs in the federal case heard in court this week seek to regain the rights and dignity stripped from so many Americans simply because of their faith. As long as police and elected officials view American Muslims with suspicion, the likelihood remains that our community will continue to face discriminatory spying.
The NYPD program is proof that domestic surveillance is ineffective and damaging to the American Muslim community, and in fact to communities of all faiths. All Americans should be able to create a life for themselves where they are allowed to choose how to pray and express themselves, without fearing persecution from the government. American Muslims are no exception.
Editor’s Note: Farhana Khera is the Executive Director of Muslim Advocates and was former Counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The views expressed here are her own.