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Rutgers Muslim students fearful for future in wake of NYPD surveillance

By Andy Urban
Religion News Service

There are Rutgers students and graduates whose futures are in jeopardy because they were placed under surveillance by the NYPD — operating outside of its jurisdiction — for no other reason than they practice Islam.

This troubling reality is at the heart of the lawsuit Hassan v. City of New York, which was argued before judges of the Third Circuit Appellate Court in Philadelphia in January. One of the Rutgers plaintiffs taking part in the complaint worries that she will not be able to pursue a career in international social work, since background checks will link her to a spying program that incorrectly claimed it would expose the “likely whereabouts of terrorists.”

Rutgers students had no connections to terrorist activities whatsoever. Their “wrongdoing” amounts to being members of the campus Muslim Student Associations in Newark and New Brunswick, which were infiltrated by undercover NYPD agents.

The injuries caused by the NYPD’s spying do not end with damaged career prospects. The emotional and psychological effects of surveillance can also be seen in the anxiety that the Rutgers plaintiffs express about discussing their religion or praying in public, since any behavior that identifies them as Muslim has been deemed grounds for suspicion.

Last year, Newark District Court Judge William J. Martini granted New York City’s motion to dismiss Hassan v. City of New York during the case’s initial hearing, and denied the plaintiffs legal standing on the grounds that they could not prove “injury in fact.” This dubious conclusion writes off spying as innocuous and harmless.

Teaching at Rutgers, I have found that many non-Muslim students instinctively conclude that the surveillance of their Muslim classmates, however secretive, was nonetheless based on plausible suspicion. This is unequivocally not the case. Representing a decorated Army veteran, African-American imams in Newark, a butcher, and school teachers, the plaintiffs in Hassan v. City of New York have little in common. They share only a Muslim faith, which automatically made them targets. Their ‘wrongdoing’ amounts to being members of the campus Muslim Student Associations in Newark and New Brunswick.

In April 2014, NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton officially shuttered the Demographics Unit, the euphemistically named squad that conducted surveillance in New Jersey, in favor of gathering intelligence through open dialogues with Muslim communities. A sworn deposition from the NYPD admitted that when it came to generating actual leads, the program was a resounding failure.

Hassan v. City of New York remains important however, since it seeks a permanent injunction against the resumption of unlawful spying programs. It also calls for all surveillance records to be expunged, in order to protect the reputations of innocent individuals. In this context, it is disappointing to hear that Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to support New York City’s attempts to get the case dismissed. There are of course financial and political motives explaining this stance. Still, the parallels to “stop and frisk” — where de Blasio took the high road and accepted responsibility for the city’s unconstitutional actions — are clear.

As Baher Azmy, the Center for Constitutional Rights’ attorney arguing the case on behalf of the plaintiffs stated before the court in Philadelphia, “Religion cannot be a proxy for suspicion any more than race can.”

From a university standpoint, it is equally discouraging that Rutgers administration has taken no measure to directly denounce the Demographics Unit’s surveillance program, or to support former students who are now plaintiffs in Hassan v. City of New York. Rutgers only official statement on the matter has been to declare that it was unaware of the spying.

This was issued back in 2012 after the Associated Press revealed in an investigative series that the Demographics Unit was running a command center and safe house adjacent to the New Brunswick campus. That an institution of higher education would decline to involve itself in an important case that will shape the right of its students to freely study, pray, and socialize, without facing risks to their future, seems to be an abdication of mission.

Fortunately, Muslim Americans at Rutgers have refused to be intimidated or let their anxiety silence them. One small silver lining from all this is that a whole generation of student have been compelled to learn, whether they wanted to or not, that it is essential to battle for their civil liberties.

Editor’s note: Andy Urban is an assistant professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. His views are his own.

Gujarat Campaign “Fast” Lane

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

location_map_of_GujaratNEW DELHI/AHMEDABAD: The three-day fast of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, which concluded this Monday (September 19), has raised many eyebrows as well as questions. It is difficult for secular observers and critics to accept reasons given by Modi for his Sadbhavna (goodwill) fast, aimed towards “peace, unity and harmony.” Modi apparently has taken this step with the hope that its political importance and media coverage will help change his own image from that of a communal, extremist to a secular Indian who believes in development of all. In his words: “Every chief minister has a national role. My work is to do something good on Earth. It is for others to give it words.”

Dismissing “news” about this fast being a reflection of ambition to become the country’s prime minister, Modi said: “I want to tell the world that sabka saath, sabka vikas (cooperation of all, development of all) is the way of development. Gujarat has got a name in development. I have worked for development of all. I have given this an ideological base.”

The three-day fast has certainly helped Modi gain substantial media-coverage and socio-political attention. Yet, except for his own political colleagues, the others are not willing to believe Modi’s claims about development of “all.” Besides, three days, even three decades, are not sufficient to forget the 2002 Gujarat-carnage, when the state government failed to provide adequate security to Muslims who were targeted by right-winged elements linked with saffron brigade, with which Modi is also strongly associated. The wounds of Muslim sufferers have not healed yet and will never heal for those who lost their near and dear ones and possessions. The sufferers have not yet received any compensation. There has been no news of Gujarat government having played even a minor role in rehabilitating the troubled Muslims. The criminals have not yet received adequate punishment. In other words, justice and prospects of a better future in Gujarat still remain dismal for Muslims who faced the 2002-carnage. 

Despite Modi having begun his fast on his birthday (September 17), he claimed: “I have never celebrated my birthday. This is the only day of the year I don’t meet anyone, I don’t talk to anyone, I don’t celebrate my birthday. But because Saturday and Sunday was convenient, that’s why I chose this day, this has got nothing to do with my birthday.”

Modi is not unaware of the fact that Gujarat-carnage is projected as a dark chapter in history of India and his political image. Amazingly, the very politician who at one time justified and also allegedly played a prominent role in fuelling the communal carnage now talks in a totally different tone. Refusing to take any responsibility, Modi said: “What moral responsibility for riots am I being asked to take? My government did its best.” He even said: “I have suffered in my heart for those who suffered and were victims of the 2002 riots. We acted with power and toughness to get life back in order.”
Indicating that Gujarat will not witness the 2002-carnage again, Modi said: “I want to assure the country and all communities that we will not go below the parameters of humanity. Every second of my life is devoted to the people of the country.”

Around 30-40 years ago, “there was complete communal disharmony” provoking “violence and curfew” on even small discords leading to, as Modi said: “When a child was born he/she learnt the word curfew before learning mummy and papa.” Now, Modi claimed: “There is no sign of disharmony. Gujarat has realized the strength of brotherhood. And this learning has not come through any preaching or advice, but through the fruits of development. Our growth has assured us that unity is our strength.”

While Modi may have accepted and started saying that “communal politicking” is not his political agenda, his opponents, including political rivals, riot victims and social activists still refuse to accept his rhetoric. Several civil rights activists, a group called Jan Sangarsh Manch (JSM) and a large number of riot victims gathered near a mosque at Narodia Patia to protest against Modi’s Sadbhavana-fast. They called their demonstration Sachi Sadbhavna (True Goodwill). However, even before the event began, the policemen trooped in and detained more than 50 activists for several hours on the ground that they did not have the administration’s permission to protest (September 18).

Not willing to be outdone by Modi, Congress leaders in Gujarat began their fast an hour earlier than him. They also strongly criticized Modi for wasting taxpayers’ by holding a “five-star” fast. “If there is a justifiable cause for fast by the chief minister, we can understand it. He is saying this fast is for sadbhavna, but his fast is based on farce, falsehood and corruption,” Shankersinh Vaghela said.

While Modi held his fast in an air-conditioned hall, Vaghela and Arjun Modhwadia held theirs called, Satyagrah (for truth against misdeeds of Modi government) on a footpath in front of Sabarmati Ashram. Describing Modi’s fast as “corruption,” Vaghela said: “What was the necessity to spend several millions of public money? If he (Modi) wanted to fast, he could have done that at home also.” Modi’s fast was a tamasha (show), Vaghela said.

Questioning Modi’s claims of development, Vaghela listed several allegations of corruption against Gujarat government. Besides, he said: “The state public debt has mounted to billions, about which the people of Gujarat are not aware. This is the kind of development he is talking about.” “We want to show to the people that this is a corrupt government,” Vaghela said.

Referring to Gujarat-carnage, Vaghela said: “Now, Modi wants to project himself as a messiah of the minorities by undertaking such a fast and wants to show that he is their protector.”

Irrespective of what their actual intentions are, with Gujarat to go for assembly polls in 2012, clearly both the parties- Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress have begun their campaigns by making lots of voice about their “fasts.”

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