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
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
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.
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
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
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
Whom, then, will you turn to? And how does that
make us any safer?
Moghul is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. He is a fellow at the
Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and the
Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
This article was published by Foreign Policy on February 24, 2012. Read it here.