The problem with the NYPD's wanton disregard for the principle of
equal protection is that all US citizens are affected by the harmful
People of colour - including Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans -
have borne the brunt of the NYPD's Islamophobic policies, in which
Muslim Americans have become one of the latest targets of unwarranted
police attention. But it doesn't matter what your faith or skin colour
is: the biggest police department in the United States has policies that
are taking away everyone's civil rights.
The NYPD clearly operates a programme based on the bigoted (and
wrong) idea that the more religious you are, the more likely you are to
carry out a terrorist attack - if you're Muslim, that is. An ongoing investigation by the Associated Press
into the New York Police Department (NYPD) has uncovered the actions of
a "counter-terrorism" programme that has involved the extensive use of
discriminatory profiling against Muslim American communities.
The details of this programme are shocking. As discussed on Al Jazeera,
among the many outlandish efforts undertaken by the NYPD, police
officers went undercover and monitored the mundane daily activities of
Muslim American college students in New York and in many other states.
Police officers also recorded banal details about restaurants and
places of worship where Muslims often congregate. In developing some of
these programmes, the AP
found documents proving that the NYPD
coordinated with a CIA agent, which could indicate a gross violation of
the CIA's prohibition against engaging in domestic surveillance.
Several dozen advocacy organisations from around the country have asked for
state and federal investigations of the NYPD. So far, no formal
investigations have been announced. As a result, the NYPD's mistaken
idea that "more Muslim = more terrorism" has been left largely
unchallenged in the actual courts and in the court of public opinion.
Abuse of freedom
The impact of these programmes on Muslim American communities has
been profound. It's not an exaggeration to say that basic democratic
freedoms have been abused by the NYPD. A report from WNYC
found that Muslims have stopped "frequenting places out of fear of
being monitored, or avoiding discussion of politically sensitive
topics". This sounds like political oppression of the first order.
Unfortunately, the damage wrought by the NYPD's anti-Muslim programme
extends far beyond the Muslim American community. Anyone in the United
States who fits the racialised description of "Muslim" (having a beard,
wearing a headdress, having brown skin) can expect to face increased
discrimination as the result of the legitimation of the NYPD's
The legitimacy afforded this sort of knee-jerk bigotry by the NYPD is
all too simple. If it's okay for the NYPD to single out Muslims, when
the NYPD is a brave force for public safety and service, then it must be
okay for any law-abiding American to feel the same way towards Muslims
or anyone who looks Muslim. The widespread approval of the anti-Muslim
approach among New Yorkers is perhaps the most troubling part of this
The AP began its extensive reporting on the NYPD's discriminatory programmes in August 2011, but a February 2012 poll and a March 2012 poll
of New York City voters found that nearly 60 per cent felt that the
NYPD has acted "appropriately", with only 20 per cent saying the police
department "unfairly targeted Muslims". As if to underscore the idea
that the NYPD can do no wrong, on March 5, a few dozen Muslim Americans
rallied with conservative Congressman Peter King (R-NY) to express their
support for the NYPD.
Despite the recent outpouring of support of these discriminatory
programmes, a federal investigation of the NYPD's practices is sorely
needed. It's likely that if the NYPD's crudely constructed policies of
religious and racial profiling were brought into the courts, the
judicial principle of strict scrutiny would definitively show that the NYPD had grossly violated the constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
Strict scrutiny is the standard applied by the courts to determine
whether the government can move beyond constitutional limits due to
extraordinary circumstances. It's called "strict" because the government
must rise to a tripartite standard: first, it must prove that it has a
compelling interest; second, that the policy is narrowly tailored to
achieve that interest; and, finally, the policy must use the least
restrictive means to achieve that interest.
Preventing terrorism is, undoubtedly, a compelling state interest. But spying on anyone who happens to be in a mosque or restaurant cannot possibly be "narrowly tailored". Similarly, a programme so paranoid that it spied on its own anti-terrorism partners and kept track of any Muslim who changed their name clearly isn't the "least restrictive means" towards achieving the goal of anti-terrorism.
The case for proving that the NYPD has violated the constitution
appears easy to prove in a court. The inability of Muslim American and
civil liberties advocates to get these programmes into the courts, so
far, is another sign of political oppression.
What might be even worse than the flagrant violation of civil rights,
however, is that the NYPD programme is likely to make New York and the
rest of the country less safe from terrorism. The best scholarship on
terrorism suggests that devout Muslims are very unlikely to join up with terrorists
A February 2012 report
from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security concluded
that terrorism from Muslim Americans was a "miniscule threat to public
safety". An earlier report from the same centre found that Muslim American "practices" effectively "prevent radicalisation".
Getting it wrong
The authors of that study suggest a seven-step process to further
reduce the "serious, but limited, problem" of terrorism linked to Muslim
Americans. The NYPD's discriminatory programmes do the exact opposite
of nearly all of these recommendations:
- Encourage political mobilisation (the NYPD programme has the opposite effect)
- Promote public denunciations of violence (Muslim Americans worked with NYPD counter-terrorism efforts)
- Reinforce self-policing by improving relationships between law
enforcement and Muslim American communities (NYPD programmes have
severely damaged trust between police officers and Muslim Americans)
- Assist community-building efforts (NYPD programmes do the opposite)
- Promote outreach by social service agencies (NYPD programmes will
likely encourage fear from interaction with any government agency)
- Support enhanced religious literacy (NYPD programmes spread the
false assertion that being more religious makes one more likely to
become a terrorist)
- Increase civil rights enforcement (NYPD programmes undermine the 14th Amendment's basic tenet of civil rights)
The conclusion is simple: the NYPD must shut down these anti-Muslim
programmes immediately. That, unfortunately, would only begin the
process of repairing the damage that has been done to civil rights and
US counter-terrorism efforts. The effort to destroy the bigoted and
wrong idea that Muslims - and those who "look like" Muslims - are more
likely to be terrorists will be a difficult battle for civil rights
They have to contend against the multi-million-dollar Islamophobia industry,
which has pumped more than $40m into political campaigns and propaganda
that has made Muslim-bashing an effective campaign strategy in local,
state, and national politics. As long as the NYPD is on the side of the
Muslim-bashers, the civil rights advocates will make very little
The bottom line is this: The terrorists who attacked the United
States on 9/11 wanted to destroy the American way of life. They wanted
to strike a blow against values such as equality, liberty, and the rule
of law. We shouldn't help the terrorists by destroying these things on
Erik Love is an ISPU Fellow and an Assistant Professor of Sociology
at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
This article was published by Al Jazeera on March 19, 2012. Read it here.