NYPD Surveillance of Muslims Has Created a Climate of Fear
New York University Muslim chaplain Khalid Latif leads a roundtable discussion at New York University in 2012. Police surveillance has targeted Muslim student associations as part of its surveillance program. (AP Photo/Frank Fanklin II.)
A new report released last week by a coalition of Muslim civil liberties groups paints a grim picture of the targeting of Muslims in the NYPD’s post-9/11 anti-terrorism surveillance operations. The report, “Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Impact on American Muslims,” tells how the NYPD’s extensive surveillance—always in the name of national security—has created a climate of fear and distrust among Muslims, has had a chilling effect on their ability to worship freely at mosques, and has deterred organization around Muslim civil rights issues.
Report co-author Diala Shamas, an attorney with Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR), said the research, which included 57 interviews with Muslims living in the New York City area, is a response to long held concerns that the NYPD is infringing on the constitutional freedoms of Muslims. “We wanted to show the community’s response to the NYPD’s claim that this surveillance is harmless,” said Shamas. (CLEAR is a project run out of the City University of New York’s School of Law.)
Among the report’s key findings: individuals reported heavy surveillance of the city’s mosques as places of suspected radicalization, which has made individuals wary when attending services; and the fear of being targeted by law enforcement has led to self-censorship and decreased involvement in community groups like Muslim Student Associations. A particular concern cited in the report is the department’s deployment of an unknown number of undercover informants throughout the city,. “You look at your closest friends and ask: are they informants?” said one respondent.
Shamas says CLEAR along with the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund were inspired to write the report after a 2011 Associated Press investigative series revealed that the NYPD’s counter-terrorism efforts in and around New York City post 9/11 were heavily focused on surveillance of Muslims. The series described a secret “Demographic Unit”—since renamed the “Zone Assessments Unit"—within the department’s Intelligence Division, which focuses on tracking individuals from predominantly Muslim “ancestries of interest.” The NYPD’s counterterrorism strategy, which was developed in part by former and current CIA officials, has focused on “intelligence collection” intended to thwart potential terrorist plots through the heavy scrutiny of so-called Muslim “hot spots” such as mosques.
While there has been much debate over the department’s focus on Muslims in its counter-terrorism strategy, the response from the city’s Muslims has been muted. Many are afraid to speak out, according to the “Mapping Muslims” report. Most of those interviewed are identified under pseudonyms, and say they feel intimidated by the police scrutiny. Respondents described overt surveillance such as unmarked police cars outside the mosques. Others said the fear that they might be targeted by law enforcement has led them to avoid discussions of politics in public places like cafes. Still others said fear of “looking and acting Muslim” has led them to avoid wearing traditional Islamic clothing such as headscarves. “There’s always been a sense of stereotyping about dress,” said one community organizer. “But now the veil thing has become more than just about being different. It has become charged with suspicion.”
The NYPD’s use of undercover informants in terrorist-related sting operations in the past decade has further added to the wariness of Muslims in speaking about political issues or even mentioning the word ‘jihad’ in public for fear of eliciting further surveillance. “Free speech isn’t a privilege that Muslims have,” said Ahsan Samad, a 26-year-old interviewee from Brooklyn. The result, said respondents in the report, has been increased difficulty in organizing politically to criticize the NYPD’s policies. “Almost every rally and public forum I’ve attended in the last year begins with some type of disclaimer or call-out of informants and undercovers who might be in attendance and recording the conversation,” said Cyrus McGoldrick, a community organizer. “Most speakers don’t even know if such a disclaimer protects them in any way, but I feel it to be a necessary announcement so that the audience participants are conscious of the environment in which we are organizing.”
The report documents how the NYPD surveillance program has damaged the department’s relationship with the Muslim community, leading to a breakdown in trust that makes the community less likely to turn to law enforcement for help in filing complaints or reporting hate crimes.
Shamas, whose organization, CLEAR, has been running Know-Your-Rights workshops for individuals approached by law enforcement, says that the Muslim community has tried to enter into a dialogue with the NYPD but has not been successful so far. The report, which makes recommendations to the NYPD to overhaul its counterterrorism program, including disbanding the “Zone Assessments Unit” and ending blanket surveillance of the city’s Muslims, was intended in part to start a dialogue with the police.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment from The Nation, but said in a statement issued by spokesman Paul Browne that the department “protects the rights of all New Yorkers and has made certain both its counterterrorism and intelligence programs and procedures pass constitutional muster.”