This video and post was originally produced on March 1, 2012, by the independent campus blog NYU Local. It was made just after NYPD surveillance of Muslim NYU students was reported by the AP. The university’s branch of the Islamic Student Association orginized a town hall to discuss the news, and demand that NYU’s president, John Sexton, publicly condemn the monitoring. Sadly still relevant, we have republished this post in conjunction with the Nation‘s recent Islamophobia special issue.
Many of the students wore shirts reading “NYUnited” in large letters above the phrase “where liberty is, there is my university,” a take off a quote by Benjamin Franklin. Some held signs with messages decrying the NYPD’s actions: “Big Brother is Watching,” “NYPD Is Spying On Us” and “Students Deserve Privacy.”
Speaking from a podium at the base of Kimmel’s cascading staircase, professors and students from a variety of faiths and university programs addressed the controversy from a variety of perspectives. Most saw the surveillance as more than a religious issue, but rather indicative of larger national problems related to the tension between privacy and security.
Professor J. Ward Regan of the Liberal Studies Program made this clear when he opened his comments. “Generally, I’m relatively agnostic on matters of faith. I am not agnostic on matters of human rights,” he said. Regan cited the NYPD’s argument that “several convicted terrorists had been involved in Muslim student associations.” He went on, “by that logic, we should be spying on MBAs at the Stern Business School because bankers commit crimes!” Applause, cheers and laughter overtook the crowd.
Others spoke of the personal impact of the NYPD’s program. CAS Senior Tabassum Rahman read a letter to President Sexton in which she spoke of the psychological fear inspired by surveillance. Rahman said that with the knowledge that she may have been the subject of the NYPD’s information gathering, stepping out into public made her fear being watched. “No one wants to be included in an NYPD report,” she said.
The multi-faith nature of the event was particularly evident when Ariel Ennis, an NYU senior, took to the podium. “If my yarmulke didn’t give it away, I am Jewish,” Ennis began. Ennis is a member of Bridges Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Dialogue, through which students of each faith experience the other’s worship services and work together on community service project. “What that says is that despite religious differences, members of our communities can be friends,” Ennis said. He went on to read a passage from a work by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel titled “No Religion Is An Island:”
We may disagree about the ways of achieving fear and trembling, but the fear and trembling are the same. The demands are different, but the conscience is the same, and so is arrogance, iniquity. The proclamations are different, the callousness is the same, and so is the challenge we face in many moments of spiritual agony.
The event attracted a wide audience. Marc Wais, Vice President for Student Affairs, sat for some time to the side of the staircase and listened to a number of the speakers. NY1 filmed outside Kimmel while a Wall Street Journal reporter spoke to attendees within.
After 13 speakers and a brief period of open comments, the students proceeded to John Sexton’s Town Hall on Greene Street. At the standing-room-only event, Islamic Students Association President Ahman Raza asked the first question.
“We ask that you publicly condemn the actions of the NYPD and ask them to what extent their surveillance was conducted here at NYU in the form of an official university statement, just like Rutgers, Yale, Hunter and Columbia have done. We also ask that you send a letter to students, alums, and parents assuring them that the university had no prior knowledge of the surveillance and that the community will be supported to the best of the University’s abilities.”
In typical Sexton fashion, the president did not arrive at his answer immediately. However, he ultimately stated that “We are doing everything that we can to ensure that there isn’t any inappropriate surveillance of our students. We don’t know of any yet.” Sexton said that Jules Martin, the head of Public Safety and a former NYPD officer, had been in communication with the NYPD and had found no evidence of surveillance. Further, Sexton stated, “I can say that there was not scintilla of cooperation on this campus. We learned about this at the same time that you learned about this.”
However, Sexton did not promise a formal university statement, saying instead, “this is being videotaped and posted. I’ve authorized you to use my letter publicly as much as you want. I have a personal stake in this.”
Sexton had previously addressed a letter [PDF] to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, in which he wrote, “I must report our community’s alarm over the reports of this activity, and that we stand in fellowship with our Muslim students in expressing our community’s dismay.”
Post by Brett Chamberlin, video by Jorge Morillo and McKenzie Beehler for NYU Local.