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Report Details Impact of NYPD Muslim Surveillance Program on Community, Students

Imagine 2050 Staff • Mar 20, 2013

A sign in the Muslim Students Association (MSA) room at Hunter College, New York City encapsulates the climate that reigns within student groups following news of sprawling NYPD surveillance. “Read this” pointed to a print-out of a press article by reporter Len Levitt, among the first to unveil the NYPD’s surveillance program.

By Kalia Abiade

“It’s as if the law says: the more Muslim you are, the more trouble you can be, so decrease your Islam.” –          Sari*, 19, Brooklyn College.

Traditionally, college is a time when many young adults begin solidifying their political, social and religious identities, and it’s often a place where many feel free to test the boundaries of the First Amendment through speech and activism. However, many Muslim students in the northeast are operating within a climate of fear after learning the details of an extensive and intrusive New York Police Department surveillance program.

That was just one of the findings of a report released earlier this month by civil liberties organizations led by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition. The report, Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Effect on American Muslims, used interviews with 57 individual Muslims to contextualize a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative series by the Associated Press and earlier public documents from the NYPD.

The documents and reports showed that the NYPD systematically spied on Muslims in their homes, mosques, restaurants, social spaces and on college campuses, with none of the monitoring yielding “a single criminal lead.”

Recent news reports show that the NYPD’s tactics are not unique to their agency and are even being used by organizations that have little to do with law enforcement.

Many students, and other community members, have long been told that they have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide. The report’s authors set out to show that, while that notion sounds ideal, it’s not actually true. “We wanted to show the community’s response to the NYPD’s claim that this surveillance is harmless,” said co-author Diala Shamas, an attorney with Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR), a City University New York project. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) also contributed to the report.

City lawmakers are responding to the outcry: They reached a deal Tuesday to install an inspector general to monitor the NYPD. The plan comes amid the backlash over the spying and the agency’s practice of “stop and frisk,” which is being challenged in court this week in a class-action lawsuit.

Students proved to be especially vulnerable to the effects of the surveillance. The report said that many students were more reluctant to seem outwardly Muslim and thus reconsidered wearing headscarves, growing beards or associating with other Muslims. Many of those who did meet and socialize with other Muslims, often through the Muslim Students Associations (MSA), felt overwhelmed by the idea of their events and activities being infiltrated. One undercover agent even joined students on a weekend whitewater rafting trip and documented how many times the group gathered to pray.

MSA leaders say, because of the suspicion of spies within the group, the organization is not able to provide a “safe space to discuss the very issues that are silencing them,” the report said. Students can become leery of one another, especially when a new convert or unknown student joins in.

Additionally, some professors and campus leaders said the fear of surveillance caused many students to limit their speech in classes when sensitive topics, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would arise.

Some students, the report said, found themselves veering away from “politics” altogether. “You get this climate, and the parents feel even more emboldened to say “just be an engineer, just go to med school. Why do you have to do all this other stuff?” Brooklyn College Professor Jeanne Theoharis said in the report.

Unfortunately, the NYPD is not alone in their attempts to spy on students and communities. One undercover FBI informant in Orange County posed as an enthusiastic new Muslim convert and made so many odd and incendiary remarks that mosque attendees reported him to the very agency that sent him.

More recently, a reporter from the conservative and anti-Muslim website, FrontPage Magazine, assumed a Muslim-sounding name and “infiltrated” MSA’s West Zone conference last month but came away disappointed. Mark Tapson said of the conference:

“It was largely very innocuous. I mean, there was nothing beyond what I’ve already told you, really. There was very little that you’d consider radical. Highly politicized, yes, but nothing damning.”

Yet, Tapson and radio host Janet Mefferd insisted that the conference was part of a Muslim Brotherhood plot to sow the seeds of radicalization among young people. “It’s all about the younger generation. And, politicizing and organizing that younger generation in campus groups and strengthening their sense of community as Muslims, strengthening their campus activism, that’s all, that’s a very important goal because it radicalizes them and it steers them toward further radicalization down the line. So, yeah, it’s all about capturing the hearts and minds of the young.”

There is no sign that law enforcement agencies or other groups plan to end their surveillance programs anytime soon. This is especially true when “experts” such as Steven Emerson and Walid Shoebat are hired by law enforcement agencies to educate officers on Islam and Muslims.

The previously released NYPD documents and the AP series show that NYPD’s surveillance efforts are recognizable as a continuation of a long-history of institutional spying based on affiliation or race. This recent report demonstrates the impact that can have and why we should all be concerned.

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