The NYPD and the Surveillance of Muslim Americans

March 13, 2012

Photo by Jonathan Mcintosh, cc, Flickr

Americans in New York routinely
with the New York Police Department, providing them with tips, reporting
suspicious behavior, and welcoming officers in their midst. In exchange, the NYPD sets up a massive
clandestine intelligence network, spies on and monitors Muslim Americans
in the greater New York area as well as across the Northeast, denies that it
exists, declares it fine and dandy (as well as constitutional) once it’s
exposed, and condemns naysayers as naive and foolish.
Muslim college students in
are the subject of secret surveillance, both online and off, without
the knowledge of university authorities, and, in some cases, without
even the knowledge
of other local law enforcement. Muslim Americans are
shocked, disappointed, and hurt.

stories, which first broke in the fall of last year, and for which a team of AP
reporters recently won
the Polk award
in journalism, are the latest in a series of revelations in recent months about the NYPD’s secret
efforts to identify, locate and document the activities of Muslim Americans in the
years after 9/11. Informants and undercover officers posed as fellow students
in Muslim Student Associations (MSA) at universities across New York and surrounding areas,
including New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. In one oft-cited report, an
undercover officer posed
as a student
on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York. The officer
reported that “[I]n addition to the regularly scheduled events, the group
prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent
discussing Islam and was religious in nature." He also noted names of the 18
students from the City College of New York MSA who attended the trip.

university presidents condemned the surveillance of Muslim students on their
campuses. Yale’s president Richard Levin, for example, said
“police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully
expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic
community, and the United States.” Like John
of New York University and Lee
of Columbia, he was totally unaware that the NYPD was
intercepting emails sent by Muslim students, posing as students in their MSAs,
and recording, among other things, what they ate, how many times a day they
prayed, and where they shopped. Bollinger also suggested that the reports are
sure to produce a “chilling effect,” such that Muslim students are less
inclined to speak their minds and express themselves freely.

Muslim students report that already they feel less safe attending Muslim
gatherings, having political conversations and even talking on the phone with
their parents. “I’ve spent the last four days rethinking every single
interaction I’ve had here. Everything I’ve said in Middle East Studies class …
in the cafeteria,” a Columbia student told
last week. “I don’t even know if you might be the police.” Another,
Anum Ahmed, an undergrad at NYU, fears researching for her Arabic class online,
and talking to her mother over the phone. “Sometimes I'm like, ‘Should I be
saying this out loud? I don't feel like I'm protected. I'm being watched.’”

to the NYPD’s defense, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg chided
Levin. “We have to keep this country safe. This is a dangerous place. Make no
mistake about it. It’s very cute to go and to blame everybody and say we should
stay away from anything that smacks of intelligence gathering.” The implication
is that intelligence on Muslim college students protects Yale. In Bloomberg’s
view, no one is under surveillance for the mere reason that he or she is
Muslim. The NYPD just follows leads. “The police department goes where there
are allegations. And they look to see whether those allegations are true.”

But nowhere
in any report
the AP unearthed is there a single allegation against any one
student or MSA, with a shred of evidence of wrongdoing. In fact, there are no
allegations. There is no mention of any rightful cause for suspicion, no
reasonable grounds to suspect that anyone was guilty of anything illegal, and
no reason to gather intelligence on the affairs of Muslim students in particular.
There is likewise no
basis whatsoever
articulated in the reams of reports compiled by the NYPD on
Muslim communities in the Northeast that justifies their surveillance. In one
instance, the NYPD produced nothing more than a guide to Newark, NJ’s best
halal restaurants
. Anywhere there is a valid lead the NYPD should
pursue it and, depending on the merits of the case, be permitted to set up
appropriate modes of surveillance. But absent any reasonable suspicion of
criminal behavior, the NYPD’s surveillance constitutes a gross intrusion into
the ordinary, everyday lives of Muslim Americans.

the NYPD regards them as a perennial national security threat is clear from
another set of stories in recent months concerning the NYPD’s use of a fear-mongering,
racist and Islamophobic film called The Third Jihad as a training
. The successor to Obsession:
Radical Islam's War Against the West
, The Third Jihad was shown in training
sessions to over 1300 officers on loop for months. Incredibly, it also features
a 90-minute interview with the NYPD’s chief Ray Kelly. Kelly initially denied
that he intentionally interviewed for the film, claiming instead that the
interview was composed from unrelated footage elsewhere. Kelly lied about the
interview, for which he did intentionally sit, as well as about the number of
officers that saw the film, and for how long.

list goes on. A few days into February the AP reported
that the NYPD “recommended increasing surveillance of thousands of Shiite
Muslims and their mosques, based solely on their religion, as a way to sweep
the Northeast for signs of Iranian terrorists” back in 2006. The revelation
that the NYPD spies on and monitors Muslim college students is therefore just
the latest in the string of allegations that together show the profound
with which the NYPD regards Muslim Americans on the basis of their
religion. They also constitute egregious violations of civil liberties. FBI
general counsel Valerie Caproni says
of “mosque-rakers,” or undercover officers who infiltrate mosques for purposes
of intelligence, for example, that "[i]f you're sending an informant into
a mosque when there is no evidence of wrongdoing … you're running right up
against core constitutional rights. You’re talking about freedom of religion.”

NYPD’s surveillance is not just a cause for alarm for Muslim Americans. Representative
Mike Honda from California, for example, compares the NYPD’s surveillance to
treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In a column
on the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066
last month, he describes how he and his family were treated as “enemies
within.” “120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to evacuate their homes. My
family and I were herded like cattle into [an] internment camp.” In Honda’s
view, “[W]e cannot stand idly by as an entire American community is demonized
as a ‘religious enemy within.’” In both cases the group is demonized just
because it shares incidental features with a perceived threat.

At first I was dismayed and angry at the lack of
coverage in Asian American circles of the NYPD’s surveillance, even admidst the Linsanity of the past few months. The issue of Islamophobia continues
to receive less attention than is due among Asian Americans, outside the South
Asian and Middle Eastern American communities. But I am heartened by Honda’s support, as well as the growing outrage at the NYPD among Asian and non-Asian Americans alike.
Join them, and condemn the surveillance of Muslim Americans as racist, illegal
and Islamophobic.

Participate in the #myNYPDfile
hashtag trend on Twitter, a humorous attempt on the part of Muslims to suggest
possible contents for the NYPD’s dossiers (One: "Sir, many of the students
work at @DunkinDonuts. This must be a takeover plot, since America runs on Dunkin.").
elected officials, journalists and university authorities who condemn the NYPD’s
surveillance. Join a photo
, and affirm that Muslim Americans are not just
. Really angry? Call for Ray
Kelly’s resignation
. Demand that New York’s attorney general investigate
the NYPD
for abuses. Finally, if you’re Muslim and live in the Northeast,
you can even compel
the NYPD to disclose any files it has on you
, via the Freedom of
Information Act.


Saif Ansari


Saif Ansari graduated recently from UCLA with a BA in philosophy and is now an MA student at NYU, also in philosophy. He is interested mostly in political philosophy, ethics and law. Saif wrote for two years as a columnist for UCLA's student-run newspaper The Daily Bruin. He wrote for and edited several other publications at UCLA and maintains a personal blog at Follow him on Twitter @vetoshield.