In what was heard around the world as the loudest “DUH” in history, the NYPD produced zero cases of suspected terrorist activity after years of eavesdropping on Muslims, according to the Associated Press. The most the NYPD could have learned from this “investigation” is where to find the best hookah, falafel, and kebab places in New York. What they were hoping to find in college organizations and local hangouts besides nerdy students and coffee lovers is beyond me.
On Monday, unsealed court testimonies revealed that the NYPD acknowledged that the six-year spying program “never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation.” Set up with the help of the CIA, Demographic Unit, the division responsible for the surveillance program, was intended to serve as a first-line defense against terrorist activity in New York City.
Like many of my Muslim friends who attend college in New York City, I was shocked to learn that the New York Police Department was spying on Muslim communities across the Tri-State area for six years. We felt violated, demeaned, and falsely associated with crimes we didn’t commit. It’s humiliating.
Although controversial, the police are technically allowed to keep track of civilian life in New York. But lawyers believe that the NYPD stepped outside of their jurisdiction when police officers spied on Muslims outside of the Five Boroughs. Students at Yale University humorously protested against the program with a clever “Call the NYPD” photo campaign.
Not only is the NYPD’s secret Demographic Unit unfairly targeting Muslims, it is practicing discriminatory policing against ethnic and religious groups. Muslims face enough discrimination, the most recent examples being the multiple attacks on mosques and schools during the holy month of Ramadan.
Earlier this year the AP broke a series of stories documenting how the police spied on Muslim-owned businesses, accompanied college students on rafting trips, and infiltrated mosques. The Muslim population in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey was outraged.
The NYPD reports read like prejudiced tourist guides that give you the inside scoop on Albanian, Egyptian, Syrian, and Moroccan neighborhoods. Each includes a list of “locations of concern,” mostly consisting of cafes and mosques. Officers made specials notes if the Arabic news channel Aljazeera was allowed on the premises, if there is a prayer area, and the nationality and gender of the owner.
The civil liberties and advocacy group, Center for American-Islamic Relations, released a statement in which it calls the investigation “unconstitutional … counterproductive and discriminatory.” Executive Director Muneer Awad of CAIR’s New York chapter said the police surveillance was “based on only race, ethnicity, and religion, rather than suspicion of criminal activity.”
In addition to wasting taxpayer dollars, the NYPD surveillance program “did not make our nation more secure and only served to harm relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Awad said.
Police surveillance programs aren’t new. In the 1950s and 1960s, the NYPD kept tabs on students, civil rights groups, and Communist sympathizers. New federal guidelines were established in the 1970s following a lawsuit against the police department to allow data collection related to potential terrorism, but not about political speech.
Since September 11, 2001, officials cooperated with Muslim leaders to rebuild a broken relationship, but news of the surveillance program’s failure to produce any leads diminished all efforts, according to Michael Ward of the Newark FBI.
Police chief Raymond Kelly defended spying on innocent civilians, citing that the “primary goal is to keep this city safe and save lives.”
The reaction in Muslim and minority communities is a mixture of relief, anger, and confusion. We’re relieved that no dangerous activity was found, but at the same time we’re are angry and confused that our religion and national origins are reasons enough to start extensive surveillance programs.
Until Islamophobic sentiment dies down, there’s not much Muslims can do but fight back against discrimination in the most sensible way possible, and if it's through humor, then why not.