The impact of surveillance programs on the American-Muslim community

A series of recent AP reports highlight the New York Police Department’s intelligence operations targeting Muslim-Americans. The basis for the surveillance and the strategies used by the NYPD demonstrate clear and intentional religious and ethnic profiling in which they subjected entire neighborhoods to surveillance and scrutiny due to the religion and ethnicity of the residents, not because of any accusations of crimes.

According to the AP reports, the NYPD dispatched undercover officers into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program. Police officers, posing as civilians and acting as informants, blended into ethnic neighborhoods and organizations to observe activities to build cases against people suspected of terrorist activity. Muslim student associations, mosques, and businesses were also infiltrated.

This is not the first time law enforcement agencies have used racial and ethnic demographic information to profile communities for investigation. According to the L.A. Times, a Los Angeles Police Department “Muslim mapping” program exposed in 2008 was shut down after a wave of public criticism. More recently, a former FBI informant named Craig Monteilh, revealed that he was paid $177,000 tax-free by the FBI to infiltrate and entrap a southern California Muslim community. Not only do these surveillance strategies violate our constitutional rights, their impact is ultimately detrimental to the American-Muslim community.

Due to these surveillance tactics, a feeling of suspicion has swept over American-Muslims, leaving some Muslims distrustful of others in their own community. The impact of this is already being felt within various Muslim organizations in New York where attendance is noticeably down in mosques and political discussion among students has been stifled. These infiltration and surveillance tactics have the potential to break down American-Muslim community interaction and cause the decrease of substantial community organization and development.

In addition to dividing a community, these surveillance tactics perpetuate a lack of trust towards law enforcement. “Superstitious surveillance in the manner developed by the NYPD only ensures that the American-Muslim community will avoid providing any assistance to law enforcement when faced with real threats, thus jeopardizing our national security,” says Kevin Vodak, the Director of Litigation at CAIR-Chicago. He further states that “government must preserve the rights of all Americans, as well as acknowledge the Muslim community as an equitable member of our nation in order to develop a level of trust essential to strengthening our security as a nation united as one.”

Garry McCarthy, the Chicago Police Superintendent, publicly spoke at CAIR-Chicago’s 8th annual banquet themed, “A Future Without Bigotry”, reassuring the Muslim community that any such program would not be carried out in Chicago and that he stood firmly against community profiling and blanket investigations.

CAIR-Chicago conducts “Know Your Rights” sessions which are intended to raise awareness and educate American-Muslims of their rights and is increasing its efforts this year to make sure that members of the Chicago Muslim community recognize their rights to oppose potential targeted attacks by law enforcement.

It is important to note that these surveillance strategies are not isolated for implementation solely against Muslims. They have the potential to be used against any race, religion, and community. A recent report in the New York Times reports that Occupy Wall Street protesters are being treated in much the same way.

We do not have to compromise our civil liberties and constitutional rights for the sake of perceived security. We must strive to achieve a balance between the two because we are all subject to this form of surveillance. As Martin Niemoller famously stated, “first they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”