ACLU to NYPD: Curb Surveillance in Muslim Community

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Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union, acting with two Muslim civil rights groups on behalf of three New York Muslims and the associations they represent, filed suit against the New York Police Department and the City of New York for their “unlawful policy and practice of religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers.” 

Ironically, the suit comes just as former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has exposed a program of government surveillance on all Americans, a fact that is sure to unbalance the ACLU’s further claim: that the NYPD “has singled out Muslim religious and community leaders, mosques, organizations, businesses, and individuals for pervasive surveillance that is not visited upon the public at large.”  (emphasis mine)

Because actually, as we’ve learned: yes, it is.

But even were it not, would that matter?

Not according to Asra Nomani, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.  Writing for the Daily Beast last year, when news of the NYPD Muslim Surveillance program hit the headlines, she argued in favor of the project: “Indeed, just as we need to track the Colombian community for drug trafficking and the Ku Klux Klan for white extremists. I believe we should monitor the Muslim community because we sure don’t police ourselves enough.” 

Moreover, she added, “The last 15 years of battling extremism in our Muslim community has revealed one truth: mosques and Muslim organizations are institutional spaces used by Muslims intent on criminal activity, not much unlike the pews of a Catholic church or a Godfather’s Pizza might be the secret meeting spot for members of the Italian mafia.”

She couldn’t have been more on-target.  In fact, it is exactly the reasoning behind most ordinary criminal investigations of such a scale, as Patrick Dunleavy, former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections, observes, calling it “sound police practice with historical precedent.”

“When both the FBI and other other law enforcement agencies, including the NYPD, were investigating organized crime such as La Cosa Nostra, they focused on the Italian community,” he explained in an e-mail. “When police were investigating a violent organization called the Westies, who were responsible for a number of homicides in the 1970s, they infiltrated and surveilled the Irish community in the ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ section of New York. And when the country was flooded with cocaine in the 1980s, police set their sights on the Hispanic community, not for reasons of bias, but because the vast majority of the narcotic was coming from South America.”

That practice, he maintains, “produced legally admissible evidence” that not only produced successful prosecutions, but “prevented additional crimes from being committed." 

Which is the whole point.

But apparently not everyone sees it that way.

The distinction between Nomani’s perspective on the surveillance program and that of the plaintiffs shines through most clearly in a careful reading of her writings versus theirs, the latter of which collectively exemplify the victimization and blame politics that often accompanies anti-Western rhetoric from European and American Muslim leaders, the kind that condemns free speech when it comes to  drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but hides behind it when it comes to defacing anti-jihad advertising, or describing Jews as pigs.

Take, for instance, plaintiff Asad “Ace” Dandia’s description of his life under surveillance, or the ACLU complaint’s elaboration of the plights of plaintiff Hamid Hassan Raza and his Brooklyn-based Masjid al-Ansar mosque (also named as a plaintiff in the suit).  Dandia, who founded the charitable organization (and co-plaintiff) Muslims Giving Back contends, for instance, that the discovery of an NYPD informant within his organization caused donations to drop, and generated reluctance within the community to work with him lest prospective volunteers also be subject to scrutiny. 

Consequently, he maintains, the NYPD surveillance has interfered with his constitutional right fully to practice his faith, which calls on believers to give back to the community.

“I am constantly frightened. What if I say the wrong thing?” the ACLU quotes Dandia as saying. “Islam requires giving back to the community that which you have been given by God.  I’ve done nothing wrong, and yet I am unable to practice Islam fully because of what the Police Department [sic] did to me.”

This, of course, is hogwash.  Nothing the NYPD has done has kept him from performing charitable work, since soup kitchens, homeless shelters and organizations like Meals on Wheels happily welcome volunteers and their contributions.  He certainly is free to assist there.  Nor is it at all clear that the decline in donations to his organization is specifically a result of the NYPD program, and not of the same recession economy from which every New York charity has also suffered.

Even more perplexing, however, is the accusation that the NYPD has kept masses of Muslims from visiting their mosques, as plaintiff Hamid Assan Raza, the imam at Brooklyn-based Masjid Al-Ansar mosque maintain in the complaint.  Muslims, after all, are hardly compelled by law to stay at home; nor can I conceive of a reason any innocent person would fear, rather than invite, police presence in such places, especially knowing – as they must know – that many mosques do in fact harbor radicals among their congregations.  

At least as disturbing as all of this, however, is the linguistic trickery of the ACLU’s complaint itself.  (Dunleavy puts it most succinctly: “The complaint does not represent accurately what the NYPD is doing,” he said.)

This may in part reflect the involvement of Ramzi Kassem, an attorney in the suit who also represents  several Guantanamo Bay detainees, and is the founder of Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR), an organization that serves the Muslim community in legal issues involving “national security and counterterrorism policies and practices.”

In arguing the case, for instance, the lawsuit first points to the background for the Muslim Surveillance Program, rightly noting its roots in a 2007report, “Radicalization in the West: the Homegrown Threat,” which, the plaintiffs insist, “stigmatizes an entire faith community and invites discrimination.”  Further, they maintain,  “The NYPD’s discriminatory surveillance is based on a false and unconstitutional premise: that Muslim religious belief and practices are a basis for law enforcement scrutiny.”

This, in short, is patently untrue.  Nothing in the NYPD actions indicates such a premise: rather, it indicates an awareness that some people who congregate in certain areas, or who live in certain communities, or who profess certain extreme beliefs, can become dangerous to the security of the United States and its citizens.  Religion has nothing to do with any of it. 

And in fact, even those passages from the NYPD report quoted within the complaint itself contradict the ACLU’s claims; throughout, one finds words like “often” and “could ” — not, say, “always” and “does”).   In one such example, the ACLU states:

“According to the NYPD Radicalization Report ‘enclaves of ethnic populations that are largely Muslim often serve as “ideological sanctuaries” for the seeds of radical thought.' Within these ‘Muslim enclaves,’ the report claims that potential terrorists could range from members of middle-class families to ‘successful college students, the unemployed, the second- and third-generation, new immigrants, petty criminals, and prison parolees.'”   (emphasis mine)

What’s more, every word they cite has proven to be true — demonstrably true, in fact: the Tsarnaev brothers alone fulfill practically every item on the list.  And that, in fact, not the surveillance, is what Americans should really be most concerned about now – and American Muslims most of all.

As Nomani wrote, “We shouldn’t blast good police work. In the Muslim community, we should be part of the solution that smokes out radicals and extremists.” True enough: if the Muslim community took part in such a solution, the NYPD could spend its precious resources elsewhere.

And we would all have so much less to fear.

See also related article The ACLU’s Islamist Connections


Abigail R. Esman, an award-winning writer based in New York and the Netherlands, is the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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