Spying on Muslims fosters distrust amongst community


This past January, the U.S. Court of Appeals heard the oral argument for the Hassan v. City of New York case. What makes this case so special is that it has been the first case to ever challenge the New York City Police Department Muslim Surveillance Program. The United States National Security Agency controversy left America reeling — in June 2013, allegations arose that the NSA had been spying on millions of Americans every day through tapping of telecommunications networks (computer networks, telephones, the Internet, etc.) with the help of major companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and Microsoft. Though this came to light through journalist Glenn Greenwald’s exposé revealing a partnership between Verizon and the NSA, it has been going on for years. It is a common suspicion that the revelation barely scratches the surface of all the surveillance that is likely going on, but Muslims have been sounding off on their loss of constitutional rights — and thereby the loss of every American’s constitutional rights — for years.

When the news first came out, Americans across the country were stunned, offended, angry and indignant, but Muslim Americans didn’t even raise their eyebrows. For us, surveillance is old news. In June 2009, a superintendent in New Jersey walked into an apartment strewn with “terrorist literature,” panicked and called the police. They discovered not a hideout, but a command center set up by the NYPD just minutes from Rutgers University — right here! In 2011, the Associated Press reported that the NYPD has become one of the country’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, operating “far outside its borders,” and not giving either the city council or the federal government any explicit detail about its actions.

The surveillance that the NYPD conducted went far beyond monitoring phone calls. Undercover officers known as “rakers” were dispatched into minority neighborhoods, where they monitor daily life and report back. “Mosque crawlers” monitor sermons, even in places with the most innocent of reputations. Cab drivers and street vendors are observed and scrutinized. By way of attempting to justify this dehumanizing racial profiling, Paul Browne said in the past, “The New York Police Department is doing everything it can to make sure there’s not another 9/11 here and that more innocent New Yorkers are not killed by terrorists. And we have nothing to apologize for in that regard.”

This surveillance program was so extensive that people were paid to infiltrate Muslim student associations, businesses and mosques to act as eager participants while keeping tabs on Muslims. Muslims who were born here. Muslims who are just as American as you and me. Muslims who work hard to make a living. Muslims who go to college and whose struggle is passing their next exam. The list is endless.

In one heart-wrenching incident, a charity called Muslims Giving Back discovered the group had been infiltrated by a paid informant pretending to support the initiative. Since then, mosques have been hesitant to host the charity, fearful of further infiltration. This is just one small example of how mistrust has crippled the Muslim community.

So it is heartening that on Jan. 13, oral argument of Hassan vs. NYPD was held before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. In this climate of hate and suspicion toward Islam, breaches of constitutional rights have thus far been accepted when it came to Muslims, but no one else, evidenced by the huge backlash once the NSA program came to light. Has it not been worthy of attention that our fellow Americans have been racially profiled and followed, their privacy invaded, their trust breached and not least of all, their dignity stripped? Muslim leaders record their sermons for fear of being taken out of context, charities are being swept out from under their feet and there were no giant headlines or indignant protests. As a Muslim student that attends the University, knowing just how pervasive this program was here is terrifying — especially because one of the school's selling points for me was its diversity. But in my three years here, I’ve come to notice how we boast our diversity, but lack true understanding of it.

It has been repeated by the Muslim community time and time again that one people’s violation of rights is the violation of all people’s rights. Either we are all free — or we are all in serious danger of losing our basic, fundamental freedoms. Hopefully the court case will advance all of our freedoms. 

Sara Zayed is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in computer science with a minor in mathematics. Her column, “#Realtalk,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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