The recent revelation of widespread surveillance of Muslim Students on American campuses once again raises questions on the state of civil rights in the world’s leading democracy.
In just a matter of days, media outlets have unraveled alarming news of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) secret surveillance of Muslim students at university and college campuses across the Northeast part of the United States. The millions of dollars spent to spy on students in the name of national security is not just ineffective, but a foul violation of privacy and the right of these students to practice their religion.
Reports state that NYPD officials went undercover to monitor essentially the daily lives of Muslim American college students, from tracking emails and posts by the Muslim Students Association right down to joining a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York in April of last year. Amidst the barrage of evidence not presenting any criminal behavior, was a note by an officer that students were praying “at least four times a day.”
The Wall Street Journal disclosed the following list of universities that were under surveillance: Yale; Columbia; The University of Pennsylvania; Syracuse; Rutgers; New York University; Clarkson University; the State University of New York campuses in Buffalo, Albany, Stony Brook and Potsdam; Queens College, Baruch College, Brooklyn College and La Guardia Community College. If you know your geography, you will know that the NYPD wasn’t just operating in New York City. Yale is in Connecticut, Rutgers University is located in the state of New Jersey, and the University of Pennsylvania is clearly not in New York. Yet the department went on to create file upon file for these students attending these universities.
Spokespersons of these campuses were all concerned for the religious and overall civil liberties of their students. A statement from Rutgers University reads in part:
“While all the facts are not known and the reasons for actions of the NYPD have not been shared with the university, it is important to state that Rutgers does not condone the surveillance of any members of our community based on their race, gender, ethnicity or religious beliefs.”
Kevin Quinn, senior vice president for public affairs at Syracuse University stated that Syracuse does “not approve of, or support, any surveillance or investigation of student groups based solely on ethnicity, religion or political viewpoint”. Furthermore, an open letter from President Sexton of New York University to Commissioner Kelly conveys the University’s support of its Muslim constituency: “…We stand in fellowship with our Muslim students in expressing our community’s dismay.”
NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly insists that the Intelligence Unit has been operating legally. Can we trust this statement, given the fact that he was involved with (then later regretted) a film called, “The Third Jihad“, which portrayed Muslim leaders as trying to take over America? Supporting his statements is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who told the Wall Street Journal “that he believed that police officers had respected people’s privacy and obeyed the law.” The reports do not indicate criminal activity. These files contain maps and sketches as well as lists of all of the places that Muslims frequent: mosques, restaurants, grocery stores, internet cafés, retail stores, and more. You can see the Demographics Report of Newark, New Jersey, which was obtained by the Associated Press.
But we don’t have to lose hope in law enforcement entirely. Mayor Booker of Newark, New Jersey told the Associated Press, “If anyone in my police department had known this was a blanket investigation of individuals based on nothing but their religion, that strikes at the core of our beliefs and my beliefs very personally, and it would have merited a far sterner response”. Reaction from Muslim students and their communities has brought national attention to the issue. The Rutgers University Muslim Alumni Association posted a petition calling for the University administration to oppose the surveillance and for transparency of information from the NYPD. On Thursday, February 23, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez followed up with a letter to the NYPD and CIA Director for an investigation into the matter. Recently, Twitter was the site of a hashtag campaign, which sought to point out the absurdities of creating files on harmless activities. The Huffington Post captured some of the tweets, such as the one by New York activist Linda Sarsour: “this one wears skinny jeans & knee high boots w/ radical head covering. Sir, she swears like a sailor. She may be a lonewolf.”
Although the NYPD is one of the biggest law enforcement agencies in the nation, it is certainly not representative of all law enforcement agencies in the United States. From 3,000 miles across the country, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles admonishes against the targeting of one particular group:
“The events of 9/11 have warranted extra vigilance by law enforcement as well as ordinary citizens. But that vigilance should not be focused on any particular community group, and should not be based solely on religion, ethnicity, or political thought. We have learned in the years since that awful day is that there is no profile of a terrorist.”
The decision of the NYPD to take up spying on thousands of students without criminal leads is a source of fear and distrust for all sectors of society. As events continue to unfold, we look to authorities to conduct a thorough investigation. In the meantime, Muslim students and communities will wonder whether they are to remain perpetual suspects and victims of civil rights violations, rather than partners in the fight against terrorism.
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