Police Spying on American Muslims Is a Pointless National Shame

New report details the damaging effects of the NYPD's Muslim surveillance regime

Mosque, Muslim
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
An American Muslim man prays at a New York City mosque.
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Civil liberties groups led by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition released a new report today detailing the detrimental effects of the NYPD's spying on Muslim communities in recent years. The report, called Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Impact on American Muslims, alleges that more than a decade of surveillance of Muslims throughout the Northeast "has chilled constitutionally protected rights – curtailing religious practice, censoring speech and stunting political organizing." They describe their communities as being under "a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion" that affects "every aspect of individual and community life."

The report combines publicly available documentation about the NYPD's snooping regime – including the Associated Press' groundbreaking investigations into the department's Demographics Unit – with original interviews of 57 Muslims in New York City. But the significance of this report reaches far beyond New York's Muslim community – and even beyond the American Muslim community at large. The authors have provided a needed rebuttal to the common argument that surveillance isn't a problem if you have nothing to hide, and that spying itself is essentially value-neutral so long as you don't become a target of an investigation. The Muslims interviewed in the report describe a terrifying reality where trust and privacy are virtually impossible, and where lives are severely harmed by spying alone.

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The pervasive spying regime has effectively intimidated many would-be critics. "Many of the Shi'a organizations who were approached by activists to speak up or speak out were hesitant to do so," says community organizer Ali Naquvi in the report. "A lot of it seems to be fear. They don't want to be targeted for additional surveillance." Discouraging this legitimate, constitutionally protected behavior isn't simply an unfortunate by-product of total surveillance, but rather a primary and predictable outcome. As anyone who has ever suspected themselves of being under surveillance will tell you, that fear changes the way you think and act. Instilling such fears is an extremely effective form of social control. And whether limiting civil rights and liberties in this way was the stated aim of the Intelligence Division doesn't really matter. That has been the effect – one that was entirely foreseeable.

So what has all this surveillance, this so-called "intelligence gathering," gotten us? A terrorized local Muslim population, a police department that grossly exaggerates the terror plots it has disrupted and a crown jewel investigation of a troubled man named Ahmed Ferhani that was so problematic even the FBI – recently dubbed "the terror factory" by one author because of its role in manufacturing plots that its own agents then disrupt – wanted nothing to do with it. And as the report reminds us, Thomas Galati, the commanding officer of the NYPD's Intelligence Division, "admitted during sworn testimony that in the six years of his tenure, the unit tasked with monitoring American Muslim life had not yielded a single criminal lead."

While Muslims in the Northeast are the people most directly affected by this surveillance, it is a national problem – both in the sense that all of our rights are infringed if anyone's are, but also in a more concrete way. The state's capacity for surveillance is already enormous, and will only expand as technologies, including domestic drones, continue to increase in sophistication. When total surveillance of one population becomes normalized, we are all at a greater risk of being illegally spied on. This report is an important document that illustrates just how damaging that can be.