TRENTON, NEW JERSEY – Muslim-Americans who sued the New York Police Department over a surveillance program launched after 9/11 say calls from the Republican presidential campaign to put them under more scrutiny are recklessly seizing on public fears and distressing Muslims in the U.S.
As national security has become a focus in the 2016 race after the Paris attacks, Donald Trump has declared “we’re being foolish, we’re kidding ourselves” if law enforcement doesn’t keep close surveillance on mosques, and he expressed support for the idea of a database for tracking Muslims in the United States. Another GOP contender, Ben Carson, said mosques, schools, supermarkets, car repair shops and “any place where radicalization is going on” should be monitored.
Such rhetoric is “reckless and ignorant,” said attorney Baher Azmy, who is representing Muslim-Americans who sued the NYPD.
“I think it has a deeper scar, a psychological scar, on the Muslim community, which is a consequence of these types of surveillance programs,” said Azmy, of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “It’s dangerous because we’ve been down this road before and ugly rhetoric matched with political power can really harm actual people, real lives.”
The Associated Press revealed in 2011 how New York police, in a since-disbanded demographics unit, infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques and otherwise spied on Muslims as part of a broad effort to prevent terrorist attacks. A federal appeals court last month reinstated the lawsuit challenging the surveillance, comparing the spying to other instances of heightened scrutiny of religious and ethnic groups, including Japanese-Americans during World War II.
A lower court last year had concluded the police could not keep watch “on Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself.” That came after New York City argued that any harm suffered by Muslims was “self-imposed, based on subjective fears” that may have dissuaded them from gathering with other Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The city called the intelligence-gathering an appropriate and legal anti-terrorism tactic and said it never spied on people or businesses solely because they were Muslim.
Wahy-ud Deen Shareef, president of the Council of Imams in New Jersey, said news of the demographics unit made some reluctant to gather at places that had been under surveillance, including mosques and businesses. He said it also hurt the trust that Muslims had developed with law enforcement after 9/11, something they’re still working to rebuild.
Now, he said, comments in the 2016 campaign are playing on people’s ignorance both of Islam and of what Muslim communities have done to cooperate with law enforcement.
“When you trample upon the rights that are entitled to all just because you have suspicions of a group, then you are trampling on the rights of all of the citizens,” Shareef said.
In addition to pushing for monitoring and a registry, Trump has alleged that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City across the river from Manhattan celebrated from rooftops in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a scene at odds with the recollections of local officials and for which he has offered no proof. Carson made a similar allegation, then retracted it.
More broadly, Republican presidential contenders expressed support for freezing the program to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees, with several saying Syrian Christians should be given preference over others. But Trump’s rivals have disavowed the idea of making Muslims register in a database.
In New York, the current New York police commissioner, William Bratton, disbanded the surveillance unit last year. Officials said a review concluded the same information could be better collected through direct contact with community groups.
A senior NYPD official testified in 2012 that the unit never generated leads or triggered a terrorism investigation, but former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other officials have said the surveillance helped the nation’s largest police department identify and thwart terrorist plots. Those who are suing over the program want the NYPD banned from targeting people based on religion. They are seeking compensatory damages for those who suffered economic harm and want all records from unlawful spying expunged.
Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association of New York, said Muslims in the city remain worried about surveillance even with the unit shut down, and what’s happening in the campaign deepens their fear.
“The rhetoric from people like Donald Trump reinforces this program and it creates even more support for the general public to engage in unwarranted surveillance based on people’s faith,” she said. “The rhetoric just continues to isolate and marginalize Muslim communities. People are not feeling welcome in this country.”
“People are afraid,” she said. “People are hoping this is another stage and we’re going to get through it again.”