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  • Writer's pictureThe Pendulum

The Faith of the Targeted: Government Surveillance of Muslim Americans

Amani Altwam

Muslim Americans have been under the scrutiny of the United States Federal and local governments since the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks in New York City. In 2001, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) established a secret surveillance program that mapped, monitored, and analyzed the daily lives of American Muslims throughout New York City and its surrounding states. Undercover officers, known as “rakers,” were sent into cafes, bars, and bookstores in neighborhoods with a large Muslim population. Even after almost two decades of this NYPD surveillance program, it has brought up zero leads; however, it has cost Muslim Americans their freedom, violating the First Amendment rights that many Americans place above all else. The Federal and local governments’ targeted, suspicionless surveillance of Muslim Americans in the name of counterterror efforts has effectively restricted the Muslim community’s First Amendment freedoms of association, religion, and speech.

Alongside increased and unlawful surveillance, the Federal Government has altered federal law at the detriment of Muslim Americans. One of the most notable of these laws is the USA PATRIOT ACT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. The Patriot Act’s main purpose, in short, is “to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.” The new law has instigated a major blow to the Constitution and the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans. The Inspector General of the Department of Justice investigated allegations of abuse pertaining to the application of the Patriot Act. The results of this search found numerous claims from Muslim and Arab Americans that were physically or verbally abused, threatened, or harassed while being detained by government officials. The Patriot Act has also led to a rise in hate crimes against Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians; neighbors are spying on neighbors simply because their “features” or “traits” look threatening. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting Program documented 481 hate crimes against Muslim Americans and Arab Americans in 2001, which is a massive increase from the 28 cases reported in 2000.

One of the biggest issues caused by the Patriot Act, as well as other decisions of federal and state governments, was the practice of wiretapping and government-induced surveillance to monitor immigrants and religious minorities–specifically Muslim Americans. In a joint effort of multiple civil rights groups, a report was created titled Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Impact on American Muslims. The report details the NYPD’s extensive surveillance of the Muslim American community and how this surveillance has created a climate of distrust and fear among Muslims, which ultimately affects their ability to worship and gather freely at mosques and religious centers. Persons reported heavy surveillance of the city’s mosques, which has made people wary of attending worship services. The fear of being targeted by law enforcement has led to decreased involvement in community and/or religious groups, such as college Muslim Student Associations. In the past decade, the NYPD’s use of undercover informants in terrorist-related sting operations has further added to the wariness of Muslims in speaking about political issues or even speaking an Arabic word in public due to fear of eliciting further surveillance.

Since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the New York Police Department has become one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that destroy the civil liberties of countless Americans. According to several current and former involved officials, NYPD detectives have used informants known as mosque crawlers to monitor weekly sermons for years. If FBI agents were to do that, they would be in violation of the Privacy Act, which prohibits the federal government from collecting intelligence on purely First Amendment activities. First named the Demographics Unit, the Zone Assessment Unit was formed in 2003. The unit was first tasked with mapping New York City’s entire Muslim population, as if to suggest that the mere facts of faith, dress, background and tradition made a person suspicious in the eyes of the NYPD. The surveillance operation didn’t deter any terrorist attacks, but it has been devastating for the communities that have been under its watch. As detailed in the Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Impact on American Muslims report, the NYPD’s activities worked to create a climate of fear and suspicion in Muslim communities. Freedom of speech has been curtailed as Imams (Islamic Priests) and other community leaders ask that members of the community refrain from political conversations in case informants are present. When it became common knowledge that undercover officers were frequenting certain Muslim-owned businesses, business dropped dramatically, inspiring some business owners to sue the city of New York.

No Muslim American has ever felt a sense of belonging in the so-called “land of the free.” Over the last two decades, the United States has repeatedly tested the boundaries of citizenship: when it built a warrantless surveillance system that targeted certain religious communities; when it debated changes to its immigration system; and when it elected a man who promised a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims,” entering the country. Muslim Americans have been on the edge of belonging and unbelonging for years. They may be citizens, but they are also permanent suspects, always having to prove their allegiance through silence and acceptance.

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