Four Myths that Led to the NYPD's Attack on Muslim Civil Liberties


14 Feb 2012

By Juan Cole

Over the last month, multiple scandals have leaked that show the extent to which the NYPD has violated the civil liberties of thousands of New York Muslims under the banner of counterterrorism efforts. Protecting the homeland must remain central in all of our policing and intelligence-gathering efforts, but it should not, and does not have to result in the alienation of hundreds of thousands of New York Muslims. Equally important, counterterrorism efforts must operate on sound and factual analysis of the threat posed by the Muslim community, and collaboration with Muslim community leaders and citizens should be a top priority.

The damage that these scandals have caused in severing the lines of trust between law enforcement and the Muslim community may be irreparable in the short term, but it is not too late for the NYPD to begin assessing the policies that led us to where we are today.

In a recently exposed white paper published by the NYPD entitled, "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," we find the basis of an entire philosophy of counterterrorism that operates on several myths that must be addressed.

Let's examine each of these myths in turn.

1. Extremist Muslims have permeated New York Muslim communities. The white paper states:

"New York City has a diverse Muslim population of between 600,000 and 750,000 within a population of about 8 ˝ million–about 40% of whom are foreign-born. Unfortunately, extremists who have and continue to sow the seeds of radicalization have permeated the City's Muslim communities."

To suggest that the Muslim community of New York is being overran with violent extremism is far from the truth. The New York Muslim community makes up an estimated 1 million people throughout the entire state. The community has incredible racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic diversity, and is very well integrated into the larger society.

The threat this community poses is similar to the threat that American Muslims pose nationwide: very little to none. Since 9/11, over 40% of the cases where criminal charges were brought upon an American Muslim for suspicion in a terrorism related case, the Muslim community was responsible for turning that individual, or individuals, over to the authorities. Muslims see counterterrorism as their duty according to recent public opinion polls, and they are more concerned about preventing terrorism then are the rest of the non-Muslim American public per capita. Don't we want to increase this trend of Muslims serving on the front line of counterterrorism efforts? Increasing it has the dual benefit of making Muslims an integral part of the solution, and making them feel like a valued collaborator in the war on terrorism.

According to the Muslim Public Affairs Council's comprehensive terrorism database, of the 49 Muslim domestic and foreign based plots against the U.S. since 9/11 – there were over 105 terrorist plots from non-Muslim groups and individuals – nearly 1 in 3 of these plots were turned over to the authorities by the American Muslim community.

2. A Muslim's level of religiosity is a sign of radicalization and support for terrorism. The second myth that the document supports is the so called "conveyor belt theory" of terrorism, which argues that terrorism is based on a continuum of religiosity, where the more religious a Muslim gets, the greater likeliness they may adopt violent extremism. This is a major misnomer that has unfortunately been taught to hundreds of thousands of police and intelligence agents nationwide as exposed in a recent investigative report by Political Research Associates entitled Manufacturing the Muslim Menace.

The white paper describes the ideology that supports terrorism as "jihadi-Salafi Islam" but never defines these terms, especially what they mean for Muslims. Instead, they exaggerate what a "Salafi Muslim" is, and neglect to point out that the majority of Salafi Muslims in western Europe and in America are not in favor of using violence and are generally peaceful. It also refuses to look at competing studies of radicalization. For example, Quintan Wiktorowicz, National Security Agency Director learned in an extensive empirical research project he headed up on radicalization of Muslim youth, that there is no correlation between religiosity and a willingness to become radicalized. In other words, the more religious Muslims became, the less likely they would be to join radical movements.
 

Wiktorowicz insight supports what Policy Analyst Alejandro Beutel has recently discovered in his careful analysis of Osama bin-Laden's recruitment rhetoric. In a careful analysis of the content of each lecture that bin-Laden gave, MPAC discovered that al-Qaeda's recruiting "pitch" was overwhelmingly political/policy-oriented, not religious.

Let's be realistic. The threat from al-Qaeda is concerning. Despite the controversial nature of his assassination, Anwar Awlaki's death and disappearance from the scene is a welcoming sign in the ongoing recruitment that Al-Qaeda is attempting, mainly online, to American Muslims. The fact that we no longer have a charismatic, English speaking figurehead of al-Qaeda to brainwash American Muslims to commit acts of violence is a great thing. Awlaki's model seemed to be fairly effective in turning about two-dozen American Muslims towards a commitment to violent radicalization against the west and America in particular. Importantly, this was happening in anonymous chat rooms online, not in mosques, or mainstream religious institutions in America.

3. Profiling Muslims is possible and necessary. The third myth that the white paper supports is that Muslims must be profiled; suggesting not only is it necessary, but that it is possible. Here is an excerpt from the paper:

"Radicalization makes little noise. It borders on areas protected by the First and Fourth Amendments. It takes place over a long period of time. It therefore does not lend itself to a traditional criminal investigations approach."

When we analyze the homegrown cases of Muslim terrorists since 9/11, we find vastly different ethnic origin, age, ideological affiliation, and motivations. While the policy grievance remains consistent in each case, the idea of profiling based on religiosity or the outward expression of religiosity is just plain wrong and nonsensical. Like we saw from Wiktorowicz's research, religious Muslims should be seen as allies, as there is no empirical relationship between religiosity and support for terrorism.

4. Muslim community leaders and citizens do not need to be consulted in counterterrorism efforts. Nowhere in the 90 plus page report do we find details or best practices for policymakers and intelligence officers in building partnerships with New York Muslims.

In an ironic way, the controversies coming out of the NYPD, while they hurt the relationship between Muslims and law enforcement, they help engage Muslims in the political process and in speaking up for their rights. The New York Muslim community is fed up, and many point to the rising trend of Islamophobia as the cause for this wanton disregard for Muslim civil liberties.

One of the key recommendations that Charles Kurzman, a leading expert on Muslim radicalization of the Triangle Center for Terrorism Research proposes is that Muslim Americans be given the means to express themselves politically in American society. The fight against Islamophobia as a healthy way for Muslim Americans to stand up for their rights and in the process demand equal respect. Like the civil rights movement for Black Americans, many politically engaged Muslims feel that the fight against bigotry and misunderstanding of their faith will result in a greater level of integration into the American experience.

From 2005 to 2011 we have witnessed an increase in the so-called "lone wolf" phenomenon of extremism – an isolated individual becomes indoctrinated by a charismatic pseudo religious leader and seeks to act out violence against the American populace. Thankfully, this threat is relatively minor, and unfortunately often caused by FBI entrapment.

What we have not yet seen is the climate of growing Islamophobia serving as the cause for a lone wolf attack on America, or even the turn to radicalization itself. Since it is always best to be ahead of the storm, we must encourage large-scale movements against Islamophobia because they help to further a healthy civic alternative to American Muslims that are somewhat prone to lunatic false prophets on YouTube like Anwar Awlaki. It is through fighting Islamophobia and standing up for civil rights that we can create a vehicle whereby Muslims can vent their anger and develop a new language that ties the values of Islam to a unique American and democratic narrative. This sort of action has already begun, and when scandals emerge like these, Muslim Americans should be vocal and demand justice.

Written by Daniel Tutt

NYPD Built Secret Files On NJ, Long Island Mosques

Americans living and working in New Jersey's largest city were subjected to surveillance as part of the New York Police Department's effort to build databases of where Muslims work, shop and pray. The operation in Newark was so secretive even the city's mayor says he was kept in the dark.

For months in mid-2007, plainclothes officers from the NYPD's Demographics Units fanned out across Newark, taking pictures and eavesdropping on conversations inside businesses owned or frequented by Muslims.

The result was a 60-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, containing brief summaries of businesses and their clientele. Police also photographed and mapped 16 mosques, listing them as "Islamic Religious Institutions."

The report cited no evidence of terrorism or criminal behavior. It was a guide to Newark's Muslims.

According to the report, the operation was carried out in collaboration with the Newark Police Department, which at the time was run by a former high-ranking NYPD official. But Newark's mayor, Cory Booker, said he never authorized the spying and was never told about it.

"Wow," he said as the AP laid out the details of the report. "This raises a number of concerns. It's just very, very sobering."

Police conducted similar operations outside their jurisdiction in New York's Suffolk and Nassau counties on suburban Long Island, according to police records.

Such surveillance has become commonplace in New York City in the decade since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Police have built databases showing where Muslims live, where they buy groceries, even what Internet cafes they use and where they watch sports. Dozens of mosques and student groups have been infiltrated and police have built detailed profiles of ethnic communities, from Moroccans to Egyptians to Albanians.

The documents obtained by the AP show, for the first time in any detail, how those efforts stretched outside the NYPD's jurisdiction. New Jersey and Long Island residents had no reason to suspect the NYPD was watching them. And since the NYPD isn't accountable to their votes or tax dollars, those non-New Yorkers had little recourse to stop it.

"All of these are innocent people," Nagiba el-Sioufi of Newark said while her husband, Mohammed, flipped through the NYPD report, looking at photos of mosques and storefronts frequented by their friends.

Egyptian immigrants and American citizens, the couple raised two daughters in the United States. Mohammed works as an accountant and is vice president of the Islamic Culture Center, a mosque a few blocks from Newark City Hall.

"If you have an accusation on us, then spend the money on doing this to us," Nagiba said. "But you have no accusation."

The Newark chief at the time, Chief Garry McCarthy, is now in charge of the Chicago Police Department. Reached on his cell phone Wednesday and asked about the report, McCarthy responded, "There's nothing to comment on," and hung up.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not return a message seeking comment about the report.

The goal of the report, like others the Demographics Unit compiled, was to give police at-their-fingertips access to information about Muslim neighborhoods. If police got a tip about an Egyptian terrorist in the area, for instance, they wanted to immediately know where he was likely to find a cheap room to rent, where he might buy his lunch and at what mosque he probably would attend Friday prayers.

"These locations provide the maximum ability to assess the general opinions and general activity of these communities," the Newark report said.

The effect of the program was that hundreds of American citizens were cataloged — sometimes by name, sometimes simply by their businesses and their ethnicity — in secret police files that spanned hundreds of pages:

— "A Black Muslim male named Mussa was working in the rear of store," an NYPD detective wrote after a clandestine visit to a dollar store in Shirley, N.Y., on Long Island.

— "The manager of this restaurant is an Indian Muslim male named Vicky Amin" was the report back from an Indian restaurant in Lindenhurst, N.Y., also on Long Island.

— "Owned and operated by an African Muslim (possibly Sudanese) male named Abdullah Ddita" was the summary from another dollar store in Shirley, N.Y., just off the highway on the way to the Hamptons, the wealthy Long Island getaway.

In one report, an officer describes how he put people at ease by speaking in Punjabi and Urdu, languages commonly spoken in Pakistan.

Last summer, when the AP first began reporting about the NYPD's surveillance efforts, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said his police do not consider religion in their policing.

On Tuesday, following an AP story that showed the NYPD monitored Muslim student groups around the Northeast, school leaders including Yale president Richard Levin expressed outrage over the tactics. Bloomberg fired back in what was the most vigorous defense yet of his department.

"The police department goes where there are allegations. And they look to see whether those allegations are true," he told reporters. "That's what you'd expect them to do. That's what you'd want them to do. Remind yourself when you turn out the light tonight."

There are no allegations of terrorism in the Demographics Unit reports and the documents make clear that police were only interested in locations frequented by Muslims. The canvas of businesses in Newark mentions Islam and Muslims 27 times. In one section of the report, police wrote that the largest immigrant groups in Newark were from Portugal and Brazil. But they did not photograph businesses or churches for those groups.

"No Muslim component within these communities was identified," police wrote, except for one business owned by a Brazilian Muslim of Palestinian descent.

Polls show that most New Yorkers strongly support the NYPD's counterterrorism efforts and don't believe police unfairly target Muslims. The Muslim community, however, has called for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's resignation over the spying and the department's screening of a video that portrays Muslims as wanting to dominate the United States.

In Newark, the report was met with a mixture of confusion and anger.

"Come, look at yourself on film," Abdul Kareem Abdullah called to his wife as he flipped through the NYPD files at the lunch counter of their restaurant, Hamidah's Cafe.

An American-born citizen who converted to Islam decades ago, Abdullah said he understands why, after the 9/11 terror attacks, people are afraid of Muslims. But he said he wishes the police would stop by, say hello, meet him and his customers and get to know them. The documents show police have no interest in that, he said.

"They just want to keep tabs on us," he said. "If they really wanted to understand, they'd come talk to us."

After the AP approached Booker, he said the mayor's office had launched an investigation.

"We're going to get to the bottom of this," he said.

Booker met with Islamic leaders while campaigning for mayor. Those interviewed by the AP said they wanted to believe he didn't authorize the spying but wanted to hear from him directly.

"I have to look in his eyes," Mohammed el-Sioufi said at his mosque. "I know him. I met him. He was here."

Ironically, because officers conducted the operation covertly, the reports contain mistakes that could have been easily corrected had the officers talked to store owners or imams. If police ever had to rely on the database during an unfolding terrorism emergency as they had planned, those errors would have hindered their efforts.

For instance, locals said several businesses identified as belonging to African-American Muslims actually were owned by Afghans or Pakistanis. El-Sioufi's mosque is listed as an African-American mosque, but he said the imam is from Egypt and the congregation is a roughly even mix of black converts and people of foreign ancestries.

"We're not trying to hide anything. We are out in the open," said Abdul A. Muhammad, the imam of the Masjid Ali Muslim mosque in Newark. "You want to come in? We have an open door policy."

By choosing instead to conduct such widespread surveillance, Mohammed el-Sioufi said, police send the message that the whole community is suspect.

"When you spy on someone, you are kind of accusing them. You are not accepting them for choosing Islam," Nagiba el-Sioufi said. "This doesn't say, ‘This guy did something wrong.' This says, ‘Everyone here is a Muslim.'"

"It makes you feel uncomfortable, like this is not your country," she added. "This is our country."

 

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