Secret Surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey and Elsewhere Should Concern Us All

Secret Surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey and Elsewhere Should Concern Us All

By Madelyn Hoffman, Executive Director of New Jersey Peace Action

Recent news about the New York Police Department (NYPD) and its surveillance of the Muslim community in New Jersey and elsewhere makes me frightened for my country and my fellow citizens. Not only have we started two illegal, lengthy and expensive wars and are now threatening a third, but we have seemed to abandon some of our core principles in the process.

Our justice system is supposed to operate on the premise that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, it seems the NYPD has put that aside and is classifying a whole community as suspect, simply because of their religion.

Most of the mainstream media responding to this story have described this as an issue between Muslims and the government. While Muslims’ civil rights and civil liberties are under attack, let me be clear — Muslims aren’t the only people concerned. Concerns about the NYPD’s activities extend beyond the Muslim community to all those who want the United States to uphold the Constitution.  

Lessons learned during World War II led Pastor Martin Niemoller to observe:

First they came for the communists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

“The idea of Muslim students being monitored by the NYPD genuinely scares me,” said Jessica Camacho, a student at Bloomfield College. “I feel as if we are entering another period of history where people of a certain background will be rounded up and kept away to ensure safety without due process. This fear of all Muslims because a few extremists committed horrible crimes is unjust and misplaced. As a society, we can’t allow fear to guide our judgments.”

Mayor Bloomberg’s refusal to launch an investigation into the practices employed by the NYPD because he asserts they were “appropriate, legal and constitutional” is misguided. Not only did the NYPD seem to employ “profiling” rather than follow specific leads, their surveillance extended to Upstate New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey locations that included Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) at Rutgers University. The fact that over the past 40 years, some dozen individuals arrested in connection with “terrorist” activities once belonged to a Muslim Student Association does not provide nearly enough evidence to secretly monitor meetings of today’s MSAs and employs a common logical principle that is important for policymakers to remember — correlation does not imply causality.

NYPD activities now being publicized are already having a chilling effect on Muslims and their right to peaceably assemble and to freely exercise their religion. Students are afraid to attend meetings for fear of using the wrong word or discussing a sensitive topic. Muslim leaders are concerned that people are shying away from attending their mosques out of fear that their mosques are under surveillance.

What about the mapping and monitoring of Muslim-owned businesses and restaurants in the city of Newark? There was no report of wrongdoing at any of them and no wrongdoing found.   One clever reporter satirized this activity by taking pages out of the 60 page report obtained and publicized by the Associated Press and showing how it could be read as if it were a Zagat’s Guide to Halaal Dining in Newark.

One commentator noted that some of the information recorded during this process was wrong and could easily have been corrected simply by asking someone. However, since the operation was secret, no such questions could be asked.

This speaks to an issue that first surfaced shortly after passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act in October 2001. By creating fear among the Muslim community, the law also discouraged people from stepping forward in the event there was something suspicious to report. Instead of resulting in more cooperation with the Muslim community which has led to the apprehension of 40% of all terror suspects since 9/11, the law made it more difficult for information to be obtained. In the matter of determining if any threats exist, cooperation would be far more effective than confrontation.   Unfortunately, documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) showed that outreach efforts by law enforcement agencies have been exclusively information-gathering exercises, rather than partnerships built on trust.

The U.S. Constitution contains no provisions for its suspension and must remain in effect, even when it is the most difficult to uphold. Even under the worst of circumstances, the First Amendment and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution must be upheld. The First Amendment guarantees protection of five liberties, three of which are impacted by NYPD’s surveillance: the freedom of speech, the freedom to exercise one’s religion, and the freedom to peaceably assemble. The Fourth Amendment guarantees protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Reasonable is defined as one for which a warrant has been issued based on probable cause. The NYPD’s surveillance has had a chilling effect on Muslims’ first amendment rights and has completely made irrelevant the requirement for a warrant to be issued based on probable cause.

Violation of the U.S. Constitution is something that should concern ALL of us. For this reason, all of us should be concerned about the activities of the NYPD and should join the Muslims’ call for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into these activities. We are neither stronger nor more secure as a nation because of the NYPD’s secret surveillance program.

On Sunday, April 29th, New Jersey Peace Action is proud to announce that Captain James “Yusuf” Yee, former Muslim Army Chaplain at Guantanamo Bay Prison will be speaking on the topic of “9/11 and Guantanamo: The Fight for Justice Ten Years Later.”

Yee’s book, God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, describes his experience and struggle for justice. He is a past executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ) and currently lectures on Guantanamo, his ordeal, Islam, Asian-American and religious diversity issues and the challenges of protecting both national security and civil liberties.

NJPA’s theme this year brought these comments from Mohammad Ali Naquvi, Founder of Independent Viewpoints, “Moments like this are an opportunity.  We can either give up in fear as a community or do what we should have done long ago – build relationships, forge partnerships, and foster trust among the diverse communities in New Jersey.  It’s time that American Muslims come together with other American concerned citizens on common civic issues like civil liberties, human rights and end to torture for all.  This year’s NJPA dinner is the start of a new vision for New Jersey.”

The dinner and program will start at 1 p.m., with a social hour preceding this at 12:15 p.m. Reservations may be made by calling 973-259-1126, or online at Ticket prices are $50 until April 16 and $60 after that. Pax Christi New Jersey will be honored at the event.  

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