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The Climate of Fear Created by the NYPD’s Pervasive Surveillance of Muslim Communities

The Associated Press earned a Pulitzer Prize last year for reporting on the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) secret surveillance program, which was mapping and monitoring the daily lives of Muslims living in and around New York City.

Now, the Muslim-American Civil Liberties Coalition (MCLC), Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR) and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) have released a report, “Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims.”

The report outlines how the surveillance has created a “pervasive climate of fear and suspicion. It highlights racial and religious profiling by the police, which has effectively criminalized Muslims and effectively chilled free speech and activism in Muslim communities. And yet, as the report notes, in August 2012, “Chief of the NYPD Intelligence Division, Lt. Paul Galati, 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.”

Agent Provocateurs or Informants Among Us

The thought that anyone in Muslim groups or places of worship could be an informant or agent provocateur has had a devastating effect on communities. One board member of the City University of New York (CUNY) Muslim Students Association (MSA) said, “I was very naive at one point. I converted to Islam. At first I thought all Muslims were great people and you could trust them all. And then someone said hey, you should know about all these things…(referring to informants).”

A businessman, whose business was listed in leaked intelligence documents the AP used in their reporting, reflected, “Every other store on this street could be an informant. You start wondering about each one: How did this person get his liquor license so quickly? Or how come the cops aren’t saying anything about this guy who is well known to be selling alcohol under the table, or to minors? Or I know that this person was in jail for some months, and suddenly I see them back in the store, even though you think they had some charges that could stick.”

Those involved in putting together the report found the reasons for suspicion could be contradictory. One person could find someone “overly religious” suspect while another could find someone who “frequented the mosque without seeming particularly religious” to be “equally suspect.” An individual could find regular attendance at MSA events suspicious while another individual could find someone who only came every once in a while suspicious.

The climate of fear inevitably has led to Muslims falsely accusing people of being informants, which can lead to “potentially reputational consequences for the accused.” For example, one interviewee recalled:

…[W]ith regret how he was suspicious about a new member of the mosque whom he noticed suddenly became very involved and active in his mosque’s administration. he discussed his concerns with others at the mosque. Later on, he found out that the man had recently lost his job and had time on his hands. He described his feelings of guilt when he noticed that his warnings had led others to be wary of this man…

Refraining from Activism or Even Criticizing Government Policies

In addition to the mistrust and paranoia, there is the sense that one should not speak out against the Surveillance State operations of police. People “fear that speaking out against surveillance” will only lead to “greater surveillance.”

Amira, a twenty-two year-old Sunday school teacher, says in the report, “I don’t talk about the NYPD on Facebook.” She will post articles but will “never comment on them” or put them in her own words. She may say, “It’s sad this is happening.” However, anger will not be shown because she’s afraid.

Ali Naquvi, a community organizer, recounts:

I come from a family of activists. My parents, when I first told them the Associated Press story is about to break, my dad told me don’t do anything about it. That was the first time my dad ever told me anything like that. This was the first time in my own family where safety trumped what was the right thing to do.

Shi’a organizations were “approached by activists to speak up or speak out” when the AP stories on NYPD surveillance began to circulate. Those organizations were fearful and did not want to be targeted with additional surveillance.

Such surveillance has a great impact on dissuading Muslim students from taking up causes. Sireen, a twenty-three year-old student at Hunter College, says she found it important to “lay low” and not be “politically active.” Participating in protests would “draw more attention” and increase the likelihood of being spied upon and maybe even lead to being arrested.

“My mother always tells us to be careful about Facebook, and tells us to be careful about rallies, or questions whether it’s a good idea for us to go,” Amira adds. “Sometimes you just want to go out there, you want to join organizations or certain causes, but you stop yourself. when your speech is limited, you can’t really do much: you can’t write on the internet, you can’t talk on the phone because they’re tapped, you can’t speak in public. When your speech is constrained you get lazy and you just go with the flow and try to survive and live a normal life, and not do much in society.”

This pervasive sense of fear occurs in the minds of young people, who are in the “most formative years” of their life. Yet, as the report notes, the “stifling and self-censorship of both routine and political speech” occurs and individuals are not as social as they might be if they were not Muslim.

Censoring Community Spaces

Aside from colleges or universities, the report describes how community spaces feel “pressured to censor the discussions going on within their walls.” Censorship of conversations by “business owners, mosque leaders and community members” occurs. Event programming and internet usage is controlled and managed to keep the spaces “off the NYPD’s radar.”

Hamza, a business owner, states, “I don’t allow Al-Jazeera on in our hookah bar. Particularly when things flare up in the Middle East. we can’t control what people start saying in response to the news, and we never know who else is in the bar listening.”

As the report highlights, this is not an irrational reaction to surveillance. The NYPD looks for speech when deciding what Muslims are “suspicious.” This can play a role in what locations are marked as “hot spots.”

A wide spectrum of “political and religious speech” can be labeled “of concern” by police.” The report outlines, “Such speech includes mainstream Arabic-language news channels, religious texts and discussions of political figures. NYPD’s Assistant Chief Thomas Galati also testified that merely speaking in certain languages, particularly Urdu and Arabic, could trigger surveillance.”

Places of Worship Mapped, Photographed & Infiltrated

The surveillance has convinced a number of Muslims to be restrained in the religious activities they engage in at mosques. Some Muslims have even decided to just pray at home.

According to the report, “The Demographics Unit mapped, photographed or infiltrated at least 250 mosques in the New York City and its surrounding areas.” Imam Khalil of Queens says, “There are always parked, unmarked cars outside of mosques.” Imam Mustapha of Brooklyn shares, “Not everyone has the same level of imaan [faith]. They’ll get discouraged. People tell me ‘I’ll make my salaah [prayer] at home.’ They mention the [NYPD] camera right outside the mosque as the reason.”

A chaplain for a New York City-area college Muslim student group, Amin, recounts, “The week of the news [referring to Associated Press investigations], the students wouldn’t come to the prayer room. They felt they couldn’t meet in their own space. The idea of being surveilled – for a 19 or 20 year old – is a terrifying thing.”

Who is and who is not an informant is impossible to discern. The result is imams do not provide “one-on-one consultations.” They cannot be sure a congregant will be sincere or if he will pass information to “handlers.”

The report clearly shows the effect of NYPD surveillance is social control. Entire communities and groups of people from ethnicities that are perceived to practice Islam and those who regularly attend mosques are all treated as suspects and face the possibility of anything they say or do being used against them.

Nobody wants to help the police and, if they are asked to come to the station for a “voluntary interview” about whatever Surveillance State activity police may want help perpetuating, the Muslims who do cooperate leave the interview stigmatized. Friends and colleagues do not want to be that open anymore because they cannot be sure he or she is not working for police.


It has been well over a year since the Justice Department became aware of the activities the NYPD was engaged in against Muslims. The surveillance has even taken place outside of the NYPD’s jurisdiction in parts of New Jersey and in parts of the country as far as New Orleans. The CIA even helped the NYPD. Yet, there has been no meaningful effort on the part of Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate. Congress has held no hearings to address the fact that one of the most well-known police departments in the country is now functioning as a domestic spy agency.

John Brennan, who recently was confirmed as CIA director, was aware of arrangements between the CIA and NYPD. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which held a hearing on his nomination, declined to ask him any questions in the hearing about the NYPD’s use of surveillance. Now that he is CIA director, one should probably expect the CIA and NYPD may rekindle their relationship so the NYPD can maintain its totalitarian presence in Muslim communities.

Clearly, freedom of speech, freedom of association and privacy rights are effectively being violated. The pervasive nature is such that the individuals also do not feel they can even practice their religion. This is criminal and yet, because New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly have both said the word “terrorism” and invoked 9/11, the administration of President Barack Obama is looks the other way and permits police officers to interfere in the daily lives of innocent Americans.

*To read the full report, go here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."