How would you feel if the police considered you suspicious simply because of your religious faith? What would be your reaction if the police viewed your religion as probable cause to monitor where you pray, study, and eat? Would you even attend your place of worship if you knew that someone there is possibly an undercover police officer sent to investigate you?
Well, that’s what it’s like to be Muslim in New York City. Paradoxically, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech where he shared his hope that Americans “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” we discover that the NYPD is still judging Muslims by their faith.
By way of a brief background, in 2011 the Associated Press released documents revealing that the NYPD had engaged in the widespread surveillance of Muslims in NYC. The NYPD monitored Muslims at mosques, restaurants, bookstores and even Muslim college-student groups in neighboring states.
And this week we found out that the NYPD surveillance of Muslims was more invasive and troubling than previously known. The NYPD had labeled at least a dozen NYC mosques as terrorist organizations under the “terrorism enterprise investigations,” or TEI.
This designation allowed the NYPD to treat those attending a mosque as members of a terror cell. Police could monitor mosque leaders and attendees without any specific evidence of wrongdoing. It also empowered the police to infiltrate these mosques with undercover agents and informants.
Oddly, the NYPD tried to secretly place an undercover officer on the board of the Arab-American Association of NY. This raises two questions for me: first, is the NYPD aware that Arab and Muslim don’t mean the same thing? Arabs can be any religion and, in fact, a majority of Arab Americans living in the U.S. are Christian.
Secondly, I‘m the co-producer of an annual NY Arab-American comedy festival. Did the NYPD try to infiltrate our event? Perhaps that explains why some of the people auditioning were so bad.
In response to the release of these documents by the AP, the NYPD once again denied that it targets Muslims based on their faith. But then again, the NYPD denied that they were racially profiling blacks and Latinos with their “stop-and-frisk” program. But they clearly were. And that’s not just my opinion, but also the recent ruling of a federal judge who found that NYPD program to be unconstitutional.
Religious profiling is just as wrong. And there are currently three lawsuits pending in federal court to declare the NYPD’s profiling of Muslims as unconstitutional.
I want to make one thing clear: I’m a Muslim, and if there was any credible evidence that Muslims were planning a terror attack, I would want the authorities to swiftly and vigilantly investigate and prevent it. I don’t want to see another terror attack perpetrated by a Muslim in the United States ever again.
But that doesn’t mean that American Muslims should have any less rights than Americans of other faiths. There’s no Muslim exception to the protections afforded by our Constitution—nor should there ever be.
Here’s the bottom line: we all agree that we want to prevent terrorism in our nation. The question that needs to be addressed is: what is the best way to achieve that?
It’s a truism of law enforcement that one of the most effective ways to combat crime is by working closely with local communities and creating a partnership with them to help combat wrongdoing. However, the NYPD policy of religious profiling does the opposite. It causes law-abiding American Muslims to not see the police as their partners but as their adversaries.
In contrast, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca hasn’t used confrontation but cooperation to build a close relationship with the Muslim community over the past few years. In fact, Sheriff Baca testified before the House Homeland Security Committee that out of all the diverse ethnic, racial, and religious groups in L.A. county, “Nowhere is that relationship more positive than that which exists between my agency and the American Muslim community.” Baca made it clear that law enforcement needs to build trust with Muslims, as well as all communities within its jurisdiction, in order “to maintain a safe society free of violent extremism.”
The NYPD should follow the lead of Sheriff Baca, and stop the antiquated, illegal, and immoral ways of using religious and racial profiling. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. invoked in his historic speech 50 years, we must never forget the promise contained in our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
It’s time that we treat all Americans equally as well—regardless of their faith.