A settlement was reached in two cases involving the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslims. As the lead plaintiff in Hassan v. City of New York — the first surveillance case filed on behalf of Muslim Americans who were targeted and that has yet to be settled — here’s what I think.
The story of the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey is one that continues to outrage and shake me. The three-and-a-half year ordeal since the Associated Press broke the news, however, has taught me much about myself, American civil liberties and the American Muslim community.
My own process of identifying as an American Muslim may make it clearer just why I was moved to be the lead plaintiff in this case. In 2010, I went to Haiti with a nongovernmental organization to provide first aid after their tragic earthquake. When I returned to the U.S., my experiences in Haiti prompted me to start looking within myself and explore more about my faith, roots and friendships, and refocus on my career in the United States Army Reserves. Although for some 14 years, I practically grew up in a mosque in Englishtown, New Jersey, I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household. In the 1980s, we weren’t taught too much about the faith; we just lived it. I knew how to pray and was a moral person, but something about hard-hit Haiti really sparked a deep interest in me to learn more about my religion.
It just so happened that being part of an active new religious community a few more miles away was part of the answer I was looking for. Masjid e-Ali, a beautiful mosque in Somerset, New Jersey, had opened and I found myself inspired to be a part of that community. The mosque is aesthetically pleasing: The beautiful and peaceful inner sanctuary inspires anyone to connect with the Divine. I learned that the Friday prayers were especially powerful and beautiful, and was lucky to have my Army unit accommodate my regular attendance there. As soon as the boss said it was a “go,” I committed to attending Juma prayer every available Friday at a mosque. This prayer and time in my week became something of deep importance to my growing sense of identity as a Muslim in America.
But a few months later, in 2011, our entire community and those at neighboring mosques were alarmed, dismayed and outraged when an Associated Press story broke the news about the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims in New York as well as New Jersey, a program that began some time in 2002.
In light of the story, many community members started to open up and share stories about odd run ins they had, seeing strange men lingering around our houses of worship and community centers. One friend at an Iraqi mosque spotted a man with a camera in a dark Ford Crown Victoria. Many others shared similar stories. Earlier, folks might have let these incidents go. But after the AP story, it was clear that these incidents were part of a systematic obliteration of Muslims’ constitutional rights to peaceably assemble and practice our religion. This unconstitutional surveillance was concocted by law enforcement and carried out by the largest police force in America with help from the CIA.
Getting mistaken for someone else can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances. I wouldn’t mind getting mistaken for a rocket scientist or George Clooney. But I and my fellow Muslims — especially South Asian males — have at times been caught in a wide net of unwarranted surveillance and were “mistaken” for armed suspects or terrorist sympathizers. In an atmosphere highly charged with suspicion over any particular ethnic, racial or religious group, any innocent action can, and historically has, been misconstrued as being part of a larger nefarious conspiracy. If the NYPD had recorded my Jeep’s license plate in the mosque parking lot and mistakenly associated it with their clearly flawed pursuit of terrorism, it would have been detrimental to my Army career and security clearance. I have never had anything to hide, but I’ll be damned if I have to carry my papers with me as I freely travel through my state. The same goes for the others in the Muslim community who were unknowingly under a microscope as they went about their daily lives.
Furthermore, this spying endeavor was a complete waste of taxpayer dollars. It is obvious the NYPD’s detectives were getting a whole lot of overtime to do a whole lot of listening to a whole lot of innocent people. As their own comments state, there was no actionable intelligence gathered, officers were simply going after people based on their looks and beliefs: Good luck if you were brown, or had a long beard, or wore a hijab, or had a prayer mat hanging in your window or anything else that could make you “worthy” of being surveilled. It is supremely clear that there was no rationale behind the entire approach to gaining intel that would hold up in court. The Muslim community was stunned and left wondering why the city of New York allowed and fully funded an operation for badged individuals to spy on Muslims in the first place.
Within a few days of the publication of the AP article, other plaintiffs joined our Hassan v. City of New York case. We sued the NYPD for equal protection under the law and to be treated fairly by law enforcement as a whole. According to the AP, the NYPD Demographic Unit was charged with collecting “intelligence” from predominately Muslim “communities of interest” in an effort to prevent any would-be attack on New York City. The NYPD allegedly traversed any area it deemed important within a 250-mile radius of its lawful jurisdiction. A few months after NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio was sworn into office in 2014, he allegedly disbanded the unit.
Last week, after more than three years of this tiring ordeal, a settlement was announced in two other civil rights lawsuits — Raza v. City of New York and Handschu v. Special Services Division — against the NYPD. According to the terms, the department will conduct overhauls designed to protect Muslims and other New York residents against surveillance that is considered unjustified and discriminatory. The department will also bring in a civilian representative to weigh in on investigations that involve religious or political activity. John J. Miller, deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism, said, “The proposed settlement does not weaken the NYPD’s ability to fulfill its steadfast commitment to investigate and prevent terrorist activity in New York City.” Those words seem daunting and threatening at best.
Meanwhile, Hassan v. City of New York continues, and we will eventually have our long awaited day in court. Nonetheless, our case is remarkable in so many ways, and the process itself has been eye opening. Our case, and others like ours, demonstrates that American Muslims and other minorities can actively and peacefully fight for their constitutional rights in the most American way possible — in the courts. It also demonstrates that there are a vast majority of Americans who preserve and defend civil liberties of all regardless of their background. Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights are the two lead legal teams representing my 11 co-plaintiffs. I have met many talented staff members and co-counsels, and I am extremely confident in the sheer genius of my lead attorneys.
My co-plaintiffs represent a rich and diverse segment of America, and were harmed by the NYPD’s warrantless and suspicion-less harassment of our Muslim communities. One co-plaintiff is a former corrections officer, one or two have previously served in local government and some are college students, but all have been terrorized and are brave to be a part of something so profound. Amici briefs have come from the Koramatsu family, the Sikh Coalition, Quakers, Latino groups and Jewish groups. Civil rights organizations of all types have supported this case in an effort to help us defend our rights as American Muslims. Interestingly, Hassan v. City of New York is also being used as a case example in Japan in the Muslim community’s effort there to deal with anti-Muslim biases by the government. This front in the battle for equal opportunity is part of a worldwide phenomenon and it is clear that this landmark case will be important in considering the civil liberties of all minorities throughout not only our beloved America, but worldwide.
But to my dismay, the vast majority of Muslim American communities have largely been silent — they weren’t as supportive of the lawsuit as they should have been. Although Muslim Advocates attorneys have canvassed the country in their work defending Muslim rights, Muslim Americans have shown a tepid response. After the rallies are over, and the letters written or emails sent, a quiet calm takes over again. There is activism fatigue in our community. Over 150 supporters did pack the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October when we had our hearing — and that did have an effect I’m sure — but during the past three-plus years, the outrage from the Muslim community at large over the issue was diminished and there wasn’t as big of a push as there should have been. I found myself wondering, when will Muslim Americans finally awaken and stand up for what’s right? What will it take? My 11 co-plaintiffs are Black, Brown, Tan and represent the beauty of America and Islam. They truly do represent Haq — the Arabic word for “right.” If our case cannot unite Muslim communities, Shiite and Sunni, then I don’t know what will.
Muslim Advocates, the Center for Constitutional Rights and their partners are defending the civil rights of millions of Muslim Americans. Muslims in America should do more than just send them a prayer. We should count our lucky stars that we have these incredible partners disrupting the status quo on our behalf. It’s an absolute blessing to work alongside my brave co-plaintiffs and crack legal team serving America. Hopefully we can send them a check along with a prayer, but I’m not holding my breath.
The NYPD was allowed to spy on innocent Muslim Americans for years without any retribution or real political fallback. There have been some 2,800 questions asked in 32 Congressional hearings, and 11 published reports on Benghazi, but for a long time, nothing came about over the warrantless, intelligence-devoid activity of systematically freaking out a peaceful religious community up and down the East Coast in the post-Civil Rights Movement era. Thankfully the AP did what media are supposed to do — hold those in power accountable. Thanks to the settlements in the Raza and Handschu cases, the NYPD will finally get another civilian watchdog to make sure Johnny-law doesn’t put the U.S. Constitution too far into the shredder.
I share in the desires that unite most Muslims and non-Muslims throughout America. I too want to live with nice neighbors, I want my kids to be better off than me in life, I definitely don’t want to drive over potholes, and most importantly, I and my fellow peaceful law-abiding, tax-paying Muslim Americans just want to be left alone.
Dear Cops: Go after the real bad guys, not just any Brown guy.
And Dear American Muslims: This is a case that directly affects all of us. Despite all the issues that divide us, we must join together and allow at least this one issue to unite us.