By Altaf Husain
The Associated Press discovery that the New York Police Department (NYPD) monitored Muslim college students both within and outside the city limits in 2006 and 2007 has sparked outrage from university officials and students. The surveillance included Baruch College, Columbia University, New York University and the State University of New York campus in Buffalo and Syracuse. NYPD also monitored students at Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. None of the students who were spied upon had ever been suspected of nor have subsequently been found to have committed any wrongdoing. Agents filed briefs marked “secret”, identifying students by name and reporting their activities such as white water rafting, praying, discussing religious matters and forwarding conference announcements. In moving forward, there are lessons for law enforcement officials.
First, let’s examine what research tells us. A recent study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in Durham, North Carolina found that alleged plots involving Muslim Americans have declined since 9/11 and there is also little evidence to indicate support for terrorism among this population. The author, Charles Kurzman, found that predictions of the imminent threat of home grown terrorism by Muslims thankfully have not materialised. By incorporating the content of such reports into regular briefings and trainings, law enforcement would be more strategically positioned to protect and serve their communities. In addition, creating opportunities for dialogue between law enforcement and Muslims could help both groups understand each other.
Second, the NYPD could consult respected New Yorkers such as NYPD Chaplain and Executive Director and Chaplain of the Islamic Center at New York University, Khalid Latif. He and thousands of other like him reflect the best America has to offer: a young man with a passion to serve fellow New Yorkers while also helping them to understand his faith and all its diversity. In addition, although there is a misperception that increased religious practice is linked to religious extremism, the NYPD would have learned quickly that Muslim students balance their duty to God and country with impeccable grace – in doing so, they reject extremism in all aspects of life. While on campus, many young Muslims organise prayer services, study circles and events to raise funds for charities and spend Saturday mornings doing activities like feeding the homeless and volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, an organisation that creates affordable housing.
A third lesson is the profound possible damage to the psychosocial well-being of an entire generation of young Muslim Americans that such surveillance can cause. These students have come of age in post-9/11 America and have no tolerance for radicalism or terrorism. Along with others in the Muslim community, they are increasingly among the people whose tips have led to arrests or the foiling of terrorist plots. The unrelenting suspicion and scrutiny could result in psychosocial consequences such as depression, self-rejection, self-hatred and low self-esteem.
During my time as a Ph.D. student in social work, I served as national president of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA). During my second term, terrorists struck America on 9/11; Muslims were saddened because our nation had been attacked. I headed with other students to the Red Cross in Washington, DC to donate blood, and I recall the tremors of shock and disgust we felt when the 9/11 terrorists were identified as Muslims. Students expressed sentiments like: we have to defend our homeland from further attacks, and we should turn in anyone who espouses killing innocent people. True to American form, I also heard critiques of domestic and foreign policies because some of those post-9/11 policies betrayed the very principles upon which our nation was founded.
A powerful portrait of America is emerging as Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of other traditions join hands to condemn terrorism and focus their energy on community service and social justice initiatives.
Like me, students of that era have long since graduated. We are building our American dream: starting families, pursuing careers and serving our communities. The MSA guiding principles helped us. We are thankful to God that we live in America, practice our religion freely, and can serve God and our country. Similarly, future generations deserve the same opportunities as every American to pursue their dreams and not to have to look over their shoulders while they go about their daily lives.
Particularly from our law enforcement, these students deserve courtesy, professionalism and respect – the defining “CPR” motto of the NYPD. I firmly agree with the conclusion of Kurzman’s research: let us be vigilant and thwart potential terrorist plots, but let us exercise proportion in doing so.
Altaf Husain served as a former two term president of the national Muslim Students Association. He is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Assistant Professor of Social Work at Howard University in Washington, DC.