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Muslim New Yorkers describe the fear and chilling effects of ongoing NYPD surveillance

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"You look at your closest friends and ask: are they informants?"

NYPD security camera (STOCK)
NYPD security camera (STOCK)

After September 11th, the New York Police Department began a campaign of surveillance against potentially "radical" Muslims in New York. In a series of articles starting in 2011, the Associated Press exposed the extent of the NYPD's ongoing infiltration of mosques or other "hot spots" with informants and plainclothes officers. While the AP said that many of the targeted areas "were flagged for allegations of criminal activity, such as alien smuggling, financing Hamas, or money laundering," and others were picked for inflammatory rhetoric, some were listed for unclear reasons — one restaurant was apparently flagged for its "devout" clientele.

In August 2012, a police deposition concluded that the program had generated no greater leads or terrorism investigations. In the meantime, though, it had run background checks on people who changed Arabic-sounding names, placed undercover agents at colleges to monitor Muslim student groups, and mounted cameras outside mosques, collecting license plates of worshippers.

"The person I took my shahadah [formally converted] in front of ended up being an informant."

But the "better safe than sorry" attitude that helped justify the surveillance had its own effect on New York Muslims, many of whom came to fear that markers of faith would be taken as signs of budding terrorist sympathy. A new report by the CUNY School of Law and Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition collects stories from religious leaders, business owners, students, and others who began to downplay their faith or avoid political discussions and activism. "The person I took my shahadah [formally converted] in front of ended up being an informant," says one Muslim Student Association board member. "I felt disappointed and angry when I found out about that." Other interviewees discuss worrying that new converts could be informants, or having mosque attendance drop off after worshippers saw NYPD units or cameras outside.

"We never know who else is in the bar listening."

While some of the comments are clearly in response to single incidents of surveillance, the knowledge that police might be watching can stifle even innocuous political debate or conversation and sow mistrust. One business owner describes banning Al Jazeera in his hookah bar: "We can’t control what people start saying in response to the news, and we never know who else is in the bar listening." Beyond the existing problems caused by social mistrust of Muslims, police surveillance adds another layer of worry over whether practicing faith publicly is worth the trouble.

By apparently singling out Muslims, the surveillance program created fears that something as simple as criticizing the police on Facebook or making the wrong friends could end up leading to investigation, let alone doing anything that would be described as radical. "You look at your closest friends and ask: are they informants?" says one Sunday school teacher. The report, found here (PDF), shows what even the perception of widespread surveillance can mean for a community.