Blueprints: Mapping US Muslim Communities

The NYPD method for mapping home-grown terrorism is flawed and infringes on First Amendment rights, scholar argues.

American Muslims great adventure day
 Muslim communties across the US have been subjected to potentially unlawful policing measures [GALLO/GETTY]

On this ten-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, the media has reported a number of accounts on law enforcement’s broad-based surveillance of Muslim communities in the United States. The New York City Police Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation are being trained to conflate Islam and Muslims with violence and terrorism.

Law enforcement is watching the day-to-day activities of thousands upon thousands of Muslims, with focus on mosques and hookah (waterpipe) bars, Pakistani cab drivers and the devout. Relying on informants, undercover cops, and a vast structure for information-sharing and joint policing, the FBI and NYPD – with assistance from the CIA – are working toward a cartography of Muslim communities.

This mapping is being done in the name of national security. But on what theory?

Radicalisation theory

At the heart of these draconian policing practices are unsubstantiated “radicalisation” theories of fairly recent vintage. In their focus on Muslim communities and Muslim identity, the theories frame all Muslims as potential terrorists.

The theories mark particular behaviours as indicative of future terrorist activity, and therefore deserving of intrusive policing and aggressive prosecution. The problem is that many of the indicators the theories point to should constitute protected First Amendment activity–religious practice, political opinion, and association–and provide no convincing rationale to link the indicators to potential for violence or terrorism.

The NYPD is responsible for the most influential law-enforcement articulation and assertion of the process of radicalisation.

The NYPD’s 2007 report Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat draws on a small number of problematic case studies for its conclusions. Although the report essentially admits to a flawed methodology, its central message is that monitoring Muslim religious behaviour, political activity, and community spaces is an investment in homeland security.

The NYPD report identifies four stages of radicalisation: preradicalisation, self-identification, indoctrination, and ‘jihadisation’. The factors the report associates with the early stages of radicalisation are particularly broad. 

Preradicalisation, for example, is associated with “the bored and/or frustrated, successful college students, the unemployed, the second and third generation, new immigrants, petty criminals, and prison parolees.” Markers of self-identification include “pilgrimage to Mecca” and “growing a beard”. The report also associates disagreement with American foreign policy with potential for future terrorist activity.  

The NYPD report does not stop at criminalising what should be First Amendment-protected expressions of religious identity and political opinion. It also targets association, identifying places where Muslims gather as inherently deserving of extra law enforcement scrutiny. “Radicalisation incubators” include mosques and the internet “cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organisations, hookah bars, butcher shops and book shops.”

Without any rigorous data or reliable methodology, the report provides justification to spy on almost any Muslim in the United States. Perhaps even more troubling, it invites focused law enforcement surveillance on places where Muslims gather, on political opinions associated with Muslim communities, and on Muslim religious practice.

Subjective policing 
The NYPD routinely hires “mosque crawlers” to spy on Muslims at their weekly prayers [GALLO/GETTY]

The construction of a predictable link between growing a beard and committing an act of terrorism creates reason for the breathtaking set of measures that have come to light in the last few weeks.

The NYPD’s 2007 report reads as a blueprint for the recent news about the NYPD’s profiles of 250 mosques and Muslim student groups in the NYC area, and its deployment of mosque “rakers” and “crawlers” to listen in on sermons and geo-map Muslim communities.

We now know of a constellation of law enforcement programmes that construe Muslims – Muslim men in particular – as threatening when they grow beards, attend mosque regularly, and express disagreement with US policy of unending war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Radicalisation theories seem to be motivating policing and prosecutions techniques well beyond New York City.Given the unreliability of the primary justifying theory, the questions become why the radicalisation theory has been invested with so much power, and how it remains largely beyond question.

A policy of surveillance triggered by expressions of Muslim identity – as manifested in particular religious practices, political opinions, and community spaces – has had profound and devastating consequences for Muslim communities. The NYPD and FBI have a lot more to answer for than just the recent revelations.

Amna Akbar is Attorney-in-Residence and Adjunct Professor at the City University of New York School of Law.  She supervises the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project, which works to address the unmet legal needs of Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and other communities in New York City that are particularly affected by national security and counterterrorism policies and practices. This article draws from a larger work in progress taking a critical look at radicalization theories and the idea of cooperation between Muslim communities and law enforcement.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.