Carlisle, PA – The problem with the NYPD’s wanton disregard for the principle of equal protection is that all US citizens are affected by the harmful discrimination.
People of colour – including Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans – have borne the brunt of the NYPD’s Islamophobic policies, in which Muslim Americans have become one of the latest targets of unwarranted police attention. But it doesn’t matter what your faith or skin colour is: the biggest police department in the United States has policies that are taking away everyone’s civil rights.
The NYPD clearly operates a programme based on the bigoted (and wrong) idea that the more religious you are, the more likely you are to carry out a terrorist attack – if you’re Muslim, that is. An ongoing investigation by the Associated Press into the New York Police Department (NYPD) has uncovered the actions of a “counter-terrorism” programme that has involved the extensive use of discriminatory profiling against Muslim American communities.
The details of this programme are shocking. As discussed on Al Jazeera, among the many outlandish efforts undertaken by the NYPD, police officers went undercover and monitored the mundane daily activities of Muslim American college students in New York and in many other states.
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Police officers also recorded banal details about restaurants and places of worship where Muslims often congregate. In developing some of these programmes, the AP found documents proving that the NYPD coordinated with a CIA agent, which could indicate a gross violation of the CIA’s prohibition against engaging in domestic surveillance.
Several dozen advocacy organisations from around the country have asked for state and federal investigations of the NYPD. So far, no formal investigations have been announced. As a result, the NYPD’s mistaken idea that “more Muslim = more terrorism” has been left largely unchallenged in the actual courts and in the court of public opinion.
Abuse of freedom
The impact of these programmes on Muslim American communities has been profound. It’s not an exaggeration to say that basic democratic freedoms have been abused by the NYPD. A report from WNYC found that Muslims have stopped “frequenting places out of fear of being monitored, or avoiding discussion of politically sensitive topics”. This sounds like political oppression of the first order.
Unfortunately, the damage wrought by the NYPD’s anti-Muslim programme extends far beyond the Muslim American community. Anyone in the United States who fits the racialised description of “Muslim” (having a beard, wearing a headdress, having brown skin) can expect to face increased discrimination as the result of the legitimation of the NYPD’s anti-Muslim policy.
The legitimacy afforded this sort of knee-jerk bigotry by the NYPD is all too simple. If it’s okay for the NYPD to single out Muslims, when the NYPD is a brave force for public safety and service, then it must be okay for any law-abiding American to feel the same way towards Muslims or anyone who looks Muslim. The widespread approval of the anti-Muslim approach among New Yorkers is perhaps the most troubling part of this story.
The AP began its extensive reporting on the NYPD’s discriminatory programmes in August 2011, but a February 2012 poll and a March 2012 poll of New York City voters found that nearly 60 per cent felt that the NYPD has acted “appropriately”, with only 20 per cent saying the police department “unfairly targeted Muslims”. As if to underscore the idea that the NYPD can do no wrong, on March 5, a few dozen Muslim Americans rallied with conservative Congressman Peter King (R-NY) to express their support for the NYPD.
Despite the recent outpouring of support of these discriminatory programmes, a federal investigation of the NYPD’s practices is sorely needed. It’s likely that if the NYPD’s crudely constructed policies of religious and racial profiling were brought into the courts, the judicial principle of strict scrutiny would definitively show that the NYPD had grossly violated the constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
Strict scrutiny is the standard applied by the courts to determine whether the government can move beyond constitutional limits due to extraordinary circumstances. It’s called “strict” because the government must rise to a tripartite standard: first, it must prove that it has a compelling interest; second, that the policy is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest; and, finally, the policy must use the least restrictive means to achieve that interest.
Preventing terrorism is, undoubtedly, a compelling state interest. But spying on anyone who happens to be in a mosque or restaurant cannot possibly be “narrowly tailored”. Similarly, a programme so paranoid that it spied on its own anti-terrorism partners and kept track of any Muslim who changed their name clearly isn’t the “least restrictive means” towards achieving the goal of anti-terrorism.
The case for proving that the NYPD has violated the constitution appears easy to prove in a court. The inability of Muslim American and civil liberties advocates to get these programmes into the courts, so far, is another sign of political oppression.
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What might be even worse than the flagrant violation of civil rights, however, is that the NYPD programme is likely to make New York and the rest of the country less safe from terrorism. The best scholarship on terrorism suggests that devout Muslims are very unlikely to join up with terrorists.
A February 2012 report from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security concluded that terrorism from Muslim Americans was a “miniscule threat to public safety”. An earlier report from the same centre found that Muslim American “practices” effectively “prevent radicalisation”.
Getting it wrong
The authors of that study suggest a seven-step process to further reduce the “serious, but limited, problem” of terrorism linked to Muslim Americans. The NYPD’s discriminatory programmes do the exact opposite of nearly all of these recommendations:
The conclusion is simple: the NYPD must shut down these anti-Muslim programmes immediately. That, unfortunately, would only begin the process of repairing the damage that has been done to civil rights and US counter-terrorism efforts. The effort to destroy the bigoted and wrong idea that Muslims – and those who “look like” Muslims – are more likely to be terrorists will be a difficult battle for civil rights advocates.
They have to contend against the multi-million-dollar Islamophobia industry, which has pumped more than $40m into political campaigns and propaganda that has made Muslim-bashing an effective campaign strategy in local, state, and national politics. As long as the NYPD is on the side of the Muslim-bashers, the civil rights advocates will make very little headway.
The bottom line is this: The terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 wanted to destroy the American way of life. They wanted to strike a blow against values such as equality, liberty, and the rule of law. We shouldn’t help the terrorists by destroying these things on their behalf.
Erik Love studies civil rights advocacy in the United States. He is a professor of sociology at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
Follow him on Twitter @ErikLove