The New York Times
The revelation in 2011 that the New York City Police Department was spying on law-abiding Muslims rightly attracted scrutiny from the Justice Department, which announced last year that it intended to review the program. The disclosure also raised troubling questions about whether the city was violating a federal court order that bars it from retaining information gleaned from investigations of political activity unless there are reasonable indications of potential wrongdoing. The purpose of that order was to discourage unjustified surveillance and prevent police from peering into people’s private affairs and building dossiers on them without legitimate cause.
Now comes a new federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Muslim citizens and organizations saying they have been subjected to illegal surveillance that has disrupted Muslim houses of worship, made it difficult for congregants and their spiritual leaders to worship freely, and inhibited Muslims from openly associating with lawful Muslim charities and civic groups and exercising First Amendment rights.
One striking case in the complaint involves Masjid At-Taqwa, a mosque in Brooklyn, where the Police Department is alleged to have installed a surveillance camera, clearly marked with the department’s insignia and pointed at the mosque door. This seems curious because the mosque’s longtime leader, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, was said in the complaint to be a clergy liaison for the N.Y.P.D. Community Affairs Bureau and a member of the Majlis Ash-Shura, also known as the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York.
The camera, which the complaint says was moved across the street but remains in use, raised fears among congregants that they were being targeted for deportation. Many refrained from attending communal prayer; some left the congregation. Concerned that their religious pronouncements might be misquoted by informants, the mosque’s spiritual leaders began recording sermons so that they would be able to defend themselves. They have said they avoided meeting with congregants individually because they feared the congregants might be informants.
Meanwhile, according to the complaint, a police informant who visited this and other mosques tried to lure congregants into inflammatory conversations that would then have been reported to the police. According to court documents, the informant tried the same strategy with a Muslim charity that distributed food to the needy. The group, which apparently did nothing illegal, lost credibility in the community once people learned that it had been a target of police scrutiny.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has responded to such complaints by insisting that the department’s surveillance program is perfectly legal and implying that critics are undermining public safety. This is the same response he offers when challenged on the stop-and-frisk program. This arrogant approach tries to discredit legitimate criticism while justifying further overreach by a department with a history of abusive behavior. It is up to the courts to determine whether the Muslim surveillance program and the stop-and-frisk program are constitutional. What already seems clear is that these surveillance policies create suspicion and mistrust, which does not help the Police Department or anyone else.