Surviving police surveillance and internal policing within the Muslim community of New York City
May 23, 2019
Beit al-Maqdis, a mosque in Sunset Park but edging on the border of Bay Ridge, has 56 Google Reviews, all of which average an excellent 4.7 stars. “Very Good,” wrote Nassef Mohammed, rating Beit al-Maqdis 5 stars. Ibrahim Achel likes that “it’s easy to find parking.” Nurul Siddiqui’s favorite part is that it is next to a halal butcher shop and he also likes that they had a health screening event there recently. He gave it 3 stars.
The act of rating a place of a worship is a funny one, but it’s not that uncommon. The Sistine Chapel has 9,000 Google reviews. The Dome of the Rock has nearly 2,000. Yet there’s something more unsettling about the reviews of this mundane masjid in a low-traffic corner of Southern Brooklyn. Everybody seems to want you to know how peaceful it is here. And clean. These are good people, the reviews assure you. Their authors all have Muslim names.
When I was working at Beit al-Maqdis — or BAM as we called it — running an adult education program for the Arab American Association of New York, a man threw a brick through the window of the community center. He didn’t enter or try to rob the place. Beyond excessive online reviews, another sign of our times is the occasional outburst of inexplicable violence. Perhaps for that reason, this one barely drew notice. No one was hurt. No threats were made. Nonetheless, the message was clear: Watch yourself.
But no one had to tell us that.
For the Muslim-American community in the aftermath of 9/11, the fear of being watched is common. But it wasn’t until 2011, when the Associated Press published a series of 10 articles on NYPD surveillance of the Muslim community in New York City, that the reality those fears are based in was widely recognized. A few months later, the police department issued a press release in response to the AP series claiming that the NYPD surveillance program successfully thwarted 14 terrorist plots.
However, according to a report by the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility Project (CLEAR), “Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and its Impact on American Muslims” the majority of these cases were either so lacking in credibility that charges were never brought or, worse, were plotted and enabled mainly by a government informant.
A common response to fears of surveillance is something along the lines of, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.” Yet, “Mapping Muslims” proved that “merely speaking in certain languages, particularly Urdu or Arabic, could trigger surveillance.” Given that among the real risks of being Muslim in America is getting essentially tricked into participating in a terrorist plot by a person who is paid to protect you and your community, the fear of surveillance among Muslims in NYC is no mere paranoia.
In 2006, just as the surveillance program was put into place, the NYPD published an internal report that classified nearly every quotidian act of observant Islamic practice, from wearing Islamic clothing to giving up drinking, as “typical signatures” of radicalization. Was this willful ignorance or an outright attempt to criminalize a specific religion? Does it matter?
What did matter was that no one was safe. The NYPD didn’t only have informants in local mosques. They also regularly visited “hot spots” in Muslim neighborhoods, or — as they were known in their communities — restaurants, butcher shops, and cafes. By the time the AP story broke, it was clear that the NYPD was “monitoring even its closest partners in anti-terrorism work, including imams who frequently appeared at the Mayor’s side.”
In Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, he refers to two types of acquittal an accused party can be subject to. The first is “Ostensible Acquittal,” “in which the accused is to all intents and purposes acquitted.” The second, however, is “Indefinite Postponement,” in which the suspicion never quite ends and the “ultimate dreaded judgment is unlikely to be forthcoming.”
In 2012, Thomas Galati, the Commanding Officer of the NYPD Intelligence Division, testified in a court of law that the surveillance on Muslim communities in the previous 6 years had never produced a single lead.
The verdict on the Muslim community of NYC, in the eyes of the police department: postponed, but not acquitted.
Fisher writes that indefinite postponement is “education as a lifelong process…training that persists for as long as your…life continues.” The result is internal policing. If the axe hangs over you eternally, you become an expert at crouching.
Magdolyn Kawas was a student at Brooklyn College when the infamous story of NYPD undercover cop “Mel” broke in 2015. Mel’s identity was discovered when two women in Queens were convicted of planning to build a bomb based on her intelligence. Mel, or “Melike Ser,” had been posing as a convert in Brooklyn College Muslim student circles in order to gather information.
Kawas frequented the Islamic Society center on campus and often ran into Mel there. When she found out she was a spy, she was “shocked.” Around the same time, a friend of hers was picked up by FBI, sent to a holding center in El Paso, and then abruptly returned home a couple of weeks later. There was never an explanation for her arrest or her release.
This atmosphere lead to “huge fear, anxiety, panicking all the time.” Kawas recalls regularly praying that she wouldn’t be targeted and picked up. She had written a paper about Hamas for a college class and she was terrified it would land her in jail.
Eventually, Kawas backed off of participating in activist circles because of the overwhelming anxiety around surveillance. “It gets overbearing,” she said. She admitted to often wondering if people she meets through other Muslims are informants. Trust has become an issue. And recently, in one of her few forays back into the world of resistance, Kawas attended an activists’ meeting addressing surveillance in Muslim communities in NYC. Attendees sat in a circle and introduced themselves, including a comment on whether they’d been affected by surveillance. As each person introduced themselves, she began to realize she was one of the people who was directly affected. She started crying.
Kawas recounted the times when undercover officers would knock on her door and ask seemingly innocuous questions with the intent to gain entrance into her family’s home. “Your natural inclination is to be helpful…Just the experience of someone coming to your home and saying, Can I come in for a second? Could you just turn on the light? It’s this super simple thing that gives them consent to come into your house and search it that you don’t realize you’re giving.”
Kawas worries that one day someone will find a reason to arrest her and she won’t even understand why. “It’s probably one of my biggest fears. I still think about coming home to find someone in my house telling me: get up, get dressed, you’re out.”
Post-9/11 laws give the American justice system a great deal of leeway when it comes to those suspected of terrorism. She wonders about what’s happened to people who have fallen victim to these looser rules. “[It’s terrifying] just to think about the people who are still in jail and their children and their lives are supposed to go on without them. But we don’t actually know what happens to these people. When you hear about a Guantanamo prisoner coming out, you’re just like, ‘Wow I even forgot he was there.’ It’s kind of scary for me because how could I forget someone is in jail? What are they doing every day? What are they going through? I can’t imagine it.”
Despite all the fear and anxiety, Kawas wanted to emphasize that talking about it helps. “Being aware of it makes us more conscious and careful but it also gives us power.”
She told me about the importance of “taking a leap of faith” in a climate meant to make you distrust other members of your community. It’s important that the community comes together to “denounce white supremacy and the war on terror, as well as the narrative of good Muslim and bad Muslim.”
“I was born and raised here. We feel (we have) more right to the country. We feel like we can say more things than people who are not from here. I think we have to take that power to protect immigrants and people who are coming into our space to feel that same strength to say I have a right to be here.”
Imam Khalid Latif, chaplain of the Islamic Center at NYU (ICNYU), was one of those aforementioned close partners of the NYPD. He served as a NYPD chaplain from 2007-2018. He didn’t know about the surveillance until he was contacted by an AP reporter, but he wasn’t surprised. While he was at the department, he knew of, and openly criticized, a documentary that was used to train new officers on identifying radicalization in the Muslim community. The documentary was called “Obsession: A Look into Radical Islam” and much like the report mentioned in “Mapping Muslims”, the documentary equated much of normal Islamic practice with radicalism. Latif called it “Islamophobic pornography.”
He also saw the effect in the students he was serving. “That kind of engagement is not just about constructing a fear that the mass public buys into, but also a sense of insecurity and self-loathing within the demographic that is being targeted,” he said.
He had stories of his own, as well. Beyond the NYPD partners he worked with going so far as to tell him that he was “too good to be true” and they were watching him as well, he was always the target of randomized checks on flights.
He told me the story of coming back from his honeymoon and warning his wife that they would likely be stopped by TSA on their arrival in the US. Instead, they went through customs, passport control, and baggage claim without issue. His wife joked that if he had married her earlier, maybe he wouldn’t have been stopped so much.
He put his head on her shoulder and cried. “I hadn’t seen that part of the airport in like 7 years. I didn’t know that all of that was inside of me,” he said.
Nonetheless, Latif struck me as an optimist. First off, he kept working with the NYPD over six years after the AP report was published, leaving with a rank of Inspector under his belt. He thought of quitting in protest shortly after the NYPD report on radicalism came out, but the “media people he knew said it wouldn’t be leveraged well” and he decided to stay in an effort to change something from the inside.
Additionally, in the past, he had held a Muslim officer’s iftar at the ICNYU but was told by one congregant that the experience of being around cops was triggering. After that, he ended the event. “It’s a learning process,” he said.
Secondly, in our conversation, he talked often of the unexpected positive results of post-9/11 surveillance. In the immediate aftermath of the task, he said the NYPD “recognized the absence of cohesive leadership in the Muslim community as well as how they could leverage people in a ceremonial capacity.” Now, however, many Muslim leaders have grown to understand their power as a voting block. He argued that public holidays for Eid and the push for halal food in schools may be proof of this.
While these changes are undeniable, Latif also mentioned that the NYPD officers who were trained using the curriculum of “Obsession” and “Radicalization in the West: the Homegrown Threat” have not been re-trained, nor has the NYPD ever admitted responsibility for spreading such blatantly Islamophobic material. I wonder if this optimism comes from a place of privilege. The very first time the FBI came to Latif’s home, NYU immediately intervened, sending the college’s public safety officers to ask them to leave. Unlike Kawas, Latif always knew he’d have a safe haven.
Still, his students’ parents are getting deported and Latif himself holds a fear in the back of his head that, one day, somebody could find an excuse to take him away from his children as well. He argued that the best way to build political power and protection from governmental incursions like this was to build coalitions with other minority communities.
He acknowledged the difficulty in that as well. He told me a story of a church he visited in Asheville, North Carolina that was eager to build a relationship with the local Muslim community but kept coming up against the hesitance of a traumatized community. They seemed to want and need the protection it would provide, but had no idea where to start.
Ibrahim Bechrouri, a PhD candidate studying NYPD surveillance at Columbia and the Institut Francais de Geopolitique, came to New York City from France in 2013, not long after the AP report on the police program. As a well-attuned newcomer to Muslim spaces in the city, he quickly noticed the trauma.
“People were really wary of me,” he said. “A lot of people refused to talk about [surveillance] because they were just too afraid of the implications of discussing what happened with the NYPD.”
It seemed that Muslims were “screening” new friends, often making somewhat passive-aggressive jokes based on the real fear that a stranger could be a spy. It could easily be confused for rejection.
Besides that, “You know you can be taken for an informant, so you’re afraid of that. You may be acting weird [because of that fear]. It gets in the way of acting naturally.”
The long term effects of these types of interactions is alienation. Strangers are prevalent in a community with such a large population of immigrants. Bechrouri pointed out that solidarity networks are often what makes life easier in a new country, but the wariness around strangers could put a serious dent in these important connections.
I asked him whether he thought this alienation was intentional on the part of those who developed the targeted surveillance program.
“In my opinion, it is. The general objective is to make the population feel like they can’t do anything that will be seen as disorderly or going against the established order. Part of that is engaging in terrorist actions, but it also very effectively suppresses political dissidence.”
Furthermore, according to Bechrouri, it mostly fails as a deterrent from acts of terrorism.
“It works, but not on what is defined as the target. If we think the target is drugs or stopping terrorism, then it doesn’t work, because people who want to engage in those activities or people who are pushed to engage in them will engage in them. Does it work as a tool of social control of those subaltern groups? Yes, definitely.”
In fact, it’s been known to directly push people towards radical visions of Islam. In his article, “The Informant, Islam, and Muslims in New York City,” Bechrouri mentions the case of Barry Bujol, a convert who had trouble getting answers about religion since many Muslims were worried that he was an informant. After being arrested for outstanding traffic tickets, Bujol was purposely placed in a cell with an FBI informant who was all too eager to answer his questions about Islam. Eventually, after offering to provide support to his wife, he convinced Bujol to deliver weapons to Al-Qaeda in Algeria. Bujol was arrested en route and is now serving a 20-year sentence.
What is perhaps even more unnerving is that the NYPD surveillance programs are ongoing, despite the publicity in 2011. Bechrouri clarified that the case against the NYPD was regarding a specific demographic unit that maps possible targets, not the entire intelligence unit, which is likely continuing its program. “What was said in ‘Mapping Muslims’ is still true,” he told me.
Nonetheless, Bechrouri did point out one positive outcome of the program. Like Imam Latif, he noticed the way it helped the Muslim community empathize and unite with other communities of color.
He cited interpretations of the Quranic surah Al-Falaq: “There is nothing that is completely evil. Even the worst event will at least have one good consequence…. One of the positive impacts was that part of the community realized they were not better in the eyes of the white man than the black American. We have to see America for what it is. Yes, it’s an opportunity for a lot of immigrants coming here, but those opportunities are arising from a system that is profoundly unjust.”
Reem Ramadan immigrated from Bahrain to New York to go to college. I asked her what was different about mosques in NYC versus mosques in Bahrain. We talked about a mosque in Bay Ridge we both knew — during Friday prayer, people would often pray on cardboard spread out on the cold sidewalk if there was no space in the mosque itself, a sacrifice she felt Bahrainis would never commit to. “In Bahrain, [a mosque] is just like another gas station. You walk in, you do your thing, you leave…Whereas in America, it means so much more to come together and pray.”
American mosques are important, fragile things. We, the faithful, are always alert to the danger of losing spaces like these. We are always aware of how much they take to maintain.
Mohammad Jayyab, a Palestinian-American who lived in Brooklyn in the six years following the end of the NYPD surveillance program, worshipped at various mosques in the area. Jayyab often felt disillusioned with the imams’ apparent disconnect from contemporary politics. He felt that an ideal mosque should be religious, ethical, and political, but he was shocked at how often the weekly sermons avoided any mention of current events. “You had a sense that they were aware of an audience somewhere else, so they weren’t playing the role they should play,” he said.
After all, who can be themselves with so many eyes on them?
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