The New York Police Department and other New York City officials were targeted by a lawsuit filed Tuesday by civil rights groups that hope to end what they called an “unconstitutional” effort to monitor practically all followers of the Islamic faith in the city.
“It’s about equal protection and first amendment rights,” Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, told Raw Story. “We’re basically arguing that the NYPD’s surveillance program has impacted their ability to practice their faith and also chilling free speech in the community.”
She said the lawsuit has been in the works since The Associated Press revealed that the NYPD was conducting extensive surveillance of Muslims within its jurisdiction, aided by the Central Intelligence Agency. The AP later reported that documents it unearthed showed that the NYPD was targeting Muslims purely because of their religious affiliation.
The lawsuit names New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the city’s deputy commissioner of intelligence, David Cohen. It accuses them of directing an effort that has fully mapped Muslim communities throughout New York City and beyond, sending officers and informants into places of worship undercover without any probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing, and keeping tabs on Muslims’ online activities.
“There are five plaintiffs whose names are on this lawsuit,” Sarsour said. “Two are individuals, two are mosques and one is a charitable organization. The surveillance has impacted their congregations, their donations to the mosques… People have felt suspicious that there were informants based on some of the reports that came out. Imams saying they felt like they couldn’t perform their comprehensive duty as imams. They didn’t want to discuss certain topics like, for example, the Boston bombings. Not even to condemn because they felt like informants might take their words out of context.”
“When a police department turns law-abiding people into suspects because they go to a mosque and not a church or a synagogue, it violates our Constitution’s guarantees of equality and religious freedom,” ACLU National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi said in an advisory. “No one questions that the NYPD has a job to do, but spying on innocent New Yorkers because of their religion is a wrong and ineffective way to do it. We are asking the court to end the NYPD’s unconstitutional religious discrimination.”
As a result of this surveillance, Muslims behind the ACLU’s lawsuit say their congregations have shrunk dramatically due to widespread fear of comments being taken out of context or false allegations being leveled by surprise. One of the plaintiffs in the suit, 20-year-old Asad Dandia, said his charitable group Muslims Giving Back virtually imploded after its members learned that it was infiltrated by the NYPD.
“The young man who ran this charitable organization befriended an informant who slept over at his house,” Sarsour. “Then the informant went public on Facebook and said, ‘I just want everyone to know, I didn’t do the right thing. I was an informant for the NYPD. I shouldn’t have done that.’ So when people found out he was an informant, this charitable organization — basically a food pantry giving out non-perishable items to low-income workers — people didn’t want to be friends with this young man who let an informant sleep in his house.”
She added that ever since the New York Muslim community became aware of the surveillance program, there’s a general sentiment that people are often self-censoring when they speak to one another. “It really chilled free speech,” Sarsour added. “Young people don’t feel like they can do political activism in the way they’d done before because they’re worried NYPD informants might take their words out of context and harm them or worse.”
“The NYPD is supposed to protect New Yorkers but it is instead stigmatizing hundreds of thousands of community members as disloyal and inherently dangerous simply because of their religion,” New York Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg said in an advisory. “Religious diversity has been a foundation of life in New York City for more than 300 years. This program not only violates our Constitution and our values as Americans and New Yorkers, but it promotes ignorance and prejudice.”
[Ed. note: This story has been updated to include quotes from an interview with Sarsour and additional background information.]