The United States spends millions flying diplomats around the planet to bolster America's relationship with the Muslim world. Meanwhile, its reservoir of trust among the Muslim community at home is rapidly being depleted -- courtesy of the New York Police Department (NYPD).
On Feb. 20, Yale University President Richard Levin expressed his anger at the NYPD's extensive surveillance of American Muslim students, which has included monitoring students' emails and websites, events and speakers, and activities -- not only at Yale, but at universities across the northeast. In one frequently cited incident, an undercover police officer accompanied students from the City College of New York on a white-water rafting trip, noting their topics of conversation and the frequency of their prayers. This type of surveillance, Levin wrote, "is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States."
New York City's top officials, however, have shown no inclination to rein in the NYPD's obsessive monitoring of American Muslims. Mayor Michael Bloomberg made light of the Yale president's concerns, calling them "cute" and "ridiculous." He then attacked Levin: "Yale's freedoms to do research, to teach, to give people a place to say what they want to say is defended by the law enforcement throughout this country."
Far from supporting academic freedom, the NYPD has done tremendous damage to campus life. Far from "keeping the country safe," as Bloomberg stated, the NYPD is making us less safe.
I've worked with Muslim students across the United States -- offering media training, leading workshops debunking common and pernicious myths about Muslim history, and giving lectures on Islamic law, Muslim identity, and the value of civic engagement. These students are bright, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and remarkably civic-minded. Targeting them is not merely offensive and contrary to American values and principles, but clueless. Don't take my word for it, either. The students on whom the NYPD is spying attend some of the highest-caliber universities in the world: Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and New York University, among others.
American Muslims are, in fact, the most accomplished and educated segment of the global population of 1.5 billion Muslims. Our successes are American successes, and they undeniable evidence of America's pluralism and promise. Restrictions on our rights fuel extremist arguments that Muslims will never be accepted as equals in the West. For those like me who have spent years trying to shrink the trust deficit, this is a tremendous setback.
Put yourself in the shoes of an American Muslim student: One day, you learn that NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly cooperated in the production of a hateful pseudo-documentary on Islam -- the film alleges American Muslim organizations are conspiring to take over the United States -- even though his office initially denied his role in the project and hid the fact that the film was screened to some 1,500 officers. Would you feel that law enforcement still has your best interests in mind?
The NYPD's surveillance efforts seem to be shockingly extensive and targeted specifically at American Muslims. As discovered by the Associated Press, which won a prestigious Polk Award for its investigation, the NYPD under Bloomberg has engaged in a massive effort to compile information on Muslims, including spying on New York City mosques. In the process, the NYPD has exceeded the limits set even by the FBI and has frequently pursued its investigations for no discernible purpose and based on no evident allegations. The only relevant consideration for the NYPD seems to have been that all Muslims are worth spying on.
On Feb. 22, we learned that the NYPD's activities extend to Newark, New Jersey. The Associated Press's Matt Apuzzo reported that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was not told about what he termed the NYPD's "disturbing" spying activities across state lines. Christie called for the state's attorney general to investigate the NYPD's actions, concluding on a note of frustration: "NYPD has developed a reputation of asking forgiveness rather than permission."