NYPD surveillance of Muslims, particularly the surveillance which occurred on college campuses (including Columbia University), is controversial in part because of the strong rhetoric on both sides of the issue. The arguments weigh civil liberties with an emphasis on free exercise of religion against concerns for safety and national security. This is an old battle with many manifestations, though surveillance of Muslim students has risen to the forefront of highly charged local and national politics from an unlikely source: the implications of NYPD’s own argumentation.
Mayor Bloomberg has defended the NYPD’s surveillance through liberal use of the terrifying, amorphous, rhetorically convenient specter of imminent danger, which he invokes in this statement from Sept 8, 2011, reported by the AP: “If there is a community where the crime rate is very high, to not put more cops in that community is ridiculous. If you want to look for cases of measles, you’ll find a lot more of them among young people. That’s not targeting young people to go see whether they have measles or not.” Though misdirection is often useful in debate, it has only clarified the premises upon which Mayor Bloomberg is building the case for surveillance. Not only has he compared perpetrators of crime to victims of sickness, the Mayor has suggested that the police react to perceived community realities—apparently his perception of American Muslims being that they as a whole pose a constant existential threat which legitimizes surveillance without evidence or indication of criminal activity.
Yale’s president, Richard Levin, issued this statement on Feb 21, 2012, “Police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States.” Bloomberg’s cheeky response from the same day indicates that his brand of national security rhetoric dismisses the cultural and political dangers wrought by the surveillance: “I don’t know why keeping the country safe is antithetical to the values of Yale.” The loosely defined and convenient use of safety and security as blanket terms meant to legitimize government activity has, in this instance, led precisely to that which it hopes to discourage: every action of an American Muslim, be it intended public or private, has morphed into a political statement. If undercover NYPD officers are taking note of how often Muslim students pray, that act of prayer is no longer confined to the individual, to God, or to the community with whom he or she prays. Instead, the NYPD has left no choice to that student but to either not practice his or her religion as proscribed (nonviolently and here intended for a limited audience) or to forcibly morph religious action into a political statement. Not only is there no choice, but this is the very mindset which the NYPD has set out to find and suppress with surveillance. The NYPD may paint itself as a defender against the specter of perceived danger, but it has through unwarranted surveillance effectively forced the politicization of American Muslim religious action and thereby been the instigator of that which it fears.
The situation is well-described by Dale Eickelman in his book Muslim Politics:
[it] is not inherently a political act, but, rather it becomes one when it is transformed into a public symbol. A dialectical relationship between individuals and the government assures this production…A symbol has been created and now is integral to the identity and aspirations of groups of like-minded individuals as well as to the self-defined mission of the authorities. These examples, then, are political in part because they involve challenges to the limits of state authority but also because they involve a contest over people’s understandings of and wishes for a social order. (1996)
As the presidents of many prominent schools subjected to this surveillance have also declared, police surveillance based solely on religion goes against every shred of integrity in an academic environment—where the students no longer have choices about what their actions say, there can no longer be dialogue. The sides have been determined and are left to squabble about the details, while I for one am left wishing for a social order which does not by default delegitimize the nonviolent, free religious practice of my fellow students.
Rebecca Faulkner is a Masters student at Columbia University