An NYPD spying programme targeting Arabs and Muslims is a threat to the United States as a whole.
Arabs and Muslims are systematically targeted in the US
The massive surveillance programme implemented by the New York City police department in coordination with CIA officials is shredding the US constitution and putting at risk the rights and freedoms of Arab Americans and American Muslims. If left unchecked, this behaviour will weaken the foundations of US democracy and compromise its values as an open and inclusive society.
Revelations by the Associated Press have established that the NYPD has been monitoring Arab and Muslim-owned businesses and mosques, and mapping areas of the city where Muslims and Arabs are known to live in relatively high concentrations. To accomplish these objectives, the NYPD has coerced and entrapped Muslims to act as spies.
In one instance, police scoured the records of taxi drivers, looking for drivers who had unpaid tickets and other violations. Those who had issues relating to their immigration status were given the option of acting as spies or facing possible deportation.
They were then asked to visit popular gathering places such as coffee shops and attend religious services and other community events, reporting on who was present and what was said. The material has been recorded in extensive surveillance files, even when the activities and conversations were protected under the first amendment of the US constitution.
The findings in these "secret" files are, at most, trite. At the same time, they are dangerous, since they represent ethnic profiling and the extension of the long arm of the state into the everyday activities of entire communities.
One report, for example, on "Egyptian Locations of Interest" purports to map "centres of activity" of Egyptian Americans that could be used as "listening posts" where informants can "listen to neighbourhood gossip ... [and] get a feel for the community". The report presents a demographic profile of where people of Egyptian descent live in New York City and describes, with attached pictures, the restaurants and other businesses where Egyptians and other Arab immigrants congregate or shop.
There is another similar report on "Syrian Locations of Concern" - that report includes such noteworthy information about a travel agency as: "Observed a female named 'Rasha' working in the travel agency, she recommended the 'Royal Jordanian Airline'."
While it is expected that law enforcement should be proactive in countering threats, as the US Attorney General Eric Holder has said, police should monitor activity only "when there is a basis to believe that something inappropriate is occurring or potentially could occur." The reports on the Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian and Shia Muslim communities that have been leaked clearly violate Mr Holder's criteria.
As disturbing as this has been, New York city officials have flatly denied any wrongdoing, while the public appears to tolerate the flagrant violations. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, New York City's police commissioner Raymond Kelly claims that "the value we place on privacy rights and constitutional protections is part of what motivates the work of counterterrorism. It would be counterproductive in the extreme if we violated those freedoms in the course of our work to defend New York."
For his part, Mayor Michael Bloomberg denies that profiling is involved, saying "we don't stop to think about religion. We stop to think about the threats and focus our efforts there". Yet in the beginning of each report is a clear statement that specific ethnic and religious communities are being targeted.
And finally, a recent poll of residents concluded: "New Yorkers brush aside the gripes about police surveillance of the Muslim community."
There are other troubling issues that must be noted. First and foremost is the fear and suspicion that has been generated. As a result of this NYPD/CIA programme, Arab and Muslim immigrants have become increasingly fearful of law enforcement. Trust has been broken. And trust between the community and the police is the key to any successful crime-prevention strategy.
After reviewing the reports, I have to point out what an enormous waste of resources this has been. Not only has it alienated the community from the police, it has also cost countless hours of labour to compile files that have no value. It can safely be said that the net result has been of zero benefit in keeping New York safe.
When the rights of any vulnerable minority group are threatened, we must demand a halt to the abuse, because we have learnt that when the rights of any group are compromised, the rights of all are at risk. It is worrisome that in the post-September 11 era, the challenge to constitutional rights has all too often been met with silence because it was Arabs and Muslims who were the targets.
What Americans have failed to recognise is that if the rights to assemble, to speak freely, to be secure from unwarranted search, and to due process are threatened by the NYPD and CIA in New York, then these rights may ultimately be threatened for all Americans.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa