Revelations that the FBI had monitored prominent Muslim Americans did not shock me, writes Linda Sarsour - until they took a deeply personal turn
We were NYPD targets for being Muslims – and we were not alone
Unfortunately, I wasn’t shocked to learn through a recent report in The Intercept that the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) used secretive procedures designed to catch terrorists and spies to monitor the email accounts of prominent American Muslim leaders.
These leaders were academics, military veterans, attorneys and prominent advocates – the only thing they had in common was that they were Muslim.
I felt betrayed once again by my country. I was reminded that no matter our college degrees or service to our nation, we were being deemed suspect solely based on the faith we follow.
In the United States, it is common for all levels of law enforcement to engage in practices that target Muslim Americans solely based on their faith.
In August 2011, investigative reports from the Associated Press confirmed long-standing suspicions that the New York Police Department (NYPD) was participating in wholesale surveillance of Arabs and Muslims. Across the north-east, the police monitored virtually every aspect of Muslim public life.
NYPD undercover officers infiltrated mosques, bookstores, cafes, restaurants and student associations on college campuses, creating dossiers on entire communities void of any criminal suspicion.
My work to reform these unlawful practices by the NYPD took a deeply personal turn last year.
In August 2013, it was revealed that mosques were subjected to “terrorism enterprise investigations” and the NYPD set goals to infiltrate community groups including the organisation where I work, the Arab American Association of New York, by placing confidential informants on organisation boards.
The Arab American Association of New York is a trustworthy and reputable institution whose mission is to serve recent immigrants from the Arab world. We provide them with key services to ensure that their transition to life in the United States is a smooth one.
Arab American and Muslim organisations have played key roles as intermediaries between government and communities and what we continue to uncover is that as we invite these law enforcement agencies through the front door for meaningful engagement, they continue to send informants and undercover agents through the back door.
This distrustful relationship is compounded by many instances of bias in material used to teach law enforcement agents about Islam and Muslims.
Some of this training material contained factual inaccuracies and blatant bigotry related to Muslim Americans.
For example, Wired magazine has reported on a counterterrorism training session at the FBI training centre in Virginia that was led by an FBI employee. It was obvious from the slides of the PowerPoint presentation obtained by the magazine that the trainer was teaching FBI agents not only that Islam was a violent religion, but was also linking it to terrorism.
The slides stated that Islam “transforms [a] country’s culture into 7th century Arabian ways”. A handout distributed to probationary agents outlined “Instructional objectives” and included: “Understand the concept and be able to discuss how the ‘Arab mindset’ is formed.”
Trainers explained that the more religious a Muslim was, the more potential there was that he was on a path to terrorism. The FBI responded to a public outcry by implementing a review of its more outrageous training materials on Islam and Arab culture and supposedly removed over 800 problematic documents and files from its training curriculums.
In my work, we’ve also seen this same line of thinking in a report put out by the NYPD entitled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. This report makes sweeping generalisation about the process of violent radicalisation and its relation to Islam.
In the report, the type of religious activity described as predictors of radicalisation included: wearing traditional Islamic clothing, growing a beard, praying five times a day, and participating in community and political activism
Further, an Islam-bashing propaganda film, The Third Jihad, created by an anti-Muslim organisation called The Clarion Project, was used as a training tool for 1,500 police officers. Our law enforcement agents, who are supposed to protect and serve all citizens of the city, are being trained to protect one segment of a community from another segment.
The picture formed by all these different pieces is that Muslims are a threat to our national security.
The war on terror and the policies that have been born as a result have been used to cast a wide net of suspicion across millions of law abiding Americans.
There are those who will say: “If you are not doing anything wrong who cares if you get spied on?” But people must understand that living under constant government watch is akin to psychological warfare. Surveillance has chilled constitutionally protected rights – curtailing religious practice, censoring speech and stunting political organisation.
Most disturbing is the effect it has had on college campuses across the US. Historically, many civil rights struggles in the United States were first sparked on college campuses. The college experience is the time when young people choose causes they want to invest time in and become advocates for.
The fact that Muslim American students are shying away from organising political events so as not to attract surveillance is disturbing. Our students should feel empowered just like any other student group to organise whatever events they deem appropriate. Academic freedom should be extended to all and students should be protected by the institutions they attend.
Many of the Muslim communities in the United States came from the Middle East and South Asia. They fled political persecution, wars and conflicts, government oppression and a lack of human rights.
These communities travelled to the United States. They dreamed of living in a country full of opportunities, with an abundance of freedoms – including the freedom to worship freely and the right to privacy. They believed they would be embraced as equal citizens of this nation. They were wrong.
Muslim American communities are not the first community to be targeted by their own government. How can we forget the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, accused of being spies and foreign agents?
Amid the continuous scandalous revelations that the US targets Muslim Americans with surveillance without suspicion, the government continues to deny any wrongdoing and assures us that everything they do is “legal”.
I would like to remind our government that the displacement of Native Americans, enslavement of African-Americans and internment of Japanese were all legal at some point in our history – and they were all wrong. Legal does not equal moral.
I am a Muslim American woman born in New York City. I know firsthand what it means to be a target of government surveillance
If we stay complacent and allow the targeting of any community, it becomes normalised and we guarantee that another community down the line will be subject to these same tactics.
I will continue to stand up against these pervasive law enforcement practices that violate the constitution of the United States – because I remember the words of the famous poem attributed to the anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller First They Came.
They have now come for the Muslims. Let us speak out in the name of justice and end this centuries-old scapegoating of communities once and for all.
Linda Sarsour is the national advocacy director of the National Network for Arab American Communities and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, lead organiser for the Campaign to Take On Hate
On Twitter: @lsarsour