x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Backlash against NYPD for monitoring Muslims on campus

Students say the NYPD surveillance of Muslims on a dozen college campuses in the north-east of the country is a surprising and disappointing violation.

NEW YORK // At Columbia University and elsewhere, the fear that the New York Police Department might secretly be infiltrating Muslim student's lives has spread beyond them to others who find the reported tactics "disgusting," as one teenager put it.

The NYPD surveillance of Muslims on a dozen college campuses in the north-east of the country is a surprising and disappointing violation, students said yesterday in reaction to reports that revealed the intelligence-gathering at Columbia and elsewhere.

"If this is happening to innocent Muslim students, who's next?" asked Dina Morris, an 18-year-old freshman from Amherst, Massachusetts. "I'm the child of an immigrant, and I was just blown away by the news; it's disgusting."

Documents show that the NYPD used undercover officers and informants to infiltrate Muslim student groups. An officer even went whitewater rafting with students and reported on how many times they prayed and what they discussed. Police also trawled college websites and blogs, compiling daily reports on the activities of Muslim students and academics.

It was all part of the NYPD's efforts to keep tabs on Muslims throughout the region as part of the department's anti-terrorism efforts. Police built databases of where Muslims lived and worked, where they prayed, even where they watched sports.

In the past week, Muslims and non-Muslims alike held a public meeting on the Manhattan campus of the Ivy League college to discuss the police surveillance. Concerned members of many school groups attended.

On Friday, some of their counterparts at New York University choked up as they gathered to voice their outrage at the notion that even students' religious habits were being tracked by the NYPD.

"Why is the number of times that we pray per day - whether or not I come in this space and put my forehead on the floor in worship of my Lord - why does that have anything to do with somebody trying to keep this country safe?" said Elizabeth Dann, 29, an NYU law student.

When it was revealed last weekend that Muslim students were targets of police surveillance, "people were distressed and frazzled," Mona Abdullah, a member of Columbia's Muslim Students Association, said.

But by Saturday, she said, a different mood had descended on the campus.

"We're now feeling a sense of unity, because this is not an issue that affects only Muslims," said Ms Abdullah, 20, who is majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies. "We're still worried, but there's also a sense of solidarity over an issue that has to be taken seriously by everyone."

Police were interested in Muslim student groups because they attracted young men, a demographic that terrorist groups have tapped. The NYPD defended the effort, citing a dozen accused or convicted terrorists worldwide who had once been affiliated with Muslim student groups.

But students said that unfairly categorised them all as potential terrorists.

Lee Bollinger, the Columbia president, planned to host a fireside chat tonight to discuss the secret monitoring.

He said on Friday: "We should all be able to appreciate the deeply personal concerns of the Muslim members of our community in learning that their activities were being monitored - and the chilling effect such governmental efforts have on any of us in a university devoted to the foundational values of free speech and association."

At the weekend, the unanswered question among Columbia students remained: is the NYPD still conducting surveillance on students?

The police pommissioner, Raymond Kelly, said on Friday: "We're going to continue to do what we have to do to protect the city."

He did not elaborate.