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Government Surveillance of Muslim Communities

By Jason Searle, 1L
April 21, 2016

Muslims are civic-minded and community-oriented, and Muslim voters’ number-one issue is the economy, said Rana Elmir, deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan, at a recent talk at Michigan Law in which she cited the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding 2016 Muslim Poll. The demographic rejects violence at the same or higher rates as other religious groups, and most Muslim Americans share a strong American identity, she added. In contrast, perceptions of Muslims alienate, and disparage Muslims; 80 percent of news coverage of Muslims is negative and only 50 percent of non-Muslim Americans know a Muslim person. Misunderstanding of Muslims has led to the community being mischaracterized as violent, she said.

“When we look at policies and practices that pose to curtail violence…they are actually based in junk science,” Elmir said. This junk science gains legitimacy from its support by organizations such as the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a think-tank that produces anti-Muslim propaganda disguised as legitimate research, Elmir pointed out. Despite the baselessness of many CSP claims (news organizations such as Salon and the BBC have referred to the organization as “disreputable” and “not very highly respected”), Elmir said, it and other “junk science” have had a significant impact on government policy.

Elmir turned to a case study illustrating anti-Muslim government policies following 9/11: the New York Police Department’s anti-terror unit. The unit was charged with monitoring what were called “hotspots,” where the unit would be most likely to pick up on terror threats. These hotspots included mosques, hookah bars, halal butcher shops, Muslim schools, and many other Muslim community centers. “What’s interesting is that they called them ‘ancestries of interest’,” Elmir said, citing what she said were the unit’s racist and ethnocentric motivations in choosing which communities to monitor.

Surveillance was stratified further by social class, she pointed out. In Ivy League schools and other upper-class communities, cyberspace monitoring was predominant. In low-income communities, however, the NYPD unit conducted more invasive surveillance. School yards, shops, and other locations with lower-income concentrations of Muslims were infiltrated by undercover agents looking for indications of “radicalism.” Indications included ethnic or religious garb, having a beard, and even praying too many times in a day. As the Muslim community became aware it was under a microscope, “people were less likely to trust one another. People were not going to mosques. Men were shaving their beards,” Elmir said. Distrust was exacerbated by the unit’s use of informants from these communities in its surveillance. “the vast majority of informants were from immigrant communities,” Elmir said, noting that the unit leveraged these informants’ cooperation by threatening deportation.

“Pop quiz: How many terrorist plots were thwarted? How many leads?” Elmir asked the audience. Despite the NYPD’s claims of great success, investigations by news organizations quickly debunked the department’s assertions, showing that the anti-terror unit did nothing to prevent terrorism. The department was forced to admit its failure. The ACLU, along with the NYCLU, and the CLEAR project at CUNY Law School, sued the NYPD and eventually reached a settlement. Though the settlement produced important and significant results, Elmir acknowledged that the struggle to revise anti-Muslim government policies continues.

The Privacy and Technology Law Association hosted the talk.

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