Last month saw the full release of files obtained by the Associated Press in regards to widespread spying and monitoring of Muslim Student Associations all over the Northeast. Since October, pieces of a truly frightening series of policies have been trickling out to what should be a significantly more offended public. It’s important to recognize the surprising depths to which the New York State Police Department will sink in the name of protecting the populace and the way they’ll go about justifying their unreal policies: legally monitoring the phone calls and Internet activity of suspected terror suspects and blatantly targeting a specific ethnic/religious group with unwarranted surveillance are two entirely different things.
The NYPD had been monitoring the Internet exchanges and posts of Muslim students from at least 16 different colleges, even going as far as to send undercover agents to actively spy on the MSAs. This represents not only a misunderstanding of fundamental American constitutional rights, but also a misinterpretation of radical religious extremism. To assume that almost every group of college-age, educated Muslim men and women harbors or encourages religious extremism or terrorism is emblematic of deep-seated fears that we are supposed to be combating through education and tolerance.
It’s comforting to think that our law enforcement officials are trying hard to protect us. It would be much more comforting, though, to believe that the highest form of state law enforcement knows the difference between an established member of al-Qaeda—or even those in contact with members of the terrorist organization, as was the case with Jesse Morton— and a member of Yale’s Muslim Student Association. By immediately handling them both within a similar spectrum of intensity, it illustrates a severe disconnect that one could excuse or understand if it was an individual police officer profiling someone on a whim or acting on unrestrained ignorance. The NYPD establishing a program with “Weekly MSA Report” documents prepared for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, however, represents something decidedly more insidious.
The 9/11 attacks had a profound effect on the public perception of the average Muslim man or woman. College campuses are not immune to the continuation of baseless stereotypes and broad generalizations. Chaplain Sanaa Nadim, the head of Stony Brook’s MSA, put it quite simply “This is college, man. If you don’t walk the walk of who you are, then where else? This is the time when people explore who they are and become the best society has to offer.”
The basic rights of privacy that American citizens deserve cannot be discarded for the sake of public well-being when the program infringes on the very rights the government is meant to protect. Of late, three would-be terrorists represent the spoils of this clearly flawed program and others like it. Legitimate police work and reconnaissance on well-documented al-Qaeda sympathizers and religious extremists appear to bear the same results, without brutally ignoring the rights of American citizens based on their religion or ethnic background.
There’s an underlying bigotry at work here, perpetuated by the ignorant belief that a tiny fraction of a specific population of peaceful Americans represents anything more than a tiny fraction of that population. “Granted, there are a lot of bad apples, but the bushel is good,” said Nadim. Acting as if legitimate religious extremists and terrorists are commonplace and prevalent in Muslim-American society, especially those motivated enough to attend college in a country that suspects every single one of them to be a potential terrorist, is unacceptable.
The MSAs represent groups of students that simply want to be comfortable practicing their religion in a country that has become distinctly hostile. Ignorance is no excuse for poor policy, and the actions of a few radical extremists from a group of 1.6 billion represent nothing more than the criminal percentage found in any population.
Fearing what we don’t understand is acceptable; using that fear to restrict the rights of innocent people is not—especially from government groups that should be enlightened and intelligent enough to understand the not-so-subtle differences between terrorists and college associations.