In November of 2006, a man born as Jesse Curtis Morton, but who went by the name Younus Abdullah Muhammad after converting to Islam, allegedly tried to recruit followers through Stony Brook University’s Muslim Student Association. Morton ran the website of the New York-based, jihadist organization Revolution Muslim, and was a leader of the radical Islamic Thinkers Society.
Not only is it unclear whether or not he physically visited campus or simply attempted to contact the MSA online, but there is also no official record of this incident whatsoever. Despite that ambiguity, Stony Brook University became one of the many northeastern schools targeted by the New York State Police Department in their covert spying operation centered on MSAs in the northeast. The operation was highlighted in the Associated Press’s multi-month investigative report starting in October of last year and culminating last month with the full disclosure of the files they obtained.
“I didn’t know the man. I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know he came to campus,” says Chaplain Sanaa Nadim, the head of Stony Brook’s MSA. “Neither me nor my students, past or present, knew anything about this guy.” The only official record of this incident and the only explanation for why Stony Brook made the NYPD surveillance list is the response released by police spokesman Paul Browne, which did not clarify the specific circumstances. No mention of Morton can be found in the AP files, and Stony Brook is simply listed at the bottom of a November 22, 2006 NYPD report.
Complicating the situation is the fact that Morton is now considered a validated source of interest to law enforcement and counterterrorism officials for actions he went on to commit. In April of 2010, Morton encouraged the murder of an artist involved with “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” and conspired to murder the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in response to their 200th episode that depicted Mohammed in a bear suit. In May of last year, Morton was detained in Morocco after fleeing there following the arrest of a co-conspirator, Zachary Chessler. He pleaded guilty to three felonies—conspiracy, communicating threats and internal stalking—on February 13.
But at the time when the NYPD was compiling “Weekly MSA Reports” and sending them to the desk of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Morton was a target only for his affiliation with the Islamic Thinkers Society. “Undersigned also visited these Muslim Student Associations and did not find significant information posted on their web sites, forums, blogs and groups,” says the November 22, 2006 report before listing numerous colleges including Stony Brook.
The undersigned officer in question is Mahmood Ahmad, though it is unclear whether he was the only one involved with the surveillance of Stony Brook’s MSA. Other schools on the list included the University of Buffalo, University of Albany, Syracuse University, Yale, Columbia and Rutgers College, among others.
In addition to monitoring the Muslim Student Association at Stony Brook, the NYPD conducted surveillance of businesses and mosques owned or operated by Muslim Americans in the town of Brookhaven. The locations of these establishments were then plotted on a map of the Town of Brookhaven, with each plot indicating the ethnicity of the owner(s), according to an August 3, 2006 report also released by the AP.
“Reason for Great Concern”
Chaplain Sanaa Nadim’s sighs carry the weight of decades of misunderstanding. As the first female Chaplain of any Muslim Student Association in America, she has been forced to face more than her fair share of seemingly insurmountable differences. Shaking her head at being reminded once again of the NYPD’s profiling of her organization, her students and her religion, she sums up her frustration succinctly, “I’m just amazed at how we paint people with one brush.
“For the last 23 years, we had to deal constantly with current events and things that we didn’t even understand, like this. I don’t understand this,” she says. “These are the future generations of this country. For years, MSAs have brought out the most amazing doctors, engineers; the most prominent members of many different communities came out of MSAs.”
In response to the NYPD’s actions, Stony Brook University issued the following statement: “Stony Brook University, including the University Police Department, had no knowledge of, nor was ever contacted by the NYPD or any other outside law enforcement agency, or asked to provide any information into the surveillance of the Muslim Students Association or any other religious group in our University community. The Muslim Students Association, and all religious communities, are integral, appreciated and supported members of the Stony Brook University community.”
Stony Brook’s Office of the President declined to comment further on the matters. But Nadim says that a more direct response, both from the MSA and Administration, is in the works. “I’ve had meetings with the students, programs with the students. We’re working on a campus-wide multicultural program and we’ll see,” she says. “We’re working also with the President’s office, through the Dean’s office, on a statement that should be made.”
Stony Brook’s Interfaith Center, which comprises chaplains from six different organizations (Nadim included), released an official statement harshly condemning the NYPD investigation, calling it “a reason for great concern.” The statement goes on to say, “While it is important for law enforcement to conduct operations to ensure the safety of all Americans, this does not justify the assumption that because this is a Muslim Students Association it or its members in any way pose a threat.”
With respect to drafting an official university response, Nadim is not worried about the administration’s support. “Dean Stein,” she says before briefly pausing to release another emphatic sigh, “…has been a rock for us.”
Stony Brook’s MSA sought out Stein’s assistance in combating two rather controversial events in the latter half of the last decade. The first of which was the decision by the Enduring Freedom Alliance, a conservative campus club, to bring Robert Spencer, an outspoken critic of Islam, in October of 2008. The second was “Blasphemy Day,” an incident in which reprints of the infamous Danish cartoon depicting Mohammed were posted around campus alongside religiously offensive images of Jesus Christ and Moses.
Despite her faith that the Administration will stand with the MSA, Nadim did express profound disappointment with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s staunch defense of the NYPD’s tactics. “Where is the country I am a citizen of? A country that protects your rights, that you are innocent until proven guilty…where is she? What happened?” Nadim says with a blend of desperation and anger.
Bloomberg, in a public announcement on February 24, said, “Everything the NYPD has done is legal, it is appropriate, it is constitutional.” When asked if he thought that the NYPD’s planting of an undercover agent at a City College of New York’s rafting trip was a step too far, Bloomberg responded with, “No. We have to keep this country safe.”
Bloomberg’s comments came primarily as a response to one of the first outspoken critics of the NYPD’s operation, Yale president Richard Levine, who said that surveillance based on religion was antithetical to the values of Yale. Bloomberg then snarkily remarked that he cannot understand why keeping the country safe was antithetical to Yale’s values.
Since that exchange, a firestorm of criticism has arisen, alongside requests for more in-depth investigations into the NYPD’s tactics. New Jersey and federal law enforcement officials held a summit on Saturday, March 3 to discuss methods of investigating the surveillance, and Attorney General Eric Holder is currently reviewing complaints.
William Chittick, a professor of Asian-American studies at Stony Brook, wasn’t shocked to learn of the NYPD surveillance operation. “It does disappoint me, but, given the current atmosphere, I am not surprised,” he said in an email message.
Sadman Islam, a junior at Stony Brook University, believes that this incident has further ruined the relationship between the government and the Muslim community. “It added a little more oil to a fire that has been raging,” he said.
“Just because we are Muslim does not mean we are going to do something terrible,” says Firhan Mohl, a junior at Stony Brook University. “How do I know now that when I get in trouble with the law, God forbid, I will get fair and equal treatment?”
Multiple other Muslim students were contacted for this piece, including both members and non-members of Stony Brook’s MSA, but they declined to comment on the issue for fear of being associated with views opposing counterterrorism measures.
The Element of Trust
Nadim feels that the largest impact the NYPD spying has had is on the relationship between Muslim Americans and the community at large, from the institutions that are meant to protect them to the values reinforced by a legal system intended to minimize the infringement of civil rights.
“If we are protecting, then we should have all the citizens be in on the process of protection, without creating an atmosphere of suspicion, without creating an atmosphere of malaise, without creating an atmosphere of non-citizenship.
“It’s almost like we’re telling the students that they’re not citizens: ‘We don’t really care how you feel because we are afraid of you.’”
It is the element of trust that Nadim sees deteriorating at all levels of the relationship Muslim Americans form with their fellow citizens. “They really need to learn to trust the people that have been here so long. I mean people that are just being American Muslims and just living the life that they have been offered by God. Talk to them,” she says, exasperated by the what she feels is a very simple gesture that contains the potential to bridge unfathomable gaps of misunderstanding.
“Some of them [students] say, ‘What do you want us to do, Sister Sanaa? What are we suppose to be doing that we are not doing that this is happening to us?’
“I say, ‘Nothing, keep doing what you are doing. Pray your five times a day, eat your Hillel food, fast, do your thing.’”