New York, NY – The Associated Press recently reported on know-your-rights trainings happening in New York City’s Muslim communities. This was one of the latest installments in the wire agency’s series confirming what Muslim New Yorkers had long suspected – that the New York Police Department has engaged in indiscriminate surveillance on ethnic and religious grounds, without concrete suspicion of criminal activity. Curiously, the AP’s latest story turns the series on its head, giving the dangerous impression that Muslim communities are refusing to share with law enforcement tips on actual criminal activity. This could not be further from the truth.
Through the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project at CUNY School of Law, we provide know-your-rights trainings in response to the NYPD and FBI’s broad-based surveillance of Muslim communities. We advise targeted communities about their rights when law enforcement knocks on their doors, asking questions about mosque attendance, political opinions and charitable giving that are unconnected to any suspicion of criminal activity.
We were therefore quite surprised to read the AP’s latest article, beginning with its headline, “Muslims Say: ‘Don’t Call NYPD'”. Our work focuses on a very different scenario: what to do when the NYPD calls you. And, in that context, the advice we offer is standard and uncontroversial fare, such as the rights to silence and to retain a lawyer, rights that apply to all within the United States.
The NYPD’s seeming suspicion of entire communities seems to be based on the notion that when Muslims live their faith and identity or associate with other Muslims, they pose a danger to American society. Like everyone else in the US, and especially given pervasive ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim communities, Muslims have a right to remain silent, and they have a right to retain attorneys.
This basic rights awareness message is important in Muslim communities where law enforcement has interrogated at least tens of thousands of people not suspected of any crime. The government seems most concerned about legally protected activity. Agents have attempted to question our clients about the mosques they attend, about what is said in those places of worship, about what they make of recent events in the Middle East, and about the websites they visit to get their news.
Of course, the government has no business prying into protected activity or fishing for opportunities to pressure people into sharing information about their families, neighbours and communities. Accordingly, we advise the clients and communities we serve to do what any American senator, president or public figure has done when law enforcement knocks: to exercise their right to remain silent and to retain an attorney.
The AP article misses an essential distinction between the reporting of criminal activity and participation in law enforcement’s indiscriminate efforts to collect information on the expressive and lawful activities of Muslim communities. To call Muslims “uncooperative” for exercising their rights in the face of such broad-based surveillance programmes is unfair and absurd.
In fact, there is no support for the claim that Muslims do not share information with law enforcement when they suspect criminal activity. It was a Muslim community in California, for example, that reported Craig Monteilh to the police when he started talking about blowing up buildings in the name of Islam. It turned out Monteilh was an informant on the FBI’s payroll. Taxpayer dollars were funding his efforts to collect the names, phone numbers, email addresses and licence plate numbers of Muslims in southern California.
The FBI and NYPD’s covert surveillance programmes in Muslim communities rely heavily on the deployment of undercover agents and informants such as Monteilh. Many informants are vulnerable community members themselves, who are pressured by the government to report voluminous amounts of information on the lawful activities of Muslims. In the cases that we know of, the government has used money, the threat of deportation or imprisonment and other forms of coercion to recruit its informants.
Though this may come as a surprise to a segment of the general public, informants are not typically sent into Muslim communities when law enforcement fears criminal activity is afoot. Instead, often without any suspicion of criminal activity, they are dispatched to countless mosques and community spaces around the country on fishing expeditions. Sometimes, as in the case of Monteilh, the informants actually promote violence.
A recent rally organised against NYPD surveillance in Manhattan signals that there remains great reason to hope. Even in this age of surveillance and fear, Muslims joined fellow New Yorkers to reject, collectively and publicly, the hallmarks of a police state. Together, they stood, prayed and chanted so that Muslims, too, can enjoy and exercise a full panoply of rights, including the right to express political opinions, to organise and, yes, to remain silent and to retain attorneys.