A lawsuit against unlawful surveillance against Muslim communities by the New York Police Department (NYPD) was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), New York Civil Liberties Union and Clear Project yesterday.
It stems from many of the revelations that came out of the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting the Associated Press did last year on how the NYPD was mapping and monitoring the daily lives of Muslims living in and around New York City.
A filed complaint alleges that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence David Cohen and the city of New York violated the fourteenth amendment rights of Muslim Americans, who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Defendants “engaged in a policy and practice of targeting” Muslim Americans because of their “adherence and practice of the religion of Islam.” This singling out “stigmatized them as members of a religious community and condemned their religion as one that is the subject of intense suspicion and distrust, different from any other religion.” It was “discriminatory in purpose and effect” and violated the equal protection clause.
The city and police violated their right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment by placing a “substantial burden” on Muslim Americans’ religious exercise in the practice of their faith. They violated their right to free exercise of religion under the New York state constitution. And they violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by explicitly and intentionally making “distinctions” between Muslim Americans “and individuals or institutions belonging to any other religious group.”
“It has had the effect of inhibiting Plaintiffs’ religious goals, conduct, and practice, and fosters an excessive government entanglement with religion by, among other things, subjecting Plaintiffs to intrusive surveillance, heightened police scrutiny, and infiltration by police informants and officers,” according to the lawsuit.
One of the plaintiffs or Muslim Americans alleging his rights have been violated is Mohammed Elshinawy. According to an ACLU profile of him, he is “an American citizen residing in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. He has taught and lectured about Islam at various institutions throughout New York City for the last 11 years, always on a volunteer basis.”
He believes he has been spied upon by the NYPD in some form since he was a student at Brooklyn College in 2004 because “attendees at his lectures and congregants at mosques at which he delivered sermons” have warned him that the NYPD has questioned them “about him” or asked them “to inform on the contents of his religious lessons and sermons.” He also has been “approached by individuals he suspected or later discovered were NYPD officers or informants.”
In approximately the fall of 2004, Bilal began attending Mr. Elshinawy’s lectures and classes regularly. Mr. Elshinawy suspected that Bilal might be an informant who was recording his lectures because, despite being the most frequent attendee, Bilal did not listen to the lectures and instead regularly fell asleep minutes after each one began.
Mr. Elshinawy’s suspicion that Bilal was an informant was heightened in 2006, when Bilal told Mr. Elshinawy that he wanted to “do something” for Islam. Mr. Elshinawy responded that Bilal should partake in outreach and spread the faith, but Bilal said he was “tired of talking.” Suspecting that Bilal might be steering the conversation towards discussion of violence, Mr. Elshinawy told him that he should channel any anger towards explaining Islam and exemplifying Islamic manners—and immediately ended the conversation. After that, Bilal stopped attending Mr. Elshinawy’s lectures.
Elshinawy found out an NYPD undercover officer had gone on a “paintball trip organized by the Brooklyn College Islamic Society” in 2005. And, in 2012, he found out an NYPD informant named Shamiur Rahman had been sent to spy on him at two Brooklyn mosques where he lectured, Masjid Al-Ansar and Masjid Al-Farouq.
The effect of this infiltration and surveillance are such that Elshinawy has changed what he teaches in his lectures. He will not teach the “history of Islam in the Iberian peninsula, because he worries that his teachings will be misreported or misinterpreted by the NYPD.” He also has altered “Islamic historical narratives, particularly those highlighting valor, heroism, or anything that can be construed as lauding Islamic achievements.” And, “In his Friday sermons, Mr. Elshinawy shies away from discussing potentially controversial, political topics, or current events.”
Another plaintiff in the case is Masjid At-Taqwa, a mosque in Brooklyn. The lawsuit describes how in 2004 or 2005 a surveillance camera that was marked with the NYPD’s insignia was installed. The camera lens was “pointed toward the entrance of the mosque,” demonstrating “both to the mosque’s leadership and the congregation that the mosque was under NYPD surveillance.”
Immediately, it created anxiety among congregants. No longer would individuals stay to socialize after prayers. Some expressed concern that the it was “recording their prayer patterns.” This interfered with the ability of the mosque to hold communal prayer and “its congregants’ ability to practice their faith fully.”
Asad Dandia, the leader of a charity, Muslims Giving Back, and the organization itself are also plaintiffs in the case. The organization has typically hosted “small events, invited speakers to a local mosque and emphasized the importance of charitable giving in Islam.” They’ve helped the homeless, finding homes for families, donating money to families when tragedy befalls them, etc. And their membership is mostly “college-aged young men,” many whom are students.
NYPD informant Rahman became an active member of Muslims Giving Back. He connected with Dandia on Facebook. Dandia invited Rahman to his family’s house. Rahman would often ask people he met “for their phone number, often within minutes of meeting them.” He would also try to get “photographs with or of people he met through Dandia.” (Note: When they were infiltrated, the charity was called Fesabeelillah Services of NYC, Inc.)
In April 2012, it was brought to Dandia’s attention “from a credible source in the NYPD Intelligence Division” that an informant had infiltrated the charity. He stopped publicizing what Muslims Giving Back was doing on social networking sites. This news reduced the amount of work the charity was doing.
As a result of suspicionless surveillance, those violated “seek a declaration that the NYPD’s policy and practice of subjecting them to suspicionless surveillance because of their Muslim faith violates their fundamental rights to equal protection and free exercise of religion under the US Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York, and the guarantee of government neutrality toward all religions under the US Constitution. They seek an injunction against these unconstitutional policies and practices and “an order requiring the NYPD to destroy the information about them that it has secretly collected in violation of their constitutional rights.”
Photo released under Public Domain