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Muslim Students Reeling From Shocking News of NYPD’s Spying

The NYPD's nearly unchecked surveillance program monitored Internet exchanges and postings of Muslim students from at least 16 colleges in the Northeast.

First came the shock. Then the deep retrospective anxiety.

“I’ve spent the last four days rethinking every single interaction I’ve had here. Everything I’ve said in Middle East Studies class … in the cafeteria,” said a student at Columbia University who asked he not be named. “I don’t even know if you might be the police,” the same student told me, as I scribbled his words in my notepad. Everything is now tinged with a layer of doubt.

The feeling of paranoia about being watched swelled up for Muslim students all over the northeastern United States last weekend when they found out that indeed they had been monitored, regularly and with troublingly free license, by the New York Police Department. The  Associated Press reported on Saturday that the NYPD had monitored the Internet exchanges and postings of Muslim students on at least 16 colleges and in a number of cases the police sent undercover agents to actively spy on Muslim student associations, known as MSAs.

The revelation was just the latest in a rapidly accumulating body of information on the NYPD’s extensive program to map and spy on Muslim communities in New York and the Northeast, without any suggestion of wrongdoing in those communities. On campuses as far from New York City as the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, the unchecked NYPD surveillance has sent a wave of anxiety through Muslim student groups.

A Sense of Shock

“We had no reason to believe this sort of thing was happening,” said Faisal Hamid, a 20-year-old history major at Yale who is the vice president of the university’s MSA. “After surprise, many of us were really scared we’d been monitored, that there were files with our name on it.”

Hamid is one of nearly a dozen Muslim students who said that they now worried they might be watched wherever they go. “Is the person next to me in a Friday prayer or another activity an informant taking our name down?” asked Hamid.

The AP released a  2006 NYPD document along with its story last weekend. The document was marked with the word “SECRET” and titled “Weekly MSA Report,” prepared for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. As the document’s name suggests, the surveillance was a regular practice in the NYPD, which has since 9-11 expanded its internal anti-terrorism activities.

Diala Shamas, a former Yale Law student who is now a legal fellow at a City University of New York School of Law program called CLEAR, or Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, told me, “We’re talking about widespread and routine surveillance absent the pursuit of specific criminal leads. The policy has taken the NYPD to grocery stores, neighborhoods and also to student organizations—to all parts of communities’ daily lives.”

“We’ve got a generation of students who are growing up thinking that they can’t express themselves freely, that they always need to watch what they say,” Shamas added.

Hamid said that international students were struck with a particularly acute fear. “This was most pressing for international students because many of them have visas that could be compromised if there is a file with their name on it,” said Hamid. “If they cannot enter the country anymore, people have said, they’re lives would be ruined.”

Yale’s administration responded to the NYPD report with uncharacteristic outrage.

“I am writing to state, in the strongest possible terms,”  wrote Yale president Richard Levin on Monday, “that police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States. Also I want to make sure our community knows that the Yale Police Department has not participated in any monitoring by the NYPD and was entirely unaware of NYPD activities until the recent news reports.”

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