Voices (in order of appearance):
Reem Farhat: reporter
Khadidja Guessoum: student
Vanessa Taylor: surveillance expert
Asad Dandia: Community Program Coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations
Reem Farhat (narration)
I was president of my Muslim Student Association for two years in undergrad. I went to a private Jesuit college in Manhattan and every year, we hosted a charity gala to raise money for humanitarian relief. In 2019, we were raising money for the crisis in Yemen and a few administrators from my university came to support. I also invited a few friends who didn’t go to my school.
Halfway through the event, I get a message from one of those friends.
Phone dings. Suspenseful music fades in.
“Reem, can you meet me in the hall? I need to talk to you.”
I excused myself and followed her out and she said to me, “I think there’s someone here spying on the event.”
She points to one of the university officials, someone I knew and had personally invited to the event. False alarm. We went back in and had a great night.
But she wasn’t being paranoid. For decades, Muslims have been the subjects of government surveillance campaigns.
Suspenseful music fades out.
Everything in the city kinda came to a head in 2012, when an Associated Press report confirmed the suspicions of Muslims all over the United States: The NYPD, with the assistance of the FBI, had launched a widespread surveillance campaign on Muslims in the tri-state area.
They were sending informants to mosques, Muslim student groups in universities, and other congregations of Muslims.
That’s so offensive. That’s so disrespectful in so many ways.
That’s Khadidja Guessoum, she’s the treasurer of Women in Islam, a student group at the City College of New York. The same school that just ten years ago was a pivotal piece in the discussion about surveillance in New York City because an NYPD informant was sent to join their Muslim Student Group and even accompanied them on a white water rafting trip.
Okay, somebody’s coming to spy on us, you’re violating our privacy. We’re citizens of this country, or this world, doesn’t matter. And you’re looking at us as like criminals. And then if you think about what happened to Christchurch, it’s obviously not the same crime, two different crimes. But in my mind, when I think of them, it’s similar.
She’s talking about the Christ Church Mosque shooting in New Zealand, where a white supremacist shot and killed 51 Muslims while praying and injured another 40. He live-streamed it all on Facebook.
And as a visibly Muslim woman myself living in the United States, I can say it left a lot of us shook. It’s a big comparison.
In my mind, when I think of them, it’s similar. You’re in the same space? Because you’re against me as a Muslim. Because why would you spy on me?
If I’m being honest, I didn’t understand why either, especially because the New York demographics unit, who carried out these “investigations”, never found any leads on terrorism.
I couldn’t recognize the reasons behind such measures until I spoke to journalist Vanessa Taylor. She runs a newsletter called Nazar, it’s an independent journalism project on surveillance.
The point of surveillance is being able to have social control that is being able to like control this group, control what it’s going to do, control its movements.
The consequences of surveillance can be far reaching. It can stop people from certain forms of worship, such as attending mosque, or from even organizing politically for fear of being targeted. Vanessa traces the origins of surveillance of Muslims all the way back to the Atlantic Slave Trade.
For like a period of time, African Muslims were like, associated with rebellion. But especially Muslims from like the Senegambia region, were eventually kind of like, banned from the slave trade, because they were just starting too much trouble within Spanish colonies. And so there are obviously early surveillance tactics to ensure that African Muslims were not being Muslim, or if they were a Muslim, that you had control over it to some extent. And I should also say that African Muslims, they pose a fundamental threat to enslavers as well, because they’re often literate in Arabic, specifically, and so they’re literate in a language that the enslavers were not able to speak. And they would be able to write and send messages that way.
This continued, up through the 1950s with the surveillance of civil rights leaders through COINTELPRO, and specifically targeting Black Muslims through surveilling the Nation of Islam and leaders such as Malcom X.
Historical tape from Malcom X Speech via Smithsonian: Before you come asking Mr. Mohamed does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God gave you?
These tactics set a precedent for more current ones, such as the NYPD’s Intelligence Division’s counterrorism program which dates back to at least 2002.
The NYPD had a list of “radicalization” factors, and even an ancestries of interest list that names countries of ethnic origins with the idea that they should be paid extra scrutiny. Countries like Palestine, Bangladesh, and Chechnya made the list. They even single out Black American Muslims.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what many of these tactics looked like because the nature of surveillance is that it’s a secret operation.
But it’s one Asad Dandia is all too familiar with.
Suspenseful music fades in and out.
I am 29 years old, born and raised in Brooklyn, and I am the Community Program Coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations in New York City, the New York branch in particular.
When Asad was 18, he started this charity called Muslims Giving Back in his Brooklyn neighborhood, Brighton Beach. His goal was to bring food to undocumented and working class Muslim families in the community. And it was great.
And it became a hit and the community, you know, masajid (mosques) and other institutions started donating money to us and started asking Asad, how can I get involved, Muslims from all over the city would ask, how can I volunteer, you know, I want to be part of your food distribution. It was great, the organization really blossomed and we felt like we were onto something huge.
They would advertise their work on Facebook and in March of 2012, a man named Shamiur Rahman messaged Asad and said he wanted to volunteer.
And he’s of a Muslim background, he’s South Asian. And he basically says, you know, paraphrasing, that he wants to be involved with a community that’s doing good work. I said, “Sure, you’re more than welcome to join us, you know, why don’t you come out, take the train to Brighton Beach where I am. And I’ll introduce you to my friends. We’ll go out for some Halal Chinese food and we’ll have a good time.” And so he came out. And you know, he’s coming from Jackson Heights, Queens, and I’m in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, but that’s like an hour and a half commute. So it’s not an easy commute, even by New York standards.
Asad situates me in the context of the time. He’s 18, turning 19, a community college student in Brooklyn, and Occupy Wall Street is happening the Arab Spring is and just like any civic minded college student at this time, he and his friends attended protests.
Music from Occupy Wall Street protest plays.
They raised money for refugees. Normal developing political consciousness kinda stuff.
Nearly a month later in April, Asad gets a text from a community member who was also part of the NYPD. He asked Asad to meet him at the masjid after the prayer at sunset.
This is someone who’s older than me, someone who I knew from the neighborhood. So we meet up after the prayer, and we’re walking towards his car. And he wants to talk to me as we reach his car. He asked me if I had my phone on me, I give him my phone. He takes out his phone. And he wraps them both in a cloth. And he opens his trunk.
[Trunk closing, sounds of footsteps and turning on a car.]
He throws the cloth into the trunk. And he says I need to speak to you without these present.
They get in the car, drive and chat a bit, and then he says.
I am risking my job and potentially my life by telling you this. I just came back from the precinct. There is a file with your name and your photos in it. They have a file on you. They’re following you. The police are tailing you as we speak, I don’t know why. But I suspect it’s because of your organization.
I went home, I think I had a panic attack, my first ever one.
Dramatic music fades in and out.
Asad was advised to stop with his charity.
But he didn’t give up. He knew he and his friends weren’t doing anything wrong. He stayed cautious. Months pass, and nothing huge happens. Until October of that same year.
I’m coming home with a friend from a food delivery. And I got a text message telling me to check Facebook. Apparently something big happened on Facebook. The first thing I see is, you know, the way the algorithm works is like the most viral posts would appear on top of your news feed, the first thing I see is a confession from Shamiur.
Shamiur was the volunteer who joined Muslims Giving Back in March. His Facebook post said:
I was an informant sent by the NYPD to investigate terrorism. I’m coming out.
Dramatic music fades in and out.
I asked Khadidja what she thinks would happen if something similar occured with her Muslim Student Group. If they found out a member was actually an undercover informant.
It would destroy the group, possibly, you know, because that means who was close to that person? And then let’s say I was close to that person. Now, I’m gonna assume everybody is a spy, or, or they’re gonna assume I’m a spy, you know, it’s just gonna destroy the group.
And she’s getting passionate because this hit’s close to home for Khadidja, the notion of breaking trust, of essentially, breaking the community.
So like, I when I started college, this college at least, when I transferred. I was very anxious. So I wouldn’t go to a lot of places, but I would go to the MSO. I would go and I would feel some safety. I was already anxious. You know, mental health is a big thing.
Asad told me the whole community was shaken. He was told he could no longer fundraise at the Mosque, and their bulletin board with their activities was taken down.
People were scared. And I felt a lot of people distance themselves from me, because I was the guy who brought him into the community. I felt a lot of guilt. A lot of internalized a lot of like, again, this is my fault, because I introduced him to everybody, and everyone’s traumatized because of me.
Dramatic music fades in and out.
A couple weeks later, Asad got contacted by CUNY Clear, which stands for Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility. They’re a pro bono legal organization that represents Muslims and other communities that are targeted by the government under the pretense of national security.
They asked him to join their class action lawsuit against the NYPD.
I stopped and took a deep breath, and I’ll be honest, I felt like I was being booted to the Avengers.
Uplifting music fades in.
The case was called Raza v. The City of New York. Asad and other plaintiffs were suing the NYPD for violating their constitutional rights by engaging in suspicionless surveillance and religious profiling of Muslims all over the tri-state.
The case was a landmark not just for Muslims, but for marginalized groups all over New York City. It appended another law known as the Handschu decree named after Barbara Handschu, an Asian American activist and lawyer who represented groups like the Black Panthers and the Chicago 7. In 1985, she won a lawsuit against the NYPD for spying on her and the law named after her basically limited the NYPD’s surveillance abilities.
Uplifting music fades out.
But a lot of the guidelines from her case were relaxed after 9-11 for counterterrorism measures. And the Raza lawsuit wanted to get those guidelines reinstated but also to add new stipulations.
It’s 2016 now, Asad is still in undergrad, and it’s the first day of court.
We show up to court, guess who’s there: Barbara Hanshue.
But it gets better. It was the same exact judge as in her case. Forty years, four to five decades later, the same judge, I’m testifying to the same judge who she testified to.
So the judge was like, please be quick with your testimony, we have a lot of them. And I was the last one to testify.
I went up I was like, Judge I know you want us to be quick. I’m gonna do my best. Don’t worry. I got class after so you know, this is not going to be a long one. And everyone laughed was like, oh, like we have like an undergrad here. Suing the world’s largest police department.
Asad testifies, goes back to class. And a month later, one of the lawyers from the case calls Asad and tells him he has great news.
He’s like, the judge is not satisfied with our demand. Like, what do you mean? says, well, the demands that we made, the judge wants us to make stronger demands.
And they do that. They won the case and among other reforms, limited the NYPD’s use of undercover informants and prohibited investigations in which religion, race or ethnicity was a motivating factor.
Alhamdullah, our name now is in the history books. We changed New York City Policy forever. And nothing could reverse. So we were really proud of that. And ever since then, I’ve been writing, speaking and educating on the subject.
If the goal of these tactics is to create mistrust, break communities and stifle organizing, they’ve failed miserably. Even at CCNY, which serves as a microcosm of what happens when a Muslim student group is infiltrated by surveillance, their club is group is still going strong.
And although Asad is no longer active with Muslims Giving Back, the charity itself is flourishing and continues to feed people all throughout New York City.
Clip from news coverage Freedom News TV: We got the food, we got the protein. We got the food…
They even got featured in a few national news stories for their charitable efforts during the pandemic.
These guys treat New York right. These guys come out here, and they show their faith. And they feed the people, listen, these people are good people, they are wonderful people… they make sure people is not hungry, and that’s a blessing.
I do think the Muslim community now has much more power to fight back has much more resources, as much more capabilities, has much more tools. People like me who were 18 or 19, when this first happened, are now professionals. I work for a civil rights organization, like we can, like we can we can fight back in different ways. We might not be as powerful as our opponents, but we can still punch up the way we can.
Music fades out.
Edited and produced by Reem Farhat. Music via Jason Shaw at Audionautix, audionautix.com. Cover art by Summer Hdaib.