What It Feels Like to Be Spied On For Your Religion

PHOTO: New York University (NYU) students attend a town hall to discuss the NYPDs surveillance of Muslim communities.

Almost exactly a year ago, the Associated Press obtained a declassified document revealing that the New York City Police Department monitored student activities of Muslim Student Associations (MSA) in at least 15 colleges across the northeast, including at some of the nation's top schools, like Yale University and UPenn.

On Monday, civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit against the NYPD for routinely observing Muslims in restaurants, mosques and cafes without due cause -- practices which were uncovered in a series by the AP. Lawyers argue that the widespread surveillance of the Muslim communities violates a 1985 court decision and are seeking a court order against further surveillance of Muslims without evidence of wrongdoing as well as a new court-appointed overseer of police espionage activities.

When the declassified document came out last February, it sent a chill through the Ivy Muslim Conference, a gathering of 130 Muslim students that was taking place at Yale that weekend. In a large dining hall, the AP story circulated quietly on dozens of iPhones and BlackBerries.

"The first reaction of most students was just utter shock of being spied on when you haven't done anything wrong," said Omer Bajwa, the current Chaplain of Muslim Life at Yale. "And then came fundamental questions about why they are spying on us."

Bajwa said that Yale's MSA would be classified as "moderate to liberal" on scales used by some in the field to evaluate religious fundamentalism.

"Here is this group of well-intentioned, moderate Muslims, the farthest category of people from those the NYPD should be concerned about, and now we have to defend ourselves from the terrorism insinuation that comes with that news," Bajwa said. "We felt insulted, and humiliated, but also very perplexed."

The document obtained by the AP revealed that the NYPD tracked Muslim student websites and blogs daily and sent at least one undercover officer to monitor a white water rafting trip with students from the City College of New York. The surveillance occurred almost 6 years ago, and is said to have discontinued, but the paranoia that it may still be happening remains.

Bajwa said that students were fearful in the weeks following the news, approaching him to discuss the possibilities of there being informants in their classes who would misconstrue their words. Others, like women who wear head-coverings, expressed fear that they would be targets of islamophobia because the recent news would insinuate some sort of guilt on their part, he said.

Although Yale's President Rick Levin stood up in defense of Yale's Muslim study body, arguing 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," few other non-Muslims leaders or public figures publicly opposed the surveillance of MSA students.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended his program against Levin's attacks in an interview with the AP.

"If going on websites and looking for information is not what Yale stands for, I don't know.... It's the freedom of information ... Of course we're gonna look at anything that's publicly available and in the public domain. We have an obligation to do so. And it is to protect the very things that let Yale survive," Bloomberg said.

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