Mariam Shareef, a Muslim student at Stony Brook University, was born and raised in the United States and has only been to one other country — Switzerland. As Shareef is about to graduate in biology this year, she now wonders whether her online activities are being watched by the New York Police Department.
An investigation by the Associated Press revealing that NYPD detectives monitored websites, blogs and forums of Muslim student groups at several colleges across the Northeast, including SBU, has sparked a great deal of criticism on campus.
“It’s already tough to face generalizations out there,” Shareef said. “I think this is a complete violation of our rights.”
Sanaa Nadim, chaplain of SBU’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) said students have been “very disturbed” by the news.
“Students are very sad. Some are shocked and some are disturbed by it,” she said. “This sets them aside from their colleagues. It pushes them away from those who want to hang out with them. We already have enough trouble from the media. Imagine now that your government is after you.”
Detectives visited MSA websites on a daily basis between 2006 and 2007, gathered all information and updates available and investigated the lives of individuals mentioned on those websites. According to documents obtained by the AP, no wrongdoings were found.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told AP that one of the reasons for starting the operation was that 12 former MSA members had been arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the U.S. and abroad.
He also said that Jesse Morton, a Muslim convert who pleaded guilty last month of posting online threats against the creators of “South Park,” tried to recruit followers at SBU, according to the AP.
Other colleges whose Muslim organizations were being monitored by the NYPD include the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, State University of New York at Albany and Buffalo, Columbia University and New York University.
SBU’s MSA has about 300 regular members, according to Mishal Riaz, a secretary for the organization on campus, but she estimates the overall number of Muslim students at SBU is much higher.
SBU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. has not commented on the case, but an official statement by the university says that neither the administration nor the university police knew about the operation or were ever contacted by the NYPD. Also, SBU was never asked to provide any information into the surveillance of the MSA or any other religious groups on campus, according to the statement.
Journalism professor Jonathan Sanders said he is “extremely disappointed” with the university’s response. He said SBU should make a strong public statement on behalf of the students.
“Surveillance of students based on ethnic data or religious preference is antithetical to the spirit of democratic engagement and freedom of expression,” Sanders said. “The idea that Muslim students, who have been stigmatized because of narrow prejudice since 9/11, are being singled out and not given a strong bulk of confidence is disgusting.”
Nadim said that Dean of Student Jerrold L. Stein has been “amazingly supportive.”
The chaplains of the six religious organizations at SBU’s Interfaith Center wrote a joined statement condemning the surveillance.
“No student should have to be concerned that he or she will be subject to investigation or surveillance by law enforcement simply because of his or her religious beliefs,” they said.
In defense of the operation, which he considers lawful and legitimate, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on his weekly radio show on WOR-AM that he would do anything to keep the city safe.
“Everything the NYPD has done is legal. It is appropriate, and it is constitutional,” he said. “[NYPD officers] are permitted to travel beyond the borders of New York City to investigate cases. They can look at websites; they watch television to detect unlawful activities.”
Electrical engineering major Manik Mahajah, a senior, said there is nothing wrong with the surveillance, and he woud not mind if his own online activities were being monitored.
“If I’m not doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to worry about,” said Mahajah.
Recent news reports have revealed that undercover detectives also visited mosques and Muslim businesses on Long Island, New Jersey and other places.
Moiz K. Malik, the chief of justice of the Undergraduate Student Government, said the NYPD’s practice is discriminatory and does nothing to prevent terrorism.
“Any surveillance of the Stony Brook MSA can only reveal hard-working students who happen to affirm Islam as their faith … Muslims detest terrorism just as much as anyone else and perhaps even more,” said Malik, an atheist who was raised in a Muslim household.
Nadim said she understands the police want to protect the country, but she considers this is “a complete misconception.”
“I need the law enforcement to know that we are with them,” she said. “We really need to put things in perspective before we lose what the moral aspect of this country was all about. People came to America because they were prosecuted because of their faith. What’s happening now?”