The New York Police Department decided to end a surveillance program, known as the Demographics Unit, that began in 2003 to monitor Muslim communities after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including Stony Brook University’s Muslim Student Association.
NYPD officers visited the Stony Brook MSA website, but “did not find significant information posted on their web sites, forums, blogs and groups,” according to a Weekly MSA Report from the NYPD that the Associated Press uncovered.
That November 2006 report, labeled as “secret,” showed that online activity from Muslim student groups at other schools such as SUNY Buffalo, New York University, Rutgers, Columbia and Yale were also monitored.
NYPD informers also infiltrated Muslim student groups on campuses, but ultimately, the program as a whole did not generate leads from the information gathered, according to The New York Times, while the crux of the program covertly sent detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to gather detailed information on where people gathered and what people said.
Sanaa Nadim, chaplain of SBU’s MSA, said it was “disheartening” and “a shock” to learn of the surveillance of students she called “the best people of their generation,” some of which have moved on to become doctors, lawyers, engineers and “some of the most successful figures.”
“I don’t think they really deserved that treatment,” Nadim said. She said that citizens of a free society get hurt by learning of such surveillance in the “country of liberty and justice for all,” while there are third-world societies that are mocked for being police states.
Nadim said she understands that law enforcement need to protect and maintain safety, but that it should not “paint with one brush” the Muslim community.
It is necessary to differentiate the community of those who have a relation with God to become righteous citizens from those who interpret scripture and act in violence, she said.
Ultimately, Nadim said the disbanding of the program is a “wonderful step forward by law enforcement” in building a bridge with the Muslim community and establishing trust.
To deal with the stigmas of Muslims that may arise, Nadim said she does her best to educate students on that they are at one of the most diverse universities in the world, with an administration that has been “very supportive” in resolving issues.
Three students from SBU’s MSA offered their reactions to the ending of the NYPD’s spying on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
One student said that he thought, not speaking for the entire Muslim community, that the surveillance “was just a matter of fact.” Though nothing needed to be hidden, he felt “strained” when the program was running and now feels “easier” that it is gone.
“We all know if we’re doing something good or something bad,” said another student. “We’re like every other American out there.”
A third student added that although there was nothing to hide, the monitoring was “unfair” as it felt as though students had to “walk on eggshells” in fear of being singled out for their religious affiliation.
Nadim said that while she understands why the program existed, there are ways to achieve safety without singling out the entire Muslim community and to learn from times in history when people were targeted as communists or for being Jewish.
“We’re the new kids on the block,” Nadim said, when really “one small minority took the microphone.”