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Presumed guilty?

February 27, 2012

IN terms of public relations, last week was a terrible one for the United States across the Muslim world. Thousands marched, set fire to trucks, and clashed with security forces after copies of the Quran and other texts were rescued from the incinerators of Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.

By Friday, the toll from the deadly protests stood at 25, including two American soldiers. US President Barack Obama composed a written apology; Isaf commander Gen John Allen launched an investigation and begged the Afghans for patience.

The death toll and fallout from this incident are no doubt horrible, but they have overshadowed other American transgressions against Muslims that are far more deliberate, systemic and problematic, if less dramatic.

While Afghans took to the streets to protest against the burnt religious texts, Muslim students in America’s northeast called town hall meetings and issued press statements to condemn the latest revelations about the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) attempts to monitor Muslim communities.

The news has been trickling in since August: the NYPD has been monitoring Muslim mosques with techniques reserved for criminal organisations: tracking worshippers’ movements and affiliations; cataloguing sermons and the congregation’s idle chatter through a network of informants and infiltrators known as ‘mosque crawlers’; propping up surveillance cameras.

Current officials say that the NYPD’s top intelligence officer was aiming for a source inside every mosque within a 250-mile radius of New York.

Last week, it was learnt officers from NYPD’s Cyber Intelligence unit also trawled through the websites of Muslim student groups on a daily basis. The police even went so far as to dispatch undercover agents to Muslim gatherings to record the number of times that students prayed. In sum, the NYPD has been treating an entire religious community as potential terrorists.

Not surprisingly, the news sparked outrage among Muslim students, college administrators and civil rights defenders. But the true impact of the surveillance programme is far more subtle: on blogs, tweets and in statements to the press, Muslim students have expressed fears about speaking up in class, lest their words be recorded on a laptop or cellphone. They confess that they are instinctively being more cautious about who they speak to, what jokes they make, what they google when online — they are, in other words, acting guilty until proven innocent.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD have defended the surveillance programme, arguing that police officers followed legitimate leads of criminal activity thereby preventing at least 14 terrorist attacks. But the Associated Press has shown that police monitoring has mixed results at best. While the NYPD succeeded in uncovering a 2004 plot to bomb a subway station in Manhattan, they failed to apprehend Najibullah Zazi and Adis Medunjanin, who plotted another subway bombing, which has been described as the greatest threat to the US since 9/11. At the time they were plotting, undercover officers were infiltrating Zazi’s mosque and monitoring Medunjanin’s Muslim student group at a local college.

The issue at stake here is not whether the surveillance programme can be justified, rather what it says about America’s understanding of and approach to Islamic terrorism. What was the NYPD looking for in Muslim mosques, businesses and student groups? Signs of radicalisation among the members? What are those exactly? What version of Islam, what interpretation of the Quran, and which interactions with the Muslim community are, by the NYPD’s standards, acceptable?

The spying scandal has laid bare all the fallacies that have driven American engagement with the Muslim world since 9/11. From the start, the US assumed that a strain of ‘bad’ Islam caused the World Trade Centre attacks, and then quickly concluded that the only antidote to terrorism was a version of ‘good Islam’. In other words, America set itself up as an arbiter of Islamic acceptability.

Writing in The New York Times, Samuel Rascoff, an NYU professor and (ironically) former NYPD head of intelligence analysis, explained why this is a bad idea: “Is the [US] government a credible authority on Islamic interpretation? Based on the results of comparable efforts in Britain, the answer is a resounding no. Simply put, young Muslim men in the thrall of radical teachings will not embrace a more pacific theology because the FBI tells them to.” The solution of course is not for the US to better understand Islam in order to better arbitrate. As American Muslim and Columbia doctoral candidate Haroon Mogul asks, on what basis can or should American government, military and law-enforcement officials engage Muslims, if they insist on engaging them as Muslims? His point is that the US needs to decouple religious identity and terrorism, and start treating Muslims like American citizens.

The US government’s failure to accord American Muslims the same respect, rights and privileges due to American citizens is nothing short of an ethical failure. In addition to international fiascos such as Abu Ghraib, renditions, Bagram and drone strikes, the American insistence on profiling the Muslim minority at home is causing the US to lose its moral high ground, and with it, the soft power it once exerted.

To their credit, American Muslims have responded to the NYPD’s transgressions with restraint and humour. Hundreds have joined a tongue-in-cheek #myNYPDfile Twitter campaign, which aims to give the NYPD all the information it needs without the hassle of surveillance. As @WajahatAli puts it: “Why make them waste resource, energy, $ in secret spying? Just tell ‘em what u do.” It seems American Muslims are now the ones setting the standard for ideal American behaviour — tolerant, pluralistic, empowered by free speech, forgiving.

The writer is a freelance journalist.