Opinion: Muslim spying program leads to suffocating silence

Ray Kelly

Ray Kelly (Credit: NYPD Commisioner Ray Kelly (Getty Images))

A secret agent follows students on a rafting trip and logs their conversations and prayer habits. A pole-mounted camera zeroes in on the entrance of a house of worship, reminding congregants that they'll be watched even in the most intimate settings. Patrons of local shops don't chat about the daily news, keeping to themselves to avoid drawing attention.

Could be from George Orwell's "1984," right? Wrong. These are just a few vignettes from a report on the New York Police Department's surveillance of Muslim communities, released this month by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition and its partners. It follows The Associated Press' award-winning exposé of a massive police spy program that used undercover agents, informants, cameras, and the resources of city and federal agencies to infiltrate the daily lives of Muslim Americans here in our beloved city.

And what did this multimillion-dollar jaunt into a Cold War spy thriller give us? As the NYPD itself admitted: No leads. No convictions. Only silence.

The silence is particularly stark in colleges, where intellectual freedom usually thrives.

In our work with Muslim Student Associations, we see students joining these groups, proud to contribute to their communities. But the students found only individuals whose speech and ideas were being repressed -- out of fear of who may be listening, misinterpreting and labeling them suspects to crimes they did not commit.

Some student associations worry that appearing too religiously active will have consequences for their members, who might hesitate to engage in political discussions or invite well-respected scholars.

No purpose is being served by creating this climate of fear.

A government program of "guilty until proven innocent" is antithetical to the core values of American democracy.

News that lawmakers are ready to push for a new inspector general to oversee the NYPD is encouraging, but it's only a first step. New Yorkers -- both Muslim and non-Muslim alike -- must break the silence that suffocates the voices of our neighbors, friends and colleagues.

Thomas Mariadason is an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund. Maryam Said is a program associate at the Muslim Consultative Network and a student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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