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OPINION: Build on NYPD's clarified approach to Muslims

Faiza Patel is an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The Center serves as legal adviser to the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition.


Did law enforcement agents raid Queens apartments this week simply because a Muslim man had visited them? The possibility sparked new interest in the question of police willingness to link religious and ethnic origin with terrorist tendencies.

Similar concerns were raised in 2007, when the New York City Police Department issued its controversial report on the threat of homegrown terrorism. The study examined 10 terrorist attacks in an attempt to identify behavior patterns associated with radicalization.

The sample was woefully inadequate. Worse, the authors didn't consider whether these behaviors were also the norm among observant Muslims. The report presented the following profile of a latter-day terrorist: a Muslim man between the ages of 15 and 30, who had stopped smoking and gambling, wore traditional Islamic clothing and a beard, prayed five times a day, and participated in community activity.

Thousands of law-abiding Americans fit this description. So community and civil rights groups were understandably worried that using normal religious behavior as a proxy for terrorist tendencies would encourage religious and ethnic profiling.

These concerns were based on the experiences of many Muslims after 9/11, including: "special registration" on the basis of ethnicity or religion, being removed from a plane and detained because praying before a flight was considered suspicious, and revelations that mosques were being infiltrated by informants.

Now the city police department has quietly - too quietly - added a clarification to the 2007 report, which backs away from some of its more troubling conclusions. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly deserves credit for taking this step. But the department could do much more to clarify misperceptions created by the report, and the raids in Flushing provide a perfect opportunity.

The clarification disavows the original report's linkage of religiosity and terrorism and states, unequivocally, that increasing religiosity among Muslims "cannot be used as a signature of someone potentially becoming a terrorist." It also retreats from the original report's conclusion that our area's Muslim communities have been "permeated" by radical ideologies.

So far, so good. But this brave rethinking has been undercut in two ways. For starters, the new ideas do not appear to have been distributed, much less publicized. Moreover, though the department has added the clarification, the original report hasn't otherwise been altered. Some readers will see the report as the "real" view of the NYPD and the clarification as a sop to noisy protesters. That would be a shame.

A few bold actions now would go a long way. Commissioner Kelly should both show and tell New York and the rest of the world that the NYPD does not use religious or ethnic profiling in selecting targets for terrorism investigations.

Does the department monitor the religious behavior of Muslim New Yorkers? If not, the commissioner should make this clear. It would be helpful, too, if he defined and publicized the standards by which his department begins investigations - such as that which led to this week's raids.

The positive aspects of the clarification should not be lost in the furor over the Queens raid. Rather, the NYPD should strengthen the lines of communication that developed in response to the 2007 report.

Members of the Muslim community are critical sources of information about potential terrorist plots, and they can help understand the process by which disaffected people are sometimes driven to extreme actions. Building a strong working relationship with Muslim groups - and modeling it for neighboring communities - may be one of the most valuable contributions the NYPD can make to our collective security.


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