Skip to main content

Spying on Muslims is legal?

By Arjun Sethi
updated 7:54 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
An NYPD officer and a protester look on as advocates and residents hold a press conference June 18, 2013, in New York to discuss legal action challenging surveillance of businesses frequented by Muslim residents and of mosques.
An NYPD officer and a protester look on as advocates and residents hold a press conference June 18, 2013, in New York to discuss legal action challenging surveillance of businesses frequented by Muslim residents and of mosques.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A federal judge dismissed a suit challenging broad NYPD surveillance of Muslims
  • Arjun Sethi says the ruling breaches privacy, sustains fear among many Muslims
  • He says the judge erred in blaming journalists rather than police for the harm caused
  • Sethi: The targeting of Muslims will be seen as a tragic infringement of civil liberties

Editor's note: Arjun Sethi is a lawyer in Washington and a frequent commentator on civil rights and social justice-related issues. Follow him on Twitter: @arjunsethi81

(CNN) -- Muslims in America just lost their right to privacy. Last week, a federal judge in New Jersey ruled that blanket, suspicion-less surveillance of Muslims is permissible under the U.S. Constitution.

Since September 11, 2001, the New York Police Department has used community mapping, video surveillance, photography and confidential informants to map Muslim life in and around New York. No detail has proved too remote for the prying eyes of the NYPD. Mosques, student groups, restaurants, even grade schools, have all been surveilled.

In 2012, a group of New Jersey plaintiffs sued the NYPD, alleging that the spying program chills religious expression and stigmatizes Islam. The plaintiffs include an Iraq war veteran, a prominent mosque and a math teacher. Each was monitored by the NYPD absent any evidence of wrongdoing.

Arjun Sethi
Arjun Sethi

The judge, however, ruled the plaintiffs failed to prove discrimination, and found that monitoring Muslims was the only way to stop terrorism arising from the Muslim community. The court also dealt a damaging blow to whistle-blowers, ruling that The Associated Press revelations about the program caused the plaintiffs' injury, not the NYPD. According to the judge, the harm to Muslim communities was caused by overzealous journalists, not snooping cops.

The most immediate effect of the decision is that it will deepen the isolation of Muslims in America. A report by The Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Project at CUNY Law School illustrates this sharply.

Many Muslims in New York live under an umbrella of fear. Not because they have anything to hide, but because they want to be left alone, what Justice Louis Brandeis once called the right most valued by civilized men.

They hesitate before speaking Arabic or Urdu in public, dither before attending religious services or joining faith based groups, and shy away from embracing emblems of faith, like hijabs and beards. Not even students are immune from this incessant second-guessing. Many vacillate before joining Muslim groups on campus or speaking on controversial issues like religious profiling in the classroom.

Nor is the problem confined to Muslims in and around New York. Indeed, the court's decision raises the specter of something far more ominous. What stops the federal government from mapping and monitoring Muslims nationwide?

Permitting dragnet religious surveillance of Muslim communities will also exacerbate anti-Muslim sentiment. The NYPD spying program comes on the heels of a nationwide maelstrom against Islam.

More than a dozen state legislatures have considered legislation criminalizing sharia law. Mosques have been burned and vandalized, and Muslims have been the target of countless hate crimes.

Congress has joined the chorus as well, with some members repeatedly overblowing the threat posed by home-grown Muslim extremism. This widespread animus has led to a disturbing paradox: More Americans fear Islam today than just after the 9-11 attacks.

Still, it's not just Muslims who should be troubled by the court's decision. It's every American, for in its faulty reasoning, the court has also diminished the U.S. Constitution. Consider an example. What if the NYPD had mapped the state's African-American population to stop criminal activity in that community? The practice would be denounced and defeated in a court of law.

Why then, is religious surveillance tolerated? Race and religion both have a storied role in American history, and both are afforded similar protection under the U.S. Constitution.

But, time and again, we ignore the enduring wisdom of the Bill of Rights, and succumb to political whim and social fiat. The Japanese relocation camps after Pearl Harbor; the blacklisting and harassment of communist sympathizers during the Cold War; the surveillance of civil rights, feminist and anti-Vietnam war activists throughout the 1960s and '70s; and more recently, stop and frisk in New York. The examples are legion. So is the disgrace.

These policies once enjoyed widespread support and were considered necessary law enforcement tools. Today, they are a stain on our national consciousness. Religious surveillance of Muslim communities will one day join this tragic, shameful legacy.

But until then, the New Jersey plaintiffs have vowed to press on. They announced last week that they intend to appeal the court's decision and vindicate their rights. I hope they succeed. In the end, they're fighting for the U.S. Constitution, and thus, you and me.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arjun Sethi.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arjun Sethi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT