When it had been revealed that the NYPD had been conducting blanket surveillance on Muslim-American communities in New Yorkand New Jersey, it was taken as a chilling indicator of the level to which Muslims in general were held in contempt by the government after the attacks of 9/11.
Never mind that no American Muslim had perpetrated these acts, they would still be the bearers of both the public and official backlash to them, and the very nature of their ethno-religious identity would be grounds for suspension of their rights at request of law enforcement.
Among average Muslim citizens, the most fatalistic suspicions of their rapidly deteriorating standing in society seemed to have been confirmed when it was revealed that the NYPD was spying on their schools, businesses, even infiltrating their camping trips on the basis of no other “lead” other than their religion.
The extent of this pervasive and indiscriminate government surveillance was captured in dossiers leaked to the public as the result of an award-winning AP investigation. These dossiers, all the more chilling for their banality, described in detail how the NYPD had meticulously documented Muslim restaurants, mosques and social groups recording the most innocuous details about them and increasing scrutiny for reasons completely extraneous to criminality.
Listening-posts were set up in neighborhoods considered to have high concentrations of Muslims in order to spy on their daily conversations and document the habits of their residents. One Bangladeshi restaurant under surveillance was documented as suspicious because many of its customers seemed to be of a “devout crowd”, while specific individuals would be targeted on the basis of having an “ancestry of interest”. Black American Muslims were considered one such target group; despite the fact that their ancestors have been living in America for centuries and that “black” is itself a race and not an ancestry. Such indiscriminate targeting of individuals based on demography is borne of a type of bigoted ignorance that is always inherently absurd, but the effects are no less damaging.
The malice and wanton gross disregard to both the right to privacy and presumption of innocence of these American citizens notwithstanding, what did this intense long-term surveillance of Muslim-American communities find? The answer seems to be absolutely nothing. All the years of spying and surveillance on the minutest details of the largest Muslim communities in America produced not a single lead pointing towards terrorism, never mind rooting out terrorists.
All this scrutiny into the intimate details of the lives of Muslim Americans revealed nothing but the absolute hollowness of accusations that they and their communities foster terrorism. What does this say about the justification for the level of contempt towards American Muslims today? The NYPD is of course not alone in America in having fears and suspicions about Muslims in its midst, polls have shown that a significant number of Americans today harbor similar feelings about the Muslim minority in their country. The word “Islamophobia” itself, after all, by definition denotes “fear”, (though in practice the label is applied equally to the hatemongers and bigots who capitalize on such fear), and as many have noted the phenomena is running increasingly rampant in American society.
If years of pervasive government scrutiny towards Muslims on the basis of religion cannot provide a single link towards terrorism, why do we find ourselves in an environment where public fear and hatred of Muslims is growing to unprecedented levels and increasingly manifesting itself in violence? Despite the fact that the results of this surveillance campaign produced no evidence of terrorism, and thus considerable first-hand evidence that Muslims are not a particularly dangerous subset of the population, it is doubtful that the rising tide of hysteria and bigotry towards them will subside.
Politicians such as Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who recently announced to a frenzied crowd that “Muslims are trying to kill Americans” and that radical Islam had somehow infiltrated the small towns in the local area will ensure that Islamophobia continues to increase no matter how much evidence comes out bearing the fact that Muslims do not pose a threat to America.
In addition to hatemongering politicians, as Glenn Greenwald noted in his final post at Salon, there has also developed a cottage industry of pseudo-intellectuals with a vested financial and career interest in ensuring that terrorism continues to be seen as an urgent public threat, and which is vociferously intolerant of any argument to the contrary not matter how much evidence piles up against them.
The NYPD spying campaign was merely symptomatic of the new reality of the War on Terror where the government can take unprecedented powers into its hands that would otherwise have provoked outrage. The modus operandi of such expansions of government power has always been to capitalize on a sense of public fear, and to make the initial target of these campaigns a marginal segment of the community towards which the rest of society may hold some antipathy – and would thus be less willing to defend.
Compare and contrast the mass-outrage over TSA screening at airports with the muted reaction to the far more invasive spying campaign on the intimate details of the lives of Muslim-American citizens. Had this campaign been directed at a broader swath of Americans it would have provoked a tidal wave of backlash, but Americans were willing to accept this type of government activity so long as it was directed at the other. However the lack of public reaction means that the precedent has now been set, and there is no guarantee that now that the NYPD has assumed such powers they will not be used against other groups of Americans in the future.
While this episode will continue to undermine the standing of Muslims as equals in American society, it in reality undermines the standing of all Americans in the long-term as the sanctity of the rights infringed upon are a shared property of the citizenry.
That the spying itself; borne of general paranoia, has itself offered compelling evidence to believe that such fear of Muslims is completely irrational will likely go unnoticed in the public discourse. The environment which gave birth to the NYPD campaign continues to exist and grows more virulent by the day. Stoking fears of terrorism and demonizing Muslims is too lucrative to pass up for politicians seeking to get elected and for pseudo-academics seeking to perpetuate their careers – and for this reason we may likely see more public acquiescence to increasingly gross violations of the rights of the Muslim community in America.