The ethics of monitoring Muslims

Earlier this week I read a story in the Denver Post about Najibullah Zazi’s plot to set off bombs in the New York subway. The plot was thwarted after someone monitoring the email of a key al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan intercepted a message from Zazi, a Denver-area airport shuttle driver.

The story was interesting, although it did manage to completely avoid any mention of religion at all. That takes some skill for this particular story since he met his co-conspirators at the mosque they grew up in and was tipped off about the FBI following him by an imam. And that doesn’t even get into the motivation for the attacks.

I thought of the story again when I read a huge Associated Press expose on how the New York Police Department spies on the same Muslim informants it uses to fight terror. That’s because the imam who tipped of Zazi, Ahmad Wais Afzali, was also an FBI and police informant. His story is a sad one — while his crime was serious, obviously, folks tend to agree that he had no idea that what he was doing would lead to him getting brought up on charges and invited to leave the country.

I suspect, although I don’t have time to look into the particulars, that the FBI or police were monitoring his phone calls even while they worked with him to identify the suspects. And while I’m generally much less accepting than the general population of the widespread wiretapping our government engages in, I imagine this happens all the time, be it with drug informants, mafia informants or terrorist informants.

This Associated Press story reveals fairly widespread spying by the New York Police Department on Muslim informants. The story begins from the posture not that wiretapping is bad, per se, but that monitoring informants is. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of a pro-con discussion about that. Anyway, here is how it begins:

Reda Shata considered himself a partner in New York’s fight against terrorism. He cooperated with the police and FBI, invited officers to his mosque for breakfast, even dined with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Despite the handshakes and photo ops, however, the New York Police Department was all the while watching the Egyptian sheik. Even as Shata’s story was splashed across the front page of The New York Times in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series about Muslims in America, an undercover officer and an informant were assigned to monitor him, and two others kept tabs on his mosque that same year.

Shata’s perspective is further given and we learn about all of the nice things he did for NYPD officers — inviting them to breakfast and throwing parties for the guys who left the precinct during his time at the Islamic Center of Bay Ridge — while the police secretly watched him.

It’s all part of an Associated Press investigation that found that undercover officers scrutinized more than 250 mosques and Muslim student groups after September 11. We learn that seven New York Democratic state senators are asking the state attorney general to investigate the spying and the CIA has an inspector general looking into their partnership with the NYPD.

Unfortunately, the other side isn’t included in the story largely because the NYPD and Mayor Michael Bloomberg either ignored press inquiries or declined to answer them.

We learn about another situation, although I’m not sure how well the story was told. Basically there’s an imam who holds leadership roles at both the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and the Jamaica Muslim Center. The imam, Shamsi Ali, is a frequent guest of the mayor’s for public appearances dealing with Muslim issues. And “yet”:

Yet in 2006, the NYPD infiltrated two mosques where Shamsi Ali holds leadership roles — the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and the Jamaica Muslim Center. The NYPD cited radical rhetoric and possible money laundering in the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and said the Jamaica Muslim Center was a hub of radicalization that offered martial arts training. Shamsi Ali said he was unaware of the police assessments and denied the underlying accusations.

“How do you define rhetoric?” Shamsi Ali asked. He said some imams sound harsh when they’re preaching. And, if the NYPD suspected money laundering, it should ask the Internal Revenue Service to audit the mosque, he said.

“It’s wrong to view Muslims as radicals simply because of the outfit,” Shamsi Ali said.

This is where a counter view might have proved informative. I’m generally queasy about infiltrating houses of worship but that’s not the same thing as targeting the man in question.

Take, for instance, the Dar al-Hijrah mosque we discussed just the other day. It’s a huge and popular mosque serving 3,000 people. It is a big actor in the community and receives tons of favorable press from the major media. It is also literally the former mosque of Anwar al-Awlaki, who led it for a few years around the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Two of the 9/11 hijackers worshiped there. So did a bunch of people who have been convicted of plotting terror attacks. So did Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter. There have been some rather incendiary words spoken from authority figures, not just limited to al-Awlaki.

One need not believe that all — or even the vast majority — of the Muslims who worship there are bad guys to acknowledge that this mosque has had extensive ties to terror or terrorism. What should be done about it is a separate question altogether but it just would have been really nice to at least hear from some folks who could explain why some people believe in monitoring Muslim houses of worship. I’d like to hear their arguments and, further, some responses to those arguments.

Anyway, the story is important and whether you find it alarming or eye-opening or even biased, I think it’s a good read. As hard as it is to find out what local, state and federal governments are doing these days, it’s even harder when the topic involves terrorism. Kudos to the AP team for finding out some information about how counter-terror efforts operate in the Big Apple.

Still, I found the ‘and yets’ and ‘meanwhiles’ a bit odd. For instance:

In October 2006, the president of the Brooklyn borough attended an event on the final day of Ramadan at Brooklyn’s Makki Masjid. The borough president, Marty Markowitz, described his Muslim neighbors as “like every other group in our fabric — successful, community-minded contributors who improve our quality of life.” Meanwhile, the NYPD recorded in its files that Makki Masjid was a “Tier One” mosque because of its members’ radical Islamic views.

Two Queens mosques that the NYPD was monitoring in 2006 — one because it was suspected of funding the Taliban and another that the department described as the national headquarters of an extremist organization — are listed as “destination options” in a 2009 official city planning brochure for a bike tour of Queens intended to promote the community’s diversity.

I mean, I think that it would be more surprising, in a way, if a politician went to a community event and didn’t pander to his audience. What does it really tell us that he lathered on the praise (other than that he’s a politician)? And while I’ll cop to being cynical, I’m not surprised that a city diversity initiative would send bicyclists to the HQ of an extremist organization. But what does it tell us other than that the diversity office of the city planners probably doesn’t communicate with a CIA-guided NYPD spying program? Would we prefer that they did?

What I would like to see is a bit more discussion of the ethics and history of spying on houses of worship. What guidelines are in place to avoid abuses, if any? And in addition to the anti-spying voices and the (absent) pro-spying voices, I’d love to hear other voices, too. Are there any people with other ideas about effective ways to counter terror without violating religious civil liberties or growing an encroaching surveillance state?

I’m sure that the Associated Press will continue to cover this story and I look forward to the other angles they tackle.

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  • Dave

    I would have loved for a government informant to have been present in my UU church last Sunday. A newcomer abruptly turned a service about talking our talk on marriage equity to walking our walk. The informant would have had to report that this congregation means what it says.

    I agree with you, Mollie: let’s see the ethics of surveillance of religious institutions ventilated. I don’t think any institution has a civil right to be off limits if it’s fomenting treason or violent overthrow, but I’d like the NYPD to articulate its rationale. NYPD blood was on the ground on 9/11; they have a right to be heard.

  • Jerry

    What I would like to see is a bit more discussion of the ethics and history of spying on houses of worship. What guidelines are in place to avoid abuses, if any? And in addition to the anti-spying voices and the (absent) pro-spying voices, I’d love to hear other voices, too. Are there any people with other ideas about effective ways to counter terror without violating religious civil liberties or growing an encroaching surveillance state?

    I agree. The lure of stopping every crime leads inevitably to a police state. And every politician dreads being accused of being responsible for letting something bad happen so every politician has an incentive to increase police state powers and make the reach of the police ever more ubiquitous.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I have yet to see any comparison in the media between the police work being done to catch Islamic terrorists with the long-time law enforcement effort to catch members of the Mafia (most of whom were nominal Catholics) and members of the IRA (most of whom were nominal Catholics.)
    In the struggle against those two violent groups noone seemed to object to investigating them in any way possible–including looking at religious connections.


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