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Inside the tiny Potsdam mosque. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Inside the tiny Potsdam mosque. Photo: Zach Hirsch

For North Country Muslims, NYPD surveillance ruling brings back memories

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A recent federal ruling is bringing back memories of surveillance in Potsdam's Muslim community.

Since 9/11, the New York City Police Department has played an increasingly aggressive role in domestic counter-terrorism efforts. The NYPD has investigated mosques and entire ethnic communities, a point that raises concerns among civil liberties advocates. Undercover agents have also monitored the websites of Muslim Student Associations at more than 15 universities.

According to an Associated Press report from 2012, NYPD officers scrutinized the online activities of Muslims at Clarkson and SUNY Potsdam.

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Reported by

Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

"I mean, I don't really understand the rationale for coming here, out of all places," said Clarkson University junior Saira Bakshi.

Saira actually wasn't around when all of this was coming to light. At the time, Saira was at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She was part of the Muslim student association there, which is one of the groups that the NYPD was secretly investigating.

"It's about 3,000 students, which is like the size of Clarkson itself," she said. "So, it was a very active group, but I find it so strange that they would think it was any kind of hot spot for radical political movements or planning, because, it was mainly just to preserve our identity as American Muslims."

Nobody that I know of in my community has experienced adversity. But I'm very aware of what's out there.
A spokesperson for the NYPD told the AP that a dozen people arrested on terrorism charges, both in the U.S. and abroad, were part of a Muslim student group at some point. So the NYPD started to keep a close eye on them.

Saira says the NYPD is playing into a common misconception about her religion.

"It's just that link between religiosity and extremism. It baffles me, because in my experience, everyone I've met who is really practicing as an American Muslim repels that whole terrorism aspect. There's no basis for it in our faith," she said.

Some Muslims in New Jersey were outraged when they found their names caught up in New York City intelligence operations.

They took the city to federal court, arguing that the police shouldn't secretly gather information on their communities without evidence.

At the end of February, U.S. District Judge William Martini dismissed the case, saying the NYPD hasn't actually harmed Muslims by monitoring them.

"In litigation in the US, before you can bring suit, you have to demonstrate that you actually have had an injury in fact under the law," said Darby Morrisroe, professor of Government at St Lawrence University.

"The injuries that they were claiming from the discrimination, the chilling effect on their speech, or the potential problems with employment, or having to change the times that they went to the mosque hours, for instance, the court concluded that those were potential future injuries, that they hadn't quite happened yet."

Morrisroe says the ruling makes legal sense, but she still finds the NYPD's strategy troubling.

"The NYPD is arguing that in order to be aware of terrorist networks, et cetera, that they have to become deeply familiar with all of these Muslim communities, organizations, and groups, so that if something were to happen, they would be sufficiently familiar with these groups, organizations, and individuals. And I think that approach is problematic, because what it then suggests, is that police can deeply and consistently surveil a community based on a particular demographic characteristic of that community," she said.

The decision in Newark only applies to the state of New Jersey. Morrisroe says she'll be interested to see what other courts in the Northeast will decide.

Saira Bakshi is also wondering what will come of this ruling: "So even though this does set a precedent for other rulings, I doubt that it will go uncontested," Bakshi said.

Others don't feel as strongly about the NYPD's intelligence operations. Tarik Maatallah is the president of Potsdam's tiny mosque. He's originally from Morocco, and he lived in New York City for seven years before settling in Potsdam: "Nobody that I know of in my community has experienced adversity. But I'm very aware of what's out there," Maatallah said.

Maatallah remembers hearing about the online surveillance of Clarkson and SUNY Potsdam students in 2012, but he says it didn't worry him too much.

"Well, if we were on the list, we never felt anything," he said. "I have never been pulled over by police officer in Potsdam that showed any sign of disrespect of any sort. And I do not know of anybody that has." Others I spoke to at a Friday prayer service at the mosque didn't want to be recorded, but they both said that the police are only doing their job.

Saira also had second thoughts about going on the record, but she changed her mind.

"You don't want this kind of fear that's being propagated being spread to Muslims too. Because I don't think Muslims have anything to hide. And it's really important that our voices aren't suppressed in all of this."

Saira said it would be a scary thing if speaking to a reporter got her in trouble down the line.

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