BELDING: Stand up for Muslims’ rights

When the president and vice president of the Yale Muslim Students Association wrote their op-ed last week (“Fighting Islamophobia at Yale,” Feb. 17), they had reason to expect that like any other Yale students, they would be able to express their opinions freely without fear of reprisal. But recently revealed evidence that the New York Police Department has been keeping tabs on the MSAs of 15 colleges, including Yale, suggests that their call for tolerance may be falling on deaf ears. The NYPD’s surveillance suggests that Muslims’ First Amendment rights have been deemed an acceptable casualty of the war on terror.

When Muslim students’ right to privacy is so blatantly disregarded, it is not just their problem. It is everyone’s problem. When law enforcement officials declare that it is not their duty to protect the rights of maligned minorities, but to further marginalize them, they misunderstand their duty in a way that is dangerous for all of us. When police set a precedent of surveillance of student groups, the freedom of all political student groups is threatened.

The NYPD, like any law enforcement agency, has a limited amount of time and resources. When it wastes those resources unconstitutionally monitoring broad segments of the population rather than pursuing actual leads, it is not protecting us from terrorism. Research on racial profiling in New York in the 1990s shows that racial profiling reduced officers’ ability to judge suspicious behavior accurately. By defining “suspicious behavior” in such a way that any Muslim student who prays is viewed as a potential threat, the police are certain to overlook instances of suspicious behavior by actual criminals who do not fit their limited profile.

Instead of doing an effective job of preventing terrorism, well-meaning law enforcement officials have subjected Muslims in America to a different kind of terror. Especially after 9/11, Muslims have not only been the target of hate crimes but have also had their civil liberties trampled upon. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has documented thousands of civil rights complaints by Muslims over the years, ranging from employment discrimination and verbal harassment to warrantless wiretapping and baseless inclusion on terrorist watch lists.

American Muslims are often asked why they fear increased police surveillance when they have nothing to hide. Besides bearing an implicit accusation of guilt, that question entirely misses the point. The Fourth Amendment protects the right of Americans to live securely without fear of unreasonable searches or seizures — not out of empathy for criminals, but out of concern for those unfairly targeted by law enforcement. The question is not what Muslims have to hide, but what reason police have to search. Muslims’ right to peaceful assembly and free exercise of their religion means that merely belonging to a Muslim student group can never justify police surveillance.

I certainly do not mean to equate violation of Muslims’ civil rights with the devastation of 9/11. But in a just society, the existence of large-order injustices like terrorism is not grounds to justify near-constant suspicion of minorities. In a just society, the dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes committed against Muslims since 9/11 would be reason for law enforcement officials to step up their efforts to protect Muslim communities instead of treating them like criminals.

There is a culture war being waged in America today. On the one hand, the right believes that “peaceful Muslim” is an oxymoron and will use whatever ignorant and inflammatory rhetoric it can to exclude Muslims from American society. On the other hand, there are those who see such fear-mongering for what it is and fight for an America based on pluralism and understanding. The NYPD seems to have chosen its side in this fight.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is now asking Yale to take concrete steps to protect its Muslim students’ rights against warrantless surveillance. It is time for Yale to choose its side: defend Muslim students’ rights, or be complicit in the erosion of the civil liberties of all students.

Jess Belding is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at jess.belding@yale.edu.

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