When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Tuesday called for United States law enforcement agencies “to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” he was in many ways making an argument long familiar to those in New York City.
After all, the New York Police Department, as the Republican presidential candidate noted, used to target Muslim neighborhoods for more than a decade, from 2003 to 2014. Its now-defunct Demographics Unit infiltrated mosques and Muslim student groups, put Muslim businesses and individuals under government surveillance, and indeed targeted those neighborhoods it thought could be hotbeds for would-be terrorists.
For Senator Cruz, now chasing the Manhattan billionaire Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for president, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, ended the controversial program “because political correctness is more important to him than protecting our safety.”
The story of the Demographics Unit, however, is more complicated. Indeed, as many critics note, after more than 10 years of government surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey, and other states, the NYPD’s secret intelligence-gathering force never commenced a single investigation, as a police official testified in court in 2012.
The program, later renamed the Zone Assessment Unit, was formed in part with help from an active CIA agent, and specifically targeted 28 “ancestries of interest.” In 2012, the Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for an in-depth investigative report uncovering the secret program. The CIA inspector general later pulled the officer, saying he was operating without sufficient supervision.
NYPD officers in the mid-2000s noted areas where South Asians and Pakistanis played cricket, where Albanians played chess, and where Egyptians watched soccer matches. As reports of the NYPD program began to be uncovered, the AP reported, community leaders in these areas began teaching residents how to identify police agents, and to refrain from cooperating with them.
At least three lawsuits were filed by Muslim residents. Civil rights organizations cried foul, and even senior officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation criticized the program as harming national security, as it created an atmosphere of mistrust and bitterness between Muslim neighborhoods and law enforcement.
In New York, FBI lawyers determined that agents could not use documents from the Demographics Unit: It would violate federal rules.
“It’s somewhat surprising to see this idea resurrected by Sen. Cruz after what did happen in New York years ago,” says Frank Scafidi, a former field agent with the FBI. “To go down the path that, ‘We’re going to keep everyone who is a Muslim under surveillance,’ you actually get the entirely opposite result.”
“People are then so suspicious of you, so suspicious of the government, and then even themselves,” continues Mr. Scafidi, now a public affairs executive in California. “I don’t want to go down the road of what that sounds like, but I don’t think that’s the kind of place we want to be as a country.”
Yet after the ISIS terrorist bombings in Brussels – as well as related attacks over the past few years from Paris to Boston to San Bernardino, Calif., – many in the US cast a wary eye toward Muslims, perceived as foreign “others.” Many religious conservatives, especially, see Islam itself as a religion and ideology antithetical to American and Christian values.
And since Sept. 11, the nation has wrestled with the vexing need to balance proactive law enforcement measures and the nation’s values of freedom and liberty.
Cruz, worried that “isolated Muslim neighborhoods in Europe” were producing terror cells, praised the “proactive policing” under the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The former mayor’s tenure, however, was marked by deep community divisions under a massive program of stop-and-frisk, a policy that was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.
And unlike Europe, American Muslims are more educated, more middle class, and much more integrated into American society than the working class and more recent immigrants in Europe.
“One of the great strengths of the United States – and part of the reason why we have not seen more attacks in the United States – is we have an extraordinarily successful, patriotic, integrated Muslim American community,” President Obama said Wednesday at a news conference in Buenos Aires with Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri.
"They do not feel ghetto-ized, they do not feel isolated,” the president continued, criticizing Cruz’s call to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods. “Their children are our children’s friends, going to the same schools. They are our colleagues in our workplaces, they are our men and women in uniform fighting for our freedom. Any approach that would single them out and target them for discrimination is not only wrong and un-American, but it would also be counterproductive.”
But critics point out that the Tsarnaev brothers, who perpetrated the Boston bombing in 2013, were Muslims who immigrated from Chechnya with their family. And one of the perpetrators of the San Bernardino terrorist shootings in 2015, Tashfeen Malik, was born in Pakistan and grew up in Saudi Arabia before immigrating the to US. Her husband, Syed Rarook, son of Pakistani immigrants, was born and raised in the US.
Despite these attacks, however, experts note that attacks by far-right groups actually outnumber violent jihadist attacks in the United States, as the New America Foundation reports. And in a nation with 3.3 million Muslim residents, the incidences of such attacks have been small.
“Time and time again, pointing out a certain group of individuals as a ‘threat’ in society is often connected with elevated fear,” says Hollie Nyseth Brehm, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University in Columbus, who teaches a course in the sociology of terrorism. “Then this is often connected to violence and repression and starts a very dangerous cycle that can have real ramifications within these communities.”
And the primary danger in the US is not coming from mosques and isolated Muslim neighborhoods, experts say, but the Internet, where isolated individuals become “lone wolf” attackers after becoming enamored with ISIS ideology.
“In times of fear, people want to look for easy answers, an easy enemy, and the threat that [lone wolf terrorists] are posing is a much more complex one,” says Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates in Oakland, Calif. “[ISIS] is preying on vulnerable people spending a lot of time on the Internet, and who are not necessarily Muslim and don’t know anything about Islam.”
Ms. Khera is also co-counsel of one of the lawsuits moving forward against the NYPD’s Demographics Unit, claiming they were unconstitutionally targeted for surveillance on the basis of their religion and ethnic identities. Last year, a federal panel reinstated the case after it was dismissed on the basis of national security needs.
Khera recalls entering the federal courtroom to argue the case just days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015. “I remember glancing up at the ceiling of the courtroom, and etched into the ceiling were the words, “Justice, guardian of liberty.”
She was worried about the case, especially after the three-judge panel grilled the attorneys, asking whether, in light of the Paris atrocities, law enforcement should have such blanket surveillance authority.
Instead, the court, which included a Republican appointee, issued a scathing critique of the NYPD.
“What occurs here in one guise is not new,” wrote Judge Thomas Ambro for the three-judge panel. “We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the civil rights movement and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind.”
“We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight,” Judge Ambro continued, “that loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not race, creed or color.”