Why I’m Fighting the NYPD’s Surveillance of Muslims

Imam Abdul Kareem Muhammad is resident imam of Masjid Al-Haqq and director of education of the Clara Muhammad School in Newark, and a former administrator for the Muhammad University of Islam Newark. Imam Muhammad is also a plaintiff in the Muslim Advocates & CCR lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s Muslim spying program. To learn more about the lawsuit, please click here. To view the op-ed on NJ.com, please click here.

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist

February 28, 2014 at 9:00 AM, updated February 28, 2014 at 12:17 PM

By Abdul Kareem Muhammad

As Black History Month comes to a close, a federal judge last week dismissed a major civil rights lawsuit that affects millions of African-Americans. I joined as a plaintiff on Hassan et al. vs. City of New York, which was filed by Muslim Advocates and later joined by the Center for Constitutional Rights, because I had to take a stand against the New York Police Department and its program to spy on New Jersey’s Muslim community — not because of any wrongdoing, but simply because of our faith.

An estimated 40 percent of American Muslims, such as I, are African-American, and our experiences represent one segment of the larger civil rights story. In fact, our national story dates to when our African Muslim ancestors were captured and brought here on the first slave ships.

Our early stories are the sparse narratives of African-Americans who were forced to assume new identities and who were often forbidden from writing. People such as Omar Ibn Said, an Islamic scholar in his homeland of Senegal, who managed to write his autobiography even as he died a slave, and Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon, who wrote one of the earliest first-person slave accounts, are examples of African-American Muslims whose voices join those of the larger narrative of civil rights and black history.

As an African-American college student in the 1960s, I am proud to have been part of the movement to uphold the civil rights of all Americans. During that era, the FBI created the Counter Intelligence Program, also referred to as COINTELPRO, through which they sought to infiltrate, suppress and disrupt domestic political organizations. No one working for civil rights was immune — including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the NAACP. Through COINTELPRO, agents spied on individuals and groups, and in many cases, the FBI worked with local law enforcement to conduct illegal break-ins, vandalism and assaults.

Today, as we move forward, we still confront myriad problems within our legal system that allow — and in some cases encourage — inequality based on the color of our skin or the way we pray.

Through documents exposed by the Associated Press, we learned that the NYPD was scribbling notes on which restaurants and barber shops ordinary American Muslims frequented. They spied on students at universities and moms going to mosques to pray. The NYPD’s files even show notes taken on a small African-American Muslim middle school for girls.

I have seen firsthand the damage the NYPD spying program has done to my community and to individual Muslims and their families, profoundly disrupting our lives at work and at home, and our ability to worship. This surveillance is extensive and deeply invasive, touching every part of our community, from our religious institutions to our businesses to our schools.

This type of discrimination is not what our country stands for. And for African-American Muslims, these types of oppressive tactics are a continuation of a long history of civil rights abuses.

I remind my fellow citizens of the many American Muslims who are part of the fabric of black history. And it is in this spirit that I joined the lawsuit to stop the NYPD from spying on innocent Americans simply because of our faith.

The fight is not over, and the judge’s dismissal will surely be appealed. We have seen throughout history that it can take time and persistence to go through the legal system to defend our rights. But it is always worth the fight.

Over the years, I have seen countless examples of discrimination. But I have also seen resilient Americans of all races and faiths joining hands to support one another and work for a nation that embodies our constitutional rights and freedoms.

Our collective voices can and will be the next narrative on civil rights in a nation that heralds freedom and equality for all.

To view the op-ed on NJ.com, please click here.