POLITICS

American Mosques Are Actually A Great Deterrent Against Violent Extremism

And surveilling them, as Donald Trump has proposed, is a bad, bad idea.

In the week since the deadly terror attack in Orlando, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly called for the surveillance of mosques as a means of stemming terror attacks. 

"We have to go and we have to maybe check, respectfully, the mosques," he told a crowd of supporters who cheered on his proposal. "And we have to check other places. Because this is a problem that if we don't solve it, it's going to eat our country alive, OK? It's going to eat our country alive." 

Donald Trump has spewed some vile anti-Muslim rhetoric during his presidential campaign, saying once that "Islam hates us."
Donald Trump has spewed some vile anti-Muslim rhetoric during his presidential campaign, saying once that "Islam hates us."

"We have to be very strong in terms of looking at the mosques," Trump told Fox News. And on "CBS This Morning," the Republican candidate got a little more specific. 

“We need justice, we need vigilance, we need great intelligence gathering systems, which we don’t have,” Trump said. “We had them in New York City as an example, probably the best in the nation, and the new mayor just broke it all up and disbanded it; he thought it was inappropriate. … that was unbelievable, that was one of the best of all systems. We need intelligence gathering like never before.”

It's a proposal Trump's made before, along with other dragnet counter-terror strategies like a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and a database of all Muslims living in the country.  

But blanket surveillance of American Muslims would be -- and, in fact, has already been proven to be -- wildly counterproductive. 

Take, for example, the New York City intelligence gathering system Trump hailed as the "probably the best in the nation." 

Fatima Kutty, a New York University senior, gathered with other students, faculty and clergy at NYU to discuss the NYPD'
Fatima Kutty, a New York University senior, gathered with other students, faculty and clergy at NYU to discuss the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim communities on Feb. 29, 2012.

Officers in the New York City Police Department's Demographics Unit infiltrated Muslim student groups, eavesdropped on conversations between Muslims, spied on Muslim-owned businesses, recorded the sermons of imams, catalogued Muslims who Americanized their surnames, and placed informants and undercover officers inside mosques. 

Interesting camera placement.
Interesting camera placement.

But after the program was exposed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by The Associated Press, an NYPD officer was forced to admit that all that spying had been for naught. 

In a sworn deposition submitted to the court as part of a lawsuit, the chief of the NYPD Intelligence Division, Lt. Paul Galati, conceded that the mass NYPD surveillance of Muslims had yielded exactly zero leads into criminal or terrorist activity

That's right: zero leads. 

And while the Demographics Unit has since been disbanded amid multiple lawsuits challenging its constitutionality, the effects of the NYPD spying program linger.

Kameelah Rashad demonstrates outside the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia on Jan. 13, 2015. In October of that year, a fe
Kameelah Rashad demonstrates outside the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia on Jan. 13, 2015. In October of that year, a federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit challenging the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim groups in New Jersey.

A 2012 CUNY Law School report, "Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying And Its Impact On American Muslims," found that "surveillance of Muslims’ quotidian activities has created a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion, encroaching upon every aspect of individual and community life." 

"Surveillance has chilled constitutionally protected rights—curtailing religious practice, censoring speech and stunting political organizing," the report said. The surveillance also "severed the trust that should exist between the police department and the communities it is charged with protecting."

A sign in the Muslim Students Association (MSA) room at Hunter College, New York City following news of mass NYPD surveillanc
A sign in the Muslim Students Association (MSA) room at Hunter College, New York City following news of mass NYPD surveillance of Muslims.

Surveilling a group of people based on their religion is always a bad idea, says David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center On Terrorism And Homeland Security at Duke University.

"First, it's almost certainly unconstitutional," Schanzer said. "Second of all, it's a big waste of time. That's what the NYPD found. If you have limited resources, and you surveil people without any sort of evidence that they're likely to engage in crime, then you're spending a huge amount of resources surveilling the innocent. It's a big waste of time and money."

"The third reason it's problematic: If people feel like they are being pursued and surveilled by the government and they've done nothing wrong, you're going to destroy the kind of trust you need to combat extremism. Communities that are fearful of government backlash, of religious-based discrimination, are going to be fearful of cooperation and of coming forward with knowledge that they might have about a suspicious individual." 

There's absolutely no evidence that there are large mosques in the U.S. that are hotbeds of extremism and incubators for radicalization. David Schanzer, Triangle Center On Terrorism And Homeland Security

Schanzer co-authored the 2010 report "Anti-Terror Lessons Of Muslim-Americans," which found that "the creation of robust Muslim-American communities may serve as a preventative measure against radicalization by reducing social isolation of individuals who may be at risk of becoming radicalized." 

And the mosques Trump wants to surveil are an integral part of those robust Muslim American communities. 

"All the research shows that people who engage ... in violence are not highly religious and don't have deep connections to their mosque or their community," Schanzer said.

"To the extent people are engaged in mosques, they are taught mainstream principles of Islam, not fringe principles of Islam, and they become more tightly bound to communities -- which helps them become well-grounded, integrated citizens, as opposed to these destructive loners," Schanzer said. 

"There's absolutely no evidence that there are large mosques in the U.S. that are hotbeds of extremism and incubators for radicalization," he continued. "If there were, we'd know about them, they'd be reported on and uncovered and subjected to huge public scrutiny and scorn." 

Yet mosques often bear the brunt of violent American Islamophobia. A new report released Monday by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found 78 instances in 2015 in which mosques were targeted for vandalism, arson and other types destruction. Thirty-four of those incidents came in the last two months of the year, after the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California -- while Trump and other political figures were ratcheting up their anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

Days after the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, graffiti depicting the Eiffel Tower appears on the side of the Islami
Days after the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, graffiti depicting the Eiffel Tower appears on the side of the Islamic Center of Omaha.

Similarly, in the last week alone, authorities in Ohio arrested an intruder for harassing worshippers inside a mosque; someone threatened an Islamic center in Indiana; a man was arrested for threatening a mosque near Seattle; a woman in Texas drove up to a mosque and threatened congregants there; police are investigating a tweet directed at a mosque in Michigan that said, "We must execute the Muslim scum. Full on eradication”; Chicago-area mosques received multiple threats; and mosques across Florida have also received multiple threats

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has since recommended that mosques across the country beef up security. 

"Because of the recent tragic attack in Orlando and the anti-Muslim political climate, we urge local community leaders to seek increased police patrols in the areas surrounding mosques and Islamic institutions nationwide," CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement. "The targeting of one minority group by hate should not result in the targeting of another."

This type of anti-Muslim behavior is deeply concerning, Schanzer says.

American Muslims, he said, are a "key part of the solution to problems like Orlando, not part of the problem -- and if we disparage them and accuse them of being un-American, un-patriotic, suspicious, we're going to damage our key ally, cutting their legs out from under them."

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

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