While a student, I wrote several articles for Vanderbilt’s campus newspaper, but all of these were lost from the Vanderbilt Hustler website (along with all historic website content) sometime in the summer of 2016. I’m going to try to upload these articles here while I can still find scanned PDFs of the print issues that existed at the time. Since this particular article only appeared on the website, I found it through some crawling through the Wayback Machine with a url found on Facebook. Amazingly, this preserved the original links.
This article reacts to the inflammatory comments made by then Vanderbilt Professor Carol Swain about American Muslims.
Profiling is a reality for Muslims in the US
As we have all heard, Vanderbilt Professor Carol Swain disparaged Islam in The Tennessean, saying, “Islam … poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration …” And later: “If America is to be safe, it must remove the foxes from the henhouses and institute serious monitoring of Islamic organizations.”
Amazingly, in an article bemoaning dangers to “freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association,” Professor Swain calls in the same breath for government intrusion into the speech, assembly and association of American citizens precisely because they exercise their constitutional right to practice a faith different from hers.
The campus appropriately erupted against her callous words, but the actions Swain prescribed – chiefly, “serious monitoring of Islamic organizations” – are not just the daydreams of a strident Islamophobe. They are reality. For law enforcement and intelligence agencies, profiling is policy and, for Muslim Americans, harassment is routine.
This has been most infamously on display in New York. An investigation by The Associated Press reported: The NYPD has implemented “wide-ranging programs to monitor life in Muslim neighborhoods since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Police officers have eavesdropped inside Muslim businesses, trained video cameras on mosques and collected license plates of worshippers. Informants who trawl the mosques — known informally as ‘mosque crawlers’ — tell police what the imam says at sermons and provide police lists of attendees, even when there’s no evidence they committed a crime.”
The NYPD has placed undercover officers at local schools and monitored their Muslim student associations, and even monitored the websites of Muslim student associations in other states. One bizarre NYPD report leaked to the AP describes “an undercover officer … accompanying 18 Muslim students from the City College of New York on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York on April 21, 2008. The officer noted the names of attendees who were officers of the Muslim Student Association” and tallied how often members prayed.
According to the AP, “in more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony.” Though the infamous “Demographics Unit” has been disbanded, discrimination against Muslims continues, wrote the Brennan Center, an outfit of New York University’s School of Law.
What has the Obama administration done about these kinds of surveillance? Nothing. Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan has praised profiling by the NYPD, saying it has been “responsible for keeping the city safe over the past decade.” The Obama administration’s 2014 DOJ guidelines nationwide authorize racial profiling by the TSA and border security and “allow the FBI to ‘map’ minority communities to place informants,” according to the Council on American-Islamic relations.
Most Muslims have experienced a “stressful event related to their Muslim identity” such as special airport searches, according to a report by the American Psychological Association. These instances of discrimination cause real psychological harm: The APA report linked them to higher rates of depression and anxiety among Muslims in the United States.
Discriminatory profiling also makes us less safe, since Muslim Americans reaching out to the police have helped stop several terrorist plots, and cooperation requires trust. As Sahar Aziz, a law professor and former policy advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, asked: “Can we reasonably expect Americans who are themselves targets of surveillance and suspicion to trust the very agencies spying on them?”
Not even public intellectuals who have condemned terrorism are safe. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden showed that the FBI and NSA have tracked the emails of several prominent Muslim American professors, civil rights attorneys and even a Republican political operative and former Homeland Security official named Faisal Gill.
In an interview with The Intercept, Gill was baffled by revelations that his AOL and Yahoo accounts were monitored while he was a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates: “I just don’t know why … I’ve done everything in my life to be patriotic. I served in the Navy, served in the government, was active in my community — I’ve done everything that a good citizen, in my opinion, should do.”
Gill’s only crime, like that of the overwhelming majority of Muslims who have been singled out, is to have practiced the wrong faith. To borrow Swain’s words, this reality is an insult to the freedoms that most of the world covets.