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Targeting Americans Based on Faith: Wrong & Dangerous

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 1/04/2016 Farhana Khera
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In recent days we've seen horrendous attacks in Belgium, Turkey and Pakistan targeting innocent people simply going about their daily lives. As we mourn the victims, these attacks are another tragic reminder that victims of terrorism share no single race or faith. To keep our families safe from violence, Americans of all faiths must stand together and not allow ourselves to be divided as we face threats from violent extremists.
Unfortunately, some of our leaders seem more pre-occupied with scoring political points by stoking fear and peddling discrimination than actually keeping Americans safe. Again, there are irresponsible calls to single out Americans for suspicion based on nothing more than their faith. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, has called for law enforcement to "patrol and secure" American Muslim neighborhoods and for the New York Police Department (NYDP) to bring back its failed and discredited Demographics Unit that engaged in blanket, suspicionless spying on Americans Muslim before it was disbanded by the City of New York two years ago.
Notably, Donald Trump has agreed with Senator Cruz's misguided proposal.
We've been fighting this battle since news reports first disclosed that the NYPD had sent undercover agents and informants into mosques, Muslim-owned restaurants and stores, and onto college campuses, sometimes posing as Muslim students themselves, in New York, New Jersey, and throughout the Northeast--not based on evidence of criminal activity, but simply because these were spaces where Muslims could be found. In 2012, Muslim Advocates filed a lawsuit in federal court, Hassan v. City of New York, to challenge the NYPD's discriminatory Muslim spying program. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Gibbons, P.C. law firm later joined our legal team. Last fall, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued a landmark ruling in our case, upholding the rights of American Muslims--and Americans of all faiths--to be free from suspicionless surveillance.
In a unanimous ruling, the court recognized that law enforcement's treatment of American Muslims today echoes the most shameful episodes in our nation's history, likening the NYPD's arguments in defense of discriminatory surveillance of Muslims to those used to justify past injustices against Jewish Americans during the Red Scare, Japanese Americans during World War II, and African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.
The court did not issue its ruling in a vacuum. The court sat and heard arguments in the case just one week after the heinous Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015. In fact, the judges asked our legal team why the NYPD should not have blanket surveillance authority in light of the Paris attacks. A few months later, in its blistering decision, the court understood that we cannot sacrifice our values and who we are as Americans in the name of the false promise of enhanced security.
That is why this week it was heartening to hear New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton so forcefully and immediately condemn Cruz's call. They have begun to learn what American Muslims have long understood: the NYPD's misguided blanket surveillance program targeting American Muslims in the Northeast is wrong and ineffective. On Wednesday, in response to Cruz, Commissioner Bratton said the program failed to produce a single piece of actionable intelligence and "didn't work." Instead, it increased distrust between the police and the communities they serve and aim to protect by wrongly stigmatizing Muslims.
The fact is, according to FBI Director James Comey, in the United States, ISIS, or Daesh, is not recruiting at mosques, schools, or the local halal restaurant. They are spreading their message and recruiting vulnerable individuals--described by the FBI Director as "troubled souls who are being inspired or enabled online" --over the Internet.
Following the attacks in Brussels, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff echoed concerns about these types of harmful policies: "The idea that you can identify people who are a risk based upon their religion or the way they look is completely fallacious. It's like going after cancer with a meat axe, instead of a scalpel."
Casting suspicion on all Muslims also has real-world consequences. Rising anti-Muslim bigotry by public figures in recent months has created a climate that has helped fuel a spike in hate crimes against our Muslim neighbors and those who are perceived to be Muslim. More than ever, Muslim parents are concerned about the safety of their children and whether they will be bullied or harassed, simply because of how they look or how they pray. Bigoted, reckless, and inflammatory statements by public officials send the wrong and dangerous signal: that Americans should fear, and even attack, their Muslim neighbors.
To keep our families safe and to protect our American ideals of freedom and justice, we must learn from our history and challenge the myths that fail to keep us safe. We can only be stronger together.

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