February 29, 2012

Muslim Cornellians Criticize Reports of NYPD Surveillance

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Though University officials say Muslim Cornell students were not under surveillance, the news police investigation has led student leaders to ratchet up their calls for a more productive cross-cultural dialogue on campus.

The NYPD came under scrutiny last month when it was revealed to have monitored the daily communications of Muslim student organizations and their members in at least 13 universities across the northeast region, including the University of Pennsylvania, Yale College, Rutgers University and SUNY Buffalo, according to Feb. 19 report by the Associated Press.

However, the recent revelations concerning the NYPD have moved dialogue efforts to build dialogue in a less-than-constructive direction, according to both student leaders and Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs.

“My Muslim students are understandably concerned and upset,” Alexander said. “They feel targeted, and they should.”

Cornell has not received “any reports in reference to our Muslim community” being placed under surveillance, according to Alexander.

However, she acknowledged that such monitoring could occur without the University’s knowledge.

“Typically, law enforcement agencies give the University the courtesy of letting us know [about monitoring student activity],” Alexander said. “But they aren’t required to do this, and they can act on their own directive.”

Although Alexander said that the NYPD has a “very difficult and complex job, especially in a post-9/11 environment,” she said she was adamant in her opposition to the conduction of targeted surveillance on Cornell’s campus.

“We can all be assured that this is not something we want to take place on our campus and to our university community members,” Alexander said. “We, as a community, must do everything we can to ensure that [Muslim students] feel safe, protected and included.”

Sara Rahman ’12, president of the Committee for the Advancement of Muslim Culture and president of the Islamic Alliance for Justice echoed Alexander’s sentiments, calling it “unfair” to racially profile Muslims, while Fariha Ahsan ’13, president of the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, called the investigations “ridiculous” and “kind of insulting,” as they would violate her rights “not only as an American citizen but also as a student.”

“On a day-to-day basis, you are encouraged to open your mind at a university,” said Ahsan said. “By doing this, the NYPD has enforced a different, more narrow image of Muslim students.”

Despite the vehement opposition to the surveillance, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly defended the NYPD.

“Of course we’re going to look at anything that’s publicly available in the public domain. We have an obligation to do so,” Bloomberg said at a press conference.

Prof. Ross Brann, acting chair of the Near Eastern studies department and faculty advisor for the IAJ, said that he opposed the “blanket surveillance” of Muslim students if they had no history of law-breaking.

“The University is predicated on an unshakable commitment to free and open inquiry, speech, and conversation,” Brann said in an email. “I oppose whatever might compromise this commitment or inhibit free speech without just cause.”

Brann and Alexander said they unequivocally support the efforts of the University’s Muslim student organizations.

“IAJ, CAMC and MECA have strong records of educating the campus community about issues of concern … and of participating in diversity initiatives,” Brann said.

The specter of possible police surveillance aside, more students and faculty said that they believe the Cornell community has, in general, accepted its Muslim colleagues.

“The University is no place for hate,” Brann said. “To the best of my knowledge –– and although there have been a few instances of harassment over the years –– Cornell has embraced its community of Muslim faculty, staff and students.”

Ahsan echoed this sentiment.

“Other than the University’s occasional concern for our safety, we don’t receive negative feedback [from our events],” she said. “If there is any resentment, it doesn’t come from Cornell students.”

Alexander said that “student organizations and other partners should join [Muslim student groups] and stand with them as they look to us for greater inclusion in the community.”

Rahman, said she believes there is a way for law enforcement to protect the public “without profiling an entire group.”

“I think just the fact that ‘Muslim’ is synonymous with the word ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ hurts anyone who can identify with a Muslim background,” Rahman said. “The NYPD story made me realize that it is important, now more than ever, for us to connect as a community and really strive to show everyday people that we are Americans, too.”

Rahman said she is currently working with Ahsan to create a dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim students at Cornell that would be, in Ahsan’s words, “positive and constructive.”

“No one is going to be offended if you ask them questions about their faith and culture, so long as you don’t single them out,” Ahsan said. “[Muslim students] are a resource –– if any Cornell students do have questions or are curious, they need to ask those questions.”

Ahsan pointed to MECA’s Islam Awareness Week, which will take place from April 6 to 13 this year, as a means by which Cornell students can learn about their Muslim colleagues.

“We have a lecturer coming in from Oxford, and it would be great for people to come and learn,” Ahsan said. “I think people really need to see the side of Muslims that is not in the news.”

Rahman cited a February CAMC event called the “All-Cornellian Muslim” Banquet, which was aimed to teach students about the diversity of Muslims at the University.

Still, the NYPD surveillance controversy has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some students, including Ahsan.

“By spying on students, I think [the NYPD] made the issue of law enforcement something much more personal and that they crossed a certain line,” she said. “What are they going to do, watch us pray five times a day?”

Original Author: Jacob Glick