Skip to content Skip to navigation

Promoting Security or Fearmongering? Islamophobia and Policing

Activists delivered petition to Mass. HHS office
Photo: BORDC

By Stephen McNeil

At 17, I attended the American Legion’s Boys State in Annapolis, Maryland at the U.S. Naval Academy. It purported to be a citizenship experience, but one of the many points of indoctrination was the distribution of J. Edgar Hoover’s  1957  Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism and How to Fight It – Fearmongering 101.  We were encouraged to read it and enter an essay contest with some winning essays getting small scholarships.

Now fear of communism is replaced with fear of terrorists, with all of Islam and all Muslims misidentified as terrorists. One of today’s more popular propaganda pieces is the film The Third Jihad, produced by the Clarion Project, one of a number of well-funded anti-Muslim think tanks (Center for American Progress Fear, Inc.).  A New York Police Department (NYPD) official called The Third Jihad "so ridiculously one-sided. It just made Muslims look like the enemy.  It was straight propaganda." The film has been used to train police around the country. In New York City it was shown "on a continuous loop" for between three months and one year of police training. More than a thousand officers were shown the film before it was pulled.

Clarion Project’s Ryan Mauro, designated an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was a keynote speaker at the April 26-28 Tactical Conference and weapons expo in upstate New York. The New York Tactical Officers Association conference drew SWAT teams and police agency officials from across the country to hear Mauro, who has promoted expanded spying on Muslim communities, stating that “civilians really need to step up” and  report allegedly suspicious activity they see on Facebook.

Before curtailing its efforts in response  to two federal lawsuits, the Intelligence Division units engaged in the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program included its Demographics Unit, renamed the Zone Assessment Unit; the Intelligence Analysis Unit; the Cyber Intelligence Unit; and the Terrorist Interdiction Unit. ACLU-NY notes that “the NYPD’s suspicionless surveillance program and religious profiling effort have [targeted] Muslim communities throughout New York City, as well as every mosque within 100 miles of New York, and extended to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, and more."  The Demographic Unit’s years of efforts produced no results: Assistant Chief Thomas Galati said that there were no convictions, no prosecutions, and not even a single legitimate lead. However, the ACLU found that these efforts did lead to stigma, interference with religious practice, community fear, a chill on free speech, and damage to law enforcement relationships.

So how do police and intelligence agencies engage in Islamophobia?

Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR): Officially the “Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI) is a joint collaborative effort by the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement partners. This initiative provides police with another tool to help prevent terrorism and other related criminal activity by establishing a national capacity for gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing, and sharing SAR information.

In practice, this is an ever-expanding collection of raw data placed into a federal database accessed by law enforcement officials and many others. Despite Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s March call for resurrection of the discredited NYPD surveillance programs and expanded law enforcement patrols of Muslim neighborhoods, New York City Mayor de Blasio said “his comments are not about safety and security, it’s demagoguery.” Nationwide the push to enlist law enforcement as intelligence officers has increased without any evaluation as being effective.  The Political Research Associates Platform for Prejudice 2010 report notes that civil rights violations that do not yield any greater security.

Local groups are fighting back. In March the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission held a hearing on how the SAR program adversely impacted local communities. The hearing was prompted by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and National Lawyers Guild. 

In San Francisco in 2015, the Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Asian Law Caucus and ACLU challenged SAR in federal court, aiming to limit its scope. The SAR federal database is accessible by local police and thousands of others and leads to stigma, racial profiling, and worse. The court ruled in favor of public disclosure of details of the FBI’s SAR program.  Activists from San Francisco’s Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities had earlier created clear guidelines for the S.F. Police Department’s participation with the FBI through the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The agreement  called for investigations of “First Amendment activities” to be run up the chain of command and reported to the City’s Police Commission. In SFPD's annual report to the Police Commission last year, activists pointed to the failure to report one such investigation of a Google software engineer who is Pakistani and Muslim. 

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE): In Febuary 2015, President Obama announced this initiative for three U.S. communities: Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. CVE was to (1) enhance engagement with and support to local communities that may be targeted by violent extremists; (2) build government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism; and (3) count violent extremist propaganda while promoting U.S. ideals. 

But CVE programs have been structured to cultivate teachers, healthcare providers, and social workers as law enforcement informants. In Massachusetts, over 1,000 residents urged the State Health and Human Services to end its collaboration with CVE. The campaign was co-sponsored by the ACLU, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Council on American-Islamic Affairs, Muslim Justice League, Jewish Voice for Peace Boston, and Restore the Fourth. 

Local opposition to CVE has increased. An April letter from more than a dozen community groups, several of whom had cooperated in the creation of the program, called for the dismantling of the FBI’s "Don’t Be a Puppet" campaign and website, which is part of the CVE initiative. They said it "perpetuates profiling and negative stereotypes that Arabs, Sikhs, South Asians, Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim are prone to engage in extremist violence and encourages the policing of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs."

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)) and Urban Area Security Initiatives (UASI/Urban Shield):  The DHS-funded SWAT team trainings and arms expo known as Urban Shield has continued to come under attack as promoting Islamophobia. The Asian Law Caucus in late 2014 urged the UC Berkeley Police Department Chief of Police to reconsider the training police receive in the Urban Shield exercises, one of which featured "offensive anti-Muslim stereotypes."  In February, the UC Berkeley Associate Students at the University of California Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling on the UCPD to pull out of Urban Shield. The President in his FY 2017 budget has called for decreased funding of this program, and AFSC and War Resisters League are supporting this move.

Contact us to join in the effort.