The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m a Muslim, not a terrorist. So why did the NYPD spy on me for years?

I’d long suspected local cops were spying on innocent Muslims. But the extent of their surveillance surpassed my worst fears.

Mohammad Elshinawy (Duncan Kendall for The Washington Post)

A couple of weeks after I began lecturing on Islam at New York City mosques, something strange happened. Acquaintances and congregants told me they’d been approached by law enforcement officers who asked about me and my talks. Soon after, I began to notice suspicious people in the audiences. One gentleman stood out — he was the most frequent attendee, but he regularly fell asleep while I spoke.

It was 2003. I was enrolled at Brooklyn College, studying English literature. I’d grown up in New York and loved the city. But I’d also seen the way Muslims were discriminated against, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001. In the year after the attacks, hate crimes spiked tenfold. I wanted to encourage Muslims to stay strong in their faith in spite of these assaults. I spoke on theology and visiting the sick, on skepticism and the sinful pursuit of instant gratification, on the gravity of injustice and the vastness of God’s mercy.

I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I consistently rejected violence and terrorism in my lectures. Still, for a decade, I felt like I was under surveillance, pursued by shadowy law enforcement officials seeking out a crime that didn’t exist.

In 2013, my fears were confirmed. I found out from an Associated Press investigation that I was a victim of the New York Police Department’s aggressive surveillance of Muslims. After 9/11, the NYPD began to track large swaths of us. Officers secretly labeled entire mosques as terrorist organizations, then spied on imams and recorded sermons. The department conducted at least a dozen of these “terrorism enterprise investigations” since 2001, often without specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing and minimal oversight from judges. No charges were ever brought as a result of the activities of the so-called “demographics” unit.

Entire congregations were targeted. Entire Muslim communities — from bookstores to restaurants — were monitored. Those practices turned innocent people into suspects, making us feel isolated and afraid of the police. Because of the NYPD’s widespread use of informants, we stopped trusting our neighbors as well.

Though I’d suspected that local cops were spying on innocent Muslims, the extent of their surveillance surpassed even my worst fears. The police had been following me everywhere, according to documents unearthed in the investigation. Once, a man came to my home claiming that he would do anything for a certain Egyptian delicacy his late mother had made for him years prior. Others in the community warned me later that he’d been asking about me. An informant even infiltrated my wedding, videotaping everyone who attended. My wife and I had been surveilled while shopping for rings earlier that day, according to internal police documents. “We have nothing on the lucky bride at this time but hopefully will learn about her at the service,” one NYPD lieutenant wrote in a report about me that was uncovered by the Associated Press.

After the AP revelations, I wasn’t just uneasy. I was terrified. I felt like I lived in a house without walls, vulnerable to police scrutiny all the time. I was constantly anxious about what I said and whom I talked to. I feared for my wife as well. I suspected those around me, including friends and family. People from outside our community — they appeared to be undercover officers or informants — were asking about me. Friends and colleagues distanced themselves out of fear that they, too, would be swept up in the NYPD’s net.

After 2013, I began creating mental filters through which to run my speech in sermons and among my peers holding back anything that could be seen as controversial. In my lectures, I played down Islamic values of valor and heroism, worrying that informants would assume, incorrectly, that I was promoting aggression or violence. I hesitated before publicly discussing the devastation faced by innocent civilians in the Muslim world, in case someone distorted my lessons on empathy as something “anti-American.”

To justify its spying, the NYPD used my charity work against me, suggesting that the camping trips I’d organized for low-income children and teens whom I’d mostly met through my talks at mosques was actually a military exercise. In truth, during those weekends, we played basketball, ran obstacle courses and swam in races. The police accused me of downloading the most extreme parts of radical clerics’ talks. In fact, I listened to a wide range of speakers in preparation for my lectures. The police pointed to suspicions about my father, saying he was a close associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted of aiding in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I was a child at the time, and my father was never charged with any crimes. The NYPD even accused me of radicalizing members of my mosque whom I’d never met.

The police kept this investigation up for years, long after the FBI determined that I wasn’t a threat, according to the Associated Press.

Now, I’m hopeful that those difficult years have ended. In June 2013, I joined a lawsuit against the NYPD’s expansive surveillance targeting New York’s Muslims. Last month, the NYPD settled that case with me and five other plaintiffs. The department agreed to a number of important safeguards on police practices, including a ban on investigations that stem mainly from religion, race or ethnicity. The settlement, subject to final approval by the court, would also impose reforms to prevent years-long, open-ended surveillance. And it would install a civilian monitor to act as a check on any investigation relating to political or religious activities.

I don’t expect my fellow citizens to agree with all of my views, like my conviction that Islam is the divine truth revealed from Almighty God, and that all Muslims should follow the timeless guidance of the Qur’an. But our country protects equality and the freedoms of speech and religion for all Americans. When Muslims are targeted because of our faith, it’s an assault on those values and on the country I love.