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.