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Police Spying Leaves New York Muslim Students 'Violated'

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Muslims pray before a community dinner at the Islamic Center at New York University March 10, 2011 in New York City.
Muslims pray before a community dinner at the Islamic Center at New York University March 10, 2011 in New York City.

NEW YORK -- In his three years studying computer science at New York University, Ali Shah has come to call the campus Islamic center a second home. It's here, on the fourth floor of a modern building that overlooks Greenwich Village, where Shah said he has grown in his faith as a Muslim, formed close friendships and come to feel comfortable in a large university and city where it's easy to be anonymous.

But on Friday, Shah seemed distraught. He was confused. And hurt.

He came to the Islamic center with a few dozen Muslims, some of the hundreds at the university who learned that New York police had been monitoring the center's website for signs of terrorist activity.

"It violated my idea of this as a safe space," said Shah, who is from North Brunswick, N.J.

A series of Associated Press articles has rocked the city's Muslim population by revealing that police planted informants in mosques, Muslim neighborhoods and Islamic university clubs in New York and its suburbs. Police spied on prayer times, sermon topics, food sold at restaurants and discussions on politics and world events. One report showed that an undercover officer went on a Islamic university group's whitewater rafting trip, while another compiled weekly reports of Muslim student club websites.

The Muslims at NYU have unproven suspicions that the police had an informant in their group, where the website calendar lists prayer times, a Quranic interpretation class and a screening of a documentary about urban violence. The AP reports say police monitored Islamic student groups affiliated with at least 16 colleges in New York City and the Northeast, including Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, and looked at the website of NYU's Islamic center.

The NYU Muslim population rivals that of the other universities, and its Islamic center, which sponsors a Muslim Students Association and Muslim Law Students Association, is popular with young Muslims throughout the city.

"Nobody argues against keeping the country safe ... but you can't use Islam to monitor people blanketly," said Ahmad Raza, an economics student, as he sat in a circle with students in a space usually reserved for prayers. "If I had a minute with Mayor Bloomberg, I would say, 'How would you feel if you sent your daughter to a university and she was being spied on?'"

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended the police department, saying its actions are within the law and appropriate in a post-9/11 world. Of monitoring student websites, he said at a press conference this week that "we’re going to look at anything that’s publicly available." A police department spokesman said a dozen people arrested in the U.S. and abroad on terrorism charges had once been members of Muslim student groups.

Many NYU students said Friday they felt the news had affected their studies. A student taking an Arabic class said she now second-guesses online research she does on the language. A talkative law student who wears a head covering said she has become quieter in class discussions. One student said he was afraid fewer people would come to the Islamic center out of fear of being monitored.

NYU President John Sexton echoed those concerns in a letter to NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly this week, saying it was "troubling" that the department may be monitoring the Islamic center and that "parents and students now wonder if continued participation in the university's Islamic community of worship is a risk." Yale President Richard Levin and groups from other universities that were monitored have also condemned the police department.

Khalid Latif, NYU's Muslim chaplain, led Friday's discussion after seeing his office flooded with concerns from students. Latif, also the Muslim chaplain at NYPD, declined to answer questions about his other employer's actions, but said he was concerned for students' well-being.

"This is a place of dialogue," Latif said, referring to the university and the Islamic center. "What students feel has been stunted is the ability to share ideas."

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