For the last two weeks of July, Faitheist is being guest hosted by Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The piece below is written by Jones; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

An NYPD car drives through the streets of New York City.

An NYPD car drives through the streets of New York City. Photo courtesy Giacomo Barbaro via Flickr.

The New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslim religious centers, community associations and student groups might not seem like an issue to concern atheists. Indeed, few seem troubled by the program. And that’s a little odd, given that this particular surveillance program targeted a minority community based primarily on its religious affiliation.

Let’s take a look at the facts.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the NYPD targeted 28 “ancestries of interest,” including Egyptian, Pakistani, and American Black Muslims. Under the auspices of its Demographics Unit—recently rebranded, opaquely enough, as the “Zone Assessment Unit”—police monitored family-owned businesses and established relationships with members of the local Muslim community on false pretenses. It collected names and addresses, it tracked individuals who attended lectures by Muslim scholars, and it labelled mosques “terrorism enterprises” despite having no evidence that attendees had any real connections to extremism.

The NYPD didn’t just target people based on ancestry; the ACLU reports that they also identified targets based on “radicalization indicators.” Those indicators include traditional Islamic clothing, beards, and “becoming involved in social activism”—a category that is so vaguely defined it’s difficult to interpret.

And the NYPD didn’t contain its surveillance to New York City. The program was extensive: In 2012, the AP revealed that Muslim student groups all over the Northeast had been monitored and, in some cases, even infiltrated by officers.

The program went on for twelve years. It did not generate a single lead.

So what did it accomplish, then? Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York, told the New York Times, “The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community.”

“Those documents, they showed where we live,” she added. “That’s the cafe where I eat. That’s where I pray. That’s where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community.”

The city has finally ended the program, but its damage endures. With the assistance of Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights group, members of the Muslim community sued the city. The case, Hassan v. City of New York, is ongoing. (Full disclosure: my employer, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recently filed an amicus brief against the city.)

It’s easy to agree with the program’s supporters and dismiss the surveillance as a benign security measure made necessary by the attacks on September 11, 2001. But it’s misguided to lend this argument much credence. In the thirteen years since 9/11, terrorism has certainly occurred—but for the most part, it hasn’t been committed by Muslims. Based on data provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the perpetrators are far more likely to be members of anti-government or white power movements. They are typically white and identify as Christian, if they profess any religion at all.

And yet the NYPD didn’t monitor churches. It didn’t infiltrate Christian student clubs. And, unless there’s a bug in my office I don’t know about, white Americans haven’t been targeted according to “ancestries of interest.”

Instead, the NYPD monitored the daily habits of hundreds of people simply because they were Muslim. There is still no evidence that the NYPD created the program because it had identified a specific threat—unless, of course, you believe the very presence of Muslims in the United States constitutes a threat. And if you believe that, we have other problems to discuss.

The surveillance of law-abiding Muslims infringes their First Amendment right to free expression. And that’s exactly why atheists should be concerned: The same amendment protects our ability to publicly express our lack of religion. As far as the Constitution’s concerned, it doesn’t matter if your beliefs are based on the Quran, the Bible, or something a bit more godless. The law that allows Muslims to wear traditional religious clothing without reprisal is the same law that allows you to wear an atheist T-shirt in public.

That’s democracy. In fact, that’s secularism.

But last year, prior to the end of the surveillance program, just two Humanist groups signed a letter to the Department of Justice requesting a probe into the NYPD’s practices. Two signatures. Out of over 120. (If you’re curious, the groups were the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry).

If atheists are going to demand equal rights—and we should—we should also be prepared to advocate for the rights of other groups, regardless of whether or not we agree with them on the subject of God. Anything less is hypocritical.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones. Photo courtesy Jones.

Sarah Jones is the Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, she volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights. She holds a Master of Arts in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy from Goldsmiths, University of London, and tweets at @onesarahjones.


  1. Unfortunately Islamophobia is a major problem in many atheist circles so I wouldn’t count on most atheist groups to care about anyone but themselves.

    • Jamie Townsend

      Neon – Islam is a religion that was powerful enough of an idea that it could be used as a weapon against America and it actually succeeded in killing people.
      I don’t think ‘Islamophobia’ is a good word to describe the reaction to Islam as it implies there is something unjustified in being against it (Phobias are unjustified fears).
      Islam is an idea. Like most other religions it is a murderous idea.
      “Seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.”” – (Quran 4:89)
      It seems only right to be wary of bad ideas and to scold the people who preach them.

        • I don’t deny bigotry against Muslims exists, clearly it does.

          But you cannot rightly deny many individual Muslims who adhere to specific forms of Islam do advocate actions that are completely antithetical to Humanism, and clearly Humanists should oppose this. Such opposition is classic tolerance-paradox resolution, no more ‘Islamophobia’ than opposition to self-described Christian white supremacists is ‘Christaphobia’.

          I have no issue with Muslims practicing their religion in general, but oppose those who believe Islam means opposing democratic civil society. Seems to me this is what Jamie is saying.

    • Supporting Israel is only one aspect of our government’s meddling in the Middle East, to try to favor American political and economic interests. If the US stopped supporting Israel but otherwise continued that meddling, we’d still have plenty of enemies there.

  2. “That’s democracy. In fact, that’s secularism.”

    Okay. But you have repeatedly argued against secularism and in favor of something called “interfaith” (interfaithness? interfaithism? interfaithosity?), so…

  3. Yes, it does indeed cut both ways. You can be certain that if atheist groups became strongly involved in political causes that present strong opposition to the government’s agenda during times of national stress (peace organizing during times of war, pro-choice activism during strongly reactionary administrations, anti-globalization/anti-corporate activism during times of high civil unrest, etc.), the surveillance/policing apparatus of the federal and state governments will be sure to profile atheists in hateful, oppressive ways. Anybody remember COINTELPRO? The government actively infiltrated, surveilled, and destabilized progressive groups during the social upheavals of the 60s and early 70s. This isn’t new behavior on the part of the government, folks.

    So yes, this should concern atheists and any group who is seen as “alien” by larger society and its political institutions. Push their sensibilities regarding social hierarchy too far or trigger their prejudices by simply being yourselves and you can be certain that the government will be interested in subjecting you and your peers to invasive surveillance and/or policing… the US Constitution be damned.

    And considering the ongoing revelations about the US government’s surveillance of e-mail, internet browsing, telephone calls, and a whole host of other privacy breeches over the past year, people should be a little more than mildly concerned…

    • To illustrate the point further, the Muslim community was surveilled because of 9/11 even though it is, by far, disconnected from radical, anti-US Muslim groups. The surveillance and profiling discussed in Sarah’s post arose out of the standard racist fears and tribalistic prejudices that are exacerbated in times of war. The Japanese internment camps are another prime example of this phenomena. (And before people say that Islamophobia isn’t racism, please can that nonsense. Islamophobia exists at the intersection of religion-based prejudice, geopolitical blowback, and old fashioned racial prejudice. Do you think white Muslims of European appearance were profiled? Where they subject to shootings and street violence? Do you think people who “look Arab” are excluded from this attention, even though they aren’t Muslim. Are anti-Semites racist? Why is that?)

      Let us not forget that atheism was once strongly associated with Communism in the past decades of the Cold War and the Red scare. You can sill see that fear trotted out in conversations between atheists and the religious right.

      If you are considered an outsider by your fellow citizens and your group is then brought into the spotlight by external or internal political stressors, you can be almost certain the dominant majority is going to treat you like crap, with a sense of zeal and moral righteousness.

      • Well said. :) We should be speaking out against such general prejudice, the divisiveness and waste of resources it causes.

        But I don’t see surveillance of outspoken Islamists or their followers in the US as expressions of such general prejudice, nor a waste of resources. We should remember this:

  4. I completely agree with you regarding the statements you made about gov intrusion, spying and disruption.

    Odd thing is, if you were a conservative or religious person like me, and you made those same statements, the bubblehead commenters here would call you a crazy conspiracy wingnut.

    Since you are not religous or conservative, you will be safe. The attacks from the trained commenters will not come.

    • First of all, if a person makes comments opposing Islamophobia in much of the more popular corners of the atheist blogosphere (this blog, unfortunately, is not very popular), one is almost guaranteed to be attacked by those who will defend anti-Muslim prejudice as a rational, justifiable fear. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris have made numerous comments which evidence that they are clearly prejudiced against Muslims. Those particular authors still have a lot of support among atheists. Thankfully, some of that support is starting to falter. However, large swathes of the community love those three writers and will defend their ideas to the hilt.

      Furthermore, today’s atheist movement was energized by anti-Muslim fears generated by 9/11 in combination with the reactionary religious politics of the Bush administration of the 2000s. In other words, today’s atheism had its communal roots nourished by the orientalist fears of the previous decade at a time of religion-driven, reactionary domestic politics. Scratch the surface, and the ugliness of anti-Muslim prejudice so often becomes evident, as does a variant of progressive politics surrounding social policy.

      So, the collective atheist movement is not nearly so sanguine about such matters as you might think. I hope that changes, and with enough distance between 9/11/01 and the progressing years, it might. I’m not holding my breath, though.

      There is another matter brought into play by your comments. Conservatives have far too often portrayed themselves as an oppressed minority when being held responsible for their prejudices and actions based upon those prejudices. That, more than anything, fosters the deafness of which you speak.

      My racist, conservative family often feels oppressed by the government’s begrudging enforcement of civil rights legislation over the past half century. Similarly, a lot of conservatives now feel oppressed by legislation codifying LGBT rights into law. They also feel oppressed by shifting social sentiments which are collectively turning against the blatant ostracism of queer people. (Just as my racist relatives started to feel put upon by collective calls against blatant racism and anti-Semitism decades ago).

      For these reasons, I lack sympathy for your professed woes. I believe every word when you imply a fear the consequences of your prejudices. I believe that you sincerely feel ostracized, disliked, and the focus of increasing negative attention, both socially and governmentally.

      Nevertheless, you are correct in surmising that I don’t care.

        • And just to be clear, I flat out don’t like those who embrace prejudice against people with little social power. This form of prejudice tends to be a natural outgrowth of most conservative worldviews since conservatism tends to embrace social hierarchy.

          I make no apologies for this and I’m certainly not going to pretend to like you when clearly, I do not.

          Religious worldviews are quite varied. So, a religious worldview doesn’t earn my animosity… only a prejudiced/conservative one does. But, a conservative worldview can accompany an atheist perspective, too. So, religion is not the primary consideration.

        • Here’s a little more background, if you are still reading at this point.

          As I mentioned, I grew up in a conservative family. They were fairly representative of the white, working class, conservative community that I grew up in. I was trained from little onward to filter the world through a series of prejudices against a whole host of people at the bottom of society’s rungs. Racism, antisemitism, homophobia, sexism/misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, classism (ironically), and a smattering of other prejudices ruled the day. I know most of these prejudices from the inside out. I am intimately familiar with how they tie in with a conservative worldview. I lived in this social reality, from birth to age 17.

          During those years, I learned to hate myself for who I am as I internalized the homophobia and transphobia of my community. I was also subject to years of social and physical violence because I didn’t measure up to my conservative community’s expectations of who I should be.

          As I hit adulthood and shook free of these prejudices, it became evident to me exactly how those prejudices—and the conservative worldview which engenders them—fosters and enforces systematic violence against people at the bottom of the social pyramid.

          I was subject to that violence while growing up. I am still subject to that violence today. This reality is inscribed within years of resulting emotional trauma.

          Knowing this, at best, I can muster a kind of borderline ambivalence toward someone such as yourself. However, I’m going to be very honest, here: you represent a very real, very palpable threat to my existence.. and to the existence of those I love and care about, too. Your worldview engenders actions which threaten my well being and my existence. Your worldviews endanger and shorten the lives of my loved ones.

          Wouldn’t an intense dislike be… well… an expected, natural outcome of these circumstances?

          I say all of this without shame. If you think this is unfair and terrible? Tough shit.

          • Jamie Townsend

            @Timberwraith – just curious. “Your worldviews endanger and shorten the lives of my loved ones.” So you are calling someone a threat and so you are just bigoted against people who believe different from you.

          • I’m talking about worldviews that lead to parents abandoning their children to starvation and sex work because their sexuality and gender doesn’t fit the cisgender, heterosexual norm. I’m talking about worldviews that lead to a trans woman of color to being stabbed/shot and then laughed at by the emergency response personnel while they watch her bleed to death. I’m talking about a society forged in conservative, religious hatred that leads young people into taking their own lives because they can’t live under those values and expectations.

            I’m talking about ideas that lead to a bunch of guys dragging a black man to his death behind their pickup truck and politics that lead to the continued incarceration and impoverishment of major parts of the US populace. I’m referring to laws that make it illegal to leave water behind for immigrants crossing the deathly arid borders between Mexico and the US. I’m talking about laws that rip away the livelihoods of decent people I’ve known for years and threatens their lives because they didn’t fill out the right papers when they crossed international borders. I’m referring to friends who are afraid to be in certain places at certain times because law enforcement finds the color of their skin to be an automatic indictment of their character.

            I’m referring to a body of political actions that are systematically shutting down women’s health clinics across this country that are just starting to lead to women’s death through self induced abortions. I’m talking about a friend who risked poisoning herself trying to induce an abortion via herbal remedies because the cost of the procedure has been driven so high.

            Yes, I’m just bigoted against people who believe differently from me. Because I don’t actually connect the dots between those beliefs and the social impact they have. Because beliefs don’t actually influence behaviors, collective social pressures, laws, and levels of violence.

            They just exist in a vacuum.

            And I’m just a mean, vicious hater.

          • And last, but most central: I’m talking about a system of philosophies, values, politics, and social mores held by a body of people with enough numbers and social power that those sentiments and institutional potentials collectively endanger, shorten, and extinguish people’s lives on a society-wide basis… people who didn’t have the good graces to be born into wealth, het/cis privilege, religious privilege, racial privilege, etc.

            That’s whats upsetting to me and admittedly, I’ve not much use for those who support those social phenomena through their beliefs and the actions which inevitably result from those beliefs.

          • Jamie Townsend

            Okay. Put it together and you are the people you criticize.
            “Yes, I’m just bigoted against people who believe differently from me.”
            “(their) prejudices….fosters and enforces systematic violence against people…” So if they agree with you fine, but those who don’t agree are the type who can’t change their minds so they deserve your bigotry?
            Are you aware that people are capable of changing their minds? It is unfair to decide that people are incapable of learning anything. Seems a very low opinion of humanity.

          • You don’t actually understand the import or gravity of what I’ve written.

            I’m all for shifting people’s ideas but I clearly understand the impact of those ideas. I’m honest about the violence those ideas inflict and I’m being dead honest about the emotional consequences of those beliefs in action. Violence begets violence.

            People don’t like that honesty when they come face to fact with it. They shudder and dismiss the person as a monster. I know, however, that I’m saying things that usually go unspoken and that many people feel but are too shy to admit.

            Some days, I get tired of the veneer people paste over that reality and I get tired of the pristine, sterile discussions that take place as a consequence.

          • And, I’m not the people I’m responding to. I’m not the one lumping oppression and institutional violence upon others and pretending like my beliefs and actions have nothing to do with it. I’m not the aggressor here but when I’m honest about the internal response that such aggression inspires, people respond to me like I’m a rotten human being.

          • Jamie Townsend

            “People don’t…” and “They…” and “they…” and “they…”
            You should check out your patterns. You seem pretty sure about other people and how set ‘they all’ are in their ways. You circle back to yourself as you avoid ‘them’. Got it.

          • I can’t acknowledge the damage that they are responsible for and not experience a deep sense of animosity toward them. The consequences of their actions are real, those consequences effect my life and the lives of others I care about.

            I’m not capable of loving my enemy. If claimed that, I would be engaging in the pinnacle of emotional dishonesty. Yes, I dislike those who bring forth pain and oppression… deeply so.

            This is what I am capable of, what I’m striving for: to be honest with myself regarding the disdain I feel for those who hurt me and yet still strive to see the common humanity of the other person… to know that I’m burning with anger and disdain toward them and still recognize that some variant of my being stares out of their eyes.

            But to suppress the anger, the hurt, and the animosity, to pretend it isn’t there, is to also suppress the emotional machinery that engenders my ability to recognize the other person’s humanity. I don’t know how to suppress one set of emotions without having all of them fold and go away… to become an empty, unfeeling shell.

            So, I refuse to compartmentalize those feelings and I refuse to deny that they exist. What I will strive for is recognizing that deep down, I still recognize the other person’s capacity for suffering, to know that they eat, sleep, and shit just the same way I do.

  5. Religious freedom is only guaranteed if we protect the Establishment Clause in the constitution.

    The Religious movement is constantly trying to rip apart the wall of separation between church and state.

      • Irony? You don’t seem to know Atheism at all.

        No American Atheist can live without the godlessness of the U.S. Constitution and the Establishment Clause.
        We would be dead without it. And so would everyone else.

          • “I would have thought little formal training is required.”

            And yet you still couldn’t manage it?
            Atheist = “I do not believe in God”

            It is not a claim that god is impossible.
            It is not a claim that others must not believe.
            There are no claims with atheism.
            An atheist is only responding to a theist claim.

            Someday, when nobody believes in gods anymore, the word ‘Atheist’ will not be needed.

            “Azeusist” is a word which is not needed anymore.

  6. Any Atheist who objects to such surveillance has to be crazy. Islamists will be after them just as much as Christians and other religionists. It’s not Buddists,Hindus, Taoists etc that are wrecking havoc in the non-Muslim world as well as their own. It’sonly Muslims. That’s where the jihadists are recruited… from your Muslim communities and its worth remembering they have all been indoctrinated with the discriminatory and lethal verses from the Koran and Hadith, for when the time is ripe or ready for many of them.
    Wake up to the Islamist threat before they get you too.

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