An inside look at the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim communities

A Bangladeshi immigrant teen living in Jackson Heights, Queens, is framed for shoplifting at a local department store. The New York Police Department brokers a deal with 18-year-old Naeem in exchange for immunity: spy on the local Muslim community for potential terrorist activity and we’ll keep you out of jail.

While this premise originates from a fiction novel — Watched, by award-winning Indo-Caribbean author Marina Budhos — it’s inspired by the shocking investigative journalism reports published by the Associated Press in 2011 revealing the existence of a covert Muslim surveillance unit within the NYPD headed by then police commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Built in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the domestic intelligence program recruited “rakers” in ethnic neighborhoods to canvass mosques, schools, immigrant-owned businesses and even universities like Brooklyn College, where Muslim student associations were scrutinized for their web activity and rumblings of anti-West rhetoric.

Those earmarked as informants were typically legal immigrants whom, after minor run-ins with the law, could lose their green card if convicted of a crime. While doing research for the book, Budhos unearthed other characteristics that predisposed certain people to being headhunted by the NYPD: a lone-wolf predilection, youth and a rap sheet, even if only for petty crime.

Naeem, the protagonist in Watched, fits the archetype to a tee: he’s a social misfit close to flunking out of high school. He’s desperate to appease his hardworking father and stepmother, refugees from the 1971 Bangladesh genocide.

“There’s a hole in Naeem because he doesn’t really have a father who can show him the way into this country that is going to be his home,” Budhos explained of the character, who immigrated to the United States at 8 years old. “So of course he’s susceptible to the cops in some ways, but he’s also susceptible because he’s looking for home.”

The author, Marina Budhos, at a book signing at the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York City

Sensitive to the fact that he is already under surveillance simply for being brown and Muslim in post-9/11 America, where shopkeepers tail him and plainclothes police officers keep a lookout across the street from the mosque where he and his family attend Friday prayers, Naeem initially gains a sense of triumph from the illusion that he is the one doing the surveilling rather than being surveilled.

Notions of grandiosity are quite common among informants, Budhos said, where those who once languished on the fringes suddenly feel needed, important. “One evening I was having dinner with a friend and she told me about meeting a young man who was essentially swaggering around and hinting that he did this. But the interesting thing about it was he was kind of like, I’m in the know! I’m the man! I am up there.”

Thus began her intrigue into a coming-of-age character whose sole toehold is in essentially betraying his own people to find a sense of identity. He works in cahoots with Taylor, a white police officer whom, in Naeem’s eyes, embodies the American dream. In this sense the book points out that ethnic projects still exist today: the attempt to distance oneself from a minority race or ethnic group by approximating a supposedly superior majority group.

“The thing about being a superhero is you have to be okay with lying. You’re not who you say you are. You’re lying for truth.” — Watched

The NYPD wants Naeem to supply information on where the Muslim community works, shops and prays: they charge him with combing through browser search histories at internet cafés, providing names and photos of students who are members of the Muslim Student Association at Queens College, reporting on sermons given by Imams at local mosques and ‘befriending’ shopkeepers at the neighborhood mom-and-pops. “I spent hours looking at actual police reports of this community,” Budhos said, “and every one of those little shops are in these reports.”

Even when these organizations were found to be doing nothing wrong, they were still considered targets for radicals to infiltrate. Eventually, a camera is mounted to a telephone pole across from the mosque, whereupon Naeem’s father bans the family from praying outside the home.

“How could we be so important? We’d been given some kind of celebrity status, but in all the wrong ways.” — Watched

While writing the book, Budhos also met with and interviewed Matt Apuzzo, one of four AP journalists who produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series on the NYPD surveillance unit.

“Beyond just us trying to fight back against it, I don’t think this level of siege is really being discussed,” Budhos said.

After publishing Watched earlier this year, she was approached by Theatre 167, an artist’s collective based in Jackson Heights. The director, Ari Laura Kreith, offered to help Budhos bring Naeem’s story to life in the streets of Jackson Heights where the novel is set and where much of the NYPD surveillance took place. Rather than doing the classic literary book tour, Budhos will tour the US this year with the theater troupe to bring the live performances, called ‘Surveillance Theater,’ to mosques, schools, the streets and other community spaces.

The performances enact scenes from the book showing the domestic life of the Jackson Heights Muslim community, as well as an inside look into the secret meetings the NYPD had with informants like Naeem, who were often threatened and treated with hostility.

“I think being brown and being on the other side is really interesting,” says Adeel Ahmed, an actor with Theatre 167 who plays the role of Naeem. “I think if you’re brown in America right now or in Europe or wherever it is, you’re always being watched.”

Actor Adeel Ahmad performs at a reading of ‘Watched’ at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop

While Budhos’ work has journalistic underpinnings from being based on in-depth research and interviews, she chose to create a work of fiction to share the human story behind the headlines about the terrorist attacks in Paris and ISIS’ recruitment of young people, while focusing specifically on the teenager’s experience.

The real-life NYPD unit, mistily titled the ‘demographics unit’ never led to charges that a mosque or an Islamic organization was itself a terrorist enterprise. The unit was dismantled in June 2014 following congressional calls for a federal investigation into the NYPD.

UPDATE: In March 2017, two federal judges approved a revised settlement in lawsuits accusing the New York Police Department of illegally surveilling Muslims. The settlement puts measures in place to protect Muslims and others from NYPD investigations into political or religious activity.