The evangelical Christians of Greenville County, South Carolina, are afraid.
There has been talk of informants and undercover agents luring young, conservative evangelicals across the South into sham terrorist plots. The feds and the area’s police want to eliminate a particularly extreme strain of evangelical Christianity opposed to abortion, homosexuality, and secularism, whose adherents sometimes use violent imagery and speech. They fear such extreme talk could convince lone wolves or small groups of Christian extremists to target abortion clinics, gay bars, or shopping malls for attack. As a result, law enforcement has flooded these communities with informants meant to provide an early warning system for any signs of such “radicalization.”
Converts, so important to the evangelical movement, are now looked upon with suspicion—the more fervent, the more suspicious. In local barbecue joints, diners, and watering holes, the proprietors are careful not to let FOX News linger onscreen too long, fearing political discussions that could be misconstrued. After all, you can never be too sure who’s listening.
Come Sunday, the ministers who once railed against abortion, gay marriage, and Hollywood as sure signs that the US is descending into godlessness will mute their messages. They will peer out at their congregations and fear that some faces aren’t interested in the Gospel, or maybe are a little too interested in every word. The once vibrant political clubs at Bob Jones University have become lifeless as students whisper about informants and fear a few misplaced words could leave them in a government database or worse.
Naturally, none of this is actually happening to evangelical Christians in South Carolina, across the South, or anywhere else. It would never be tolerated. Yet the equivalents of everything cited above did happen in and around the New York metropolitan area—just not to white, conservative, Christian Americans. But replace them with American Muslims in the New York area and you have a perfect fit, as documented by the recent report Mapping Muslims. And New York is hardly alone.
Since 9/11, American law enforcement has taken a disproportionate interest in American Muslims across the country, seeing a whole community as a national security threat, particularly in California and New York City. But here’s the thing: the facts that have been piling up ever since that date don’t support such suspicion. Not at all.
The numbers couldn’t be clearer: right-wing extremists have committed far more acts of political violence since 1990 than American Muslims. That law enforcement across the country hasn’t felt similarly compelled to infiltrate and watch over conservative Christian communities in the hopes of disrupting violent right-wing extremism confirms what American Muslims know in their bones: to be different is to be suspect.
Conducting Suspicionless Surveillance
In the aftermath of 9/11, law enforcement has infiltrated Muslim American communities and spied on them in ways that would have outraged Americans, had such tactics been used against Christian communities after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, or after any of the other hate crimes or anti-abortion-based acts of violence committed since then by right-wing extremists.
Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by the American Civil Liberties Union make clear that FBI agents in California used community outreach programs to gather intelligence at mosques and other local events, recording the opinions and associations of people not suspected of any crime. In 2008, the FBI loosened its internal guidelines further, allowing agents to collect demographic information on ethnically concentrated communities and map them for intelligence and investigative purposes.
There is no question that the most extreme example of such blanket, suspicion-less surveillance has been conducted by the New York City Police Department (NYPD). As revealed by the Associated Press, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division carried out a secret surveillance program on the city’s varied Muslim communities based on the erroneous belief that their religion makes them more susceptible to violent radicalization.
The program, which continues today, looks something like this, according to Mapping Muslims: “rakers,” or undercover officers, are sent into neighborhoods to identify “hot spots”—mosques, schools, restaurants, cafes, halal meat shops, hookah bars—and told to chat up people to “gauge sentiment,” while setting up “listening posts.” “Crawlers,” or informants, are then recruited and sent to infiltrate mosques and religious events. They are ordered to record what imams and congregants say and take note of who attended services and meetings.
These crawlers are encouraged to initiate “create and capture” conversations with their targets, bringing up terrorism or some other controversial topic, recording the response, and then sharing it with the NYPD. The intelligence unit also went mobile, checking out and infiltrating American-Muslim student groups from Connecticut to New Jersey and even as far away as Pennsylvania.
When news of the NYPD’s spying program broke, it shattered trust within the city’s Muslim communities, giving rise to general suspicion and fraying community ties of all sorts. This naturally raises the question: How many terrorism plots were identified and disrupted thanks to this widespread and suspicionless surveillance program? The answer: none.
Worse, the chief of the NYPD Intelligence Division admitted in sworn testimony last summer that the Muslim surveillance program did not even generate a single criminal lead. The incredibly invasive, rights-eroding program was a complete bust, a total waste of the resources of the New York City Police Department.
And that’s without even considering what is surely its most harmful aspect: the likelihood that, at least in the short term, it has caused irreparable damage to the Muslim community’s trust in the police. Surveillance, concludes the Mapping Muslims report, “has stifled constitutionally protected activity and destroyed trust between American Muslim communities and the agencies charged with protecting them.”
When people fear the police, tips dry up, potentially making the community less safe. This is important, especially given that the Muslim-American community has helped prevent, depending on whose figures you use, from 21%–40% of all terrorism plots associated with Muslims since 9/11. That’s grounds for cooperation, not alienation: a lesson that would have been learned by a police department with strong ties to and trust in the community.
Numbers May Not Lie, But They Sure Can Be Ignored
The idea that American law enforcement’s mass surveillance of Muslim communities is a necessary, if unfortunate, counterterrorism tool rests with the empirically false notion that American Muslims are more prone to political violence than other Americans.
This is simply not true.
According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), right-wing terrorists perpetrated 145 “ideologically motivated homicide incidents” between 1990 and 2010. In that same period, notes START, “al Qaeda affiliates, al Qaeda-inspired extremists, and secular Arab Nationalists committed 27 homicide incidents in the United States involving 16 perpetrators or groups of perpetrators.”
Last November, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center published a report on America’s violent far-right extremists. Its numbers were even more startling than START’s. “The consolidated dataset,” writes report author Arie Perliger, “includes information on 4,420 violent incidents that occurred between 1990 and 2012 within US borders, and which caused 670 fatalities and injured 3,053 people.” Perliger also found that the number of far-right attacks had jumped 400% in the first 11 years of the 21st century.