NEW YORK — “I’m laughing. I’m laughing on the phone right now,” said Syed Farhaj Hassan. “That’s hysterical.”
That’s how Hassan reacted when he heard that the New York City Police Department blames the press for exposing its Muslim surveillance program — and not its own cops for running it.
Hassan is the lead plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit by the non-profit group Muslim Advocates over the NYPD’s extension of its spying program into New Jersey. The group dropped its latest filing in the case on Friday.
For Hassan, a 36-year-old resident of central New Jersey, the case is far more serious than the NYPD’s legal arguments. It gets to the heart of why he joined the Army months before 9/11 and served his country in the Iraq War.
“I have always been patriotic,” he said. “I have always loved being an American and I knew from a very long time ago that we … were afforded a lot of rights and responsibilities.” But the rights part of that equation was put in jeopardy, he said, when he found out about the NYPD’s extensive post-9/11 program of surveillance of Muslim sites and neighborhoods from Queens to Newark.
In August 2011, the Associated Press began publishing a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of reports on the NYPD’s surveillance practices. The AP revealed the department had sent its officers across state lines to surveil mosques, businesses and even a girls’ school frequented by Muslims. When Hassan learned that the Masjid-e-Ali, a mosque in Somerset, N.J., that he regularly attended, was under the NYPD’s gaze, he stopped going.
In December, the NYPD moved to dismiss the lawsuit, saying it had done nothing wrong. Some legal experts have opined that Hassan and Muslim Advocates face an uphill battle in winning their case. As the NYPD pointed out in its filing, courts have ruled in the past that surveillance by itself, as long as there is no discriminatory intent, is constitutional.
New Jerseyans, including Republican Gov. Chris Christie, were angered to find out that the NYPD had been crossing state lines to conduct its surveillance. So far, no corresponding lawsuit has been filed in New York City against the NYPD for its surveillance activities, but Katon noted a special, long-running legal framework for the NYPD called the Handschu decree complicates making a case in New York.
Hassan says his participation in the lawsuit isn’t motivated by territorial pride — or even solely by his religion.
“This is for everybody, this isn’t just for Muslim Americans. This is for all Americans,” he said. “This is just another way of my personal little bit to defend the Constitution.”