Undercover policing in mosques meets resistance and self-censoring from Muslims

Police programs in the United States using undercover officers in mosques to monitor members suspected of extremism are facing pushback from the Muslim community, which tends to view such tactics as anti-Islamic and sinful, and are fostering distrust in Islamic institutions, according to Ibrahim Bechrouri of the Institute of Geopolitics at the University of Paris. Bechrouri was presenting the findings of his research on the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) anti-terrorism program at a March meeting at John Jay College in New York, which RW attended. The NYPD program was one of the first U.S. police departments to use undercover surveillance of mosques, and the practice is now found in departments throughout the country, as well as in Europe to a lesser extent, Bechrouri said. He added that there have been 15,000 informants, according to FBI figures, and that in New York there were 171 active informants between 2006 and 2008. Three thousand informants were debriefed by the NYPD in the span of three months in 2014. There are also “hip pocket informants” who offer free intelligence to the police. More recent statistics are unavailable, though Bechrouri said that fewer informants are used in mosques today since Muslims have criticized the practice. Police informants have also been used in Muslim campus groups—with one such incident reported to have taken place at the Muslim Student Association at John Jay—as well as at cafes and parks where Muslims congregate.

In interviews with imams and other Muslims about such police tactics, Bechrouri found a widespread view that they violated Islamic teachings, with many labeling the informants as “sinners.” They said the Koran condemns invasions of privacy in mosques and homes (teaching that visitors are to ask permission to enter homes), not to mention such tactics as phone tapping and intercepting texts from computers. The Muslims Bechrouri interviewed often viewed the undercover officers as violating Islamic teachings against hypocrisy, as they were “converting under false pretenses.” He also found that some Muslims took a more nuanced view, allowing that suspicions of terrorism should be investigated. But still the crux of the matter was that “there has to be proof. And for many the bar is too low,” he said. In some cases, a Muslim might be suspected of extremism because they appear to have become too religious, as evidenced by growing a beard or starting to pray five times a day. All of this has had a dampening effect on devotion and involvement in mosques, according to Bechrouri.

Those suspecting undercover police of having attended their mosques “self-censor” their views, with some, especially immigrants, abandoning traditional signs of belonging by shaving their beards and decreasing charitable giving and attendance at Friday prayers. “The goal [of the NYPD and other police departments] is to create a feeling of mistrust and division [in mosques]…It’s a strategy of divide and conquer,” he said. While Bechrouri said that the relaxation of the NYPD’s undercover program since 2013 may have eased self-censorship, the program has spurred mosques to engage in “surveillance to stop surveillance,” installing cameras to spot someone suspicious who might be an undercover agent, as well as to post signs asking law enforcement agents to follow the rules of the mosque and identity themselves.

(Much of the research presented in this talk was based on Bechrouri’s article in Surveillance and Society, which can be downloaded at: https://ojs.library.queensu.ca/index.php/surveillance-and-society/article/view/6895/8426).