A soldier, an American, a Muslim: N.J. man leads fight against NYPD spying
NORTH BRUNSWICK — His patriotism was never in question. Not when he dropped out of Rutgers University and enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 2001. And not when he was sent to Iraq in 2003 with the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he served with a unit that assessed and planned the rebuilding of places like the war-torn city of Hillah, where he even slept some nights in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.
At 26, Syed Farhaj Hassan was a devout Shi’a Muslim, and a man who took a lot of pride in being one of the relatively few Muslim Americans to join the military and then go to war in Iraq. Born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey, he’d grown up engrossed in military-themed TV shows like “M*A*S*H” and “G.I. Joe.” And nearly a decade after his war service, he’s still patriotic — he’s even an active reservist in a civil affairs brigade of “brothers and sisters” whom, he says, “I love like no tomorrow.”
But these days, Hassan is also frustrated and upset with an arm of the U.S. government. Hassan said, in fiery tones, that he’s been “betrayed” by the New York City police department for its years of post-9/11 spying on Muslim communities in the Garden State.
“It’s an invasion of our privacy, something you just don’t do,” Hassan said recently, his voice rising. “Why were they (NYPD officers) scribbling notes on Muslim girls going to elementary school?” — a reference to some of the allegations leveled against the NYPD.
Driven by the same zeal and commitment he’s brought to the Army and the civil affairs unit for 11 years, Hassan signed on recently to be the lead plaintiff in the first lawsuit to challenge any portion of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims — a systematic program that has gone on both in New York and across state borders.
“I was upset that this was happening to a community, simply based on their faith,” Hassan explained during a recent interview at a North Brunswick Starbucks.
“The same thing can happen to Jewish Americans; the same thing can happen to Shinto Americans; the same thing can happen to Buddhist Americans,” he went on, leaning across a table and slicing the air with his hands to emphasize his point. “In this case, it happened to Muslim Americans.”
“My concern as a concerned citizen,” the Helmetta resident said, “as an active participant in democracy is: Who’s next and what’s next? That’s what upsets me.”
Hassan and his seven Muslim co-plaintiffs seek in their lawsuit, filed June 6 in U.S. District Court, to stop the NYPD from spying in the Garden State. They’re also asking the court to declare that the NYPD has violated their First and 14th Amendment rights. And they want the police department to expunge all records made “pursuant to past unlawful spying.” But they don’t ask for any real damages, only nominal amounts.
Still, there are plenty of people who disagree with the Hassan, his co-plaintiffs and Muslim Advocates, the national civil rights group that filed the lawsuit in Newark on Hassan and the others’ behalf. A recent poll said New Jerseyans approve of the NYPD spying in New Jersey. And the NYPD itself says the surveillance it has conducted has been careful and that it does not cover all of New Jersey’s Muslims indiscriminately.
“I want no derogatories, I want a crystal-clear record,” Hassan said, referring to his U.S. Army record. “It’s been my job for over 10 years to keep off of lists.”
Hassan, now 35, claims that if his name or license-plate number, for example, were to be discovered by the Army on an NYPD surveillance dossier, “it would only be detrimental to my future in government and to my military career, in my opinion.”
When he joined the military, he noted, officials did a background check on him. “I know I wasn’t on a list of people being watched over” at the time, he said.
A simple speeding ticket can be a “derog” in the Army, he added, and “derogs” can affect a soldier’s clearance or the standing he or she has worked to achieve.
“Being on a list as an active surveillance target, definitely a ‘derog’,” he claimed.
According to Mohammad Ali Naquvi, a friend of Hassan’s since they both started attending the Astaana-e-Zehra mosque in Englishtown — each at age 13 — Hassan’s military commitment and ambitions have always been central to who he is.
“He’s always been just so, so pro-American,” said Naquvi, a Manhattan lawyer who runs a consulting business and an activist who says he, too, has fought the NYPD’s Muslim spying. “He (Hassan) has always been very patriotic — the kind of guy who would have the flag up in his room.
“He was always very gung-ho with the freedom and independence, and the rhetoric from the military. He actually believed that sincerely.”
“I can be very honest with you,” Naquvi, 35, said, “a lot of his friends had issues with him joining the military.”
a soldier’s soldier
Hassan was born in 1976 to a mother who was a homemaker and a father who was an engineer, who immigrated to America together from Karachi, Pakistan. To this day, he remembers his father telling him often about why he and his mother decided to make their life in America. “It’s the land of liberty, that’s what Dad tells” me, said Hassan, who is not married.
The Army reservist, who currently is not employed but who actively trains with his unit and will return to college in September, recalls childhood memories of “playing with my younger brother in our play box, and ‘M*A*S*H’ was on the black-and-white TV in the background.”
“I felt the camaraderie between (the Army doctor character) Hawkeye and B.J., his best buddy over there in Korea,” Hassan recalled. “It was cool seeing guys in uniform serving together, and having a good time.”
Jason Kleschick, a 26-year-old Army specialist from Philadelphia and one of Hassan’s closest friends in the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade, said he’s never doubted his military “brother’s” lifelong commitment to the Army and its ideals.
“I don’t say this much, you’d have to know me, but he’s a soldier’s soldier,” said Kleschick, who served in the Iraq War in 2005, before later spending 15 months in Afghanistan. “Honestly, he’s one of maybe 10 people that I’d march into the gates of hell with.”
Scared to Pray
Hassan claims in the civil rights suit that the NYPD has spied on four mosques he’s attended in New Jersey over the years — scaring him away from attending one of those mosques, in particular.
He said he has read just about every Associated Press report published this year and last on the NYPD’s spying in New York and surrounding states. And one of the first, more discouraging thoughts he had was: “Oh my God, they caught, perhaps, my mom parking her little black car, you know going up the stairs at our mosque to pray, on high holy days.”
But even more discouraging, he said, by this winter he’d just stopped going to one of his favorite and most frequented mosques — Masjid-e-Ali, in Somerset.
“I was not courageous when I made that decision,” Hassan said of leaving Masjid-e-Ali behind.
He explained that he’d simply read and heard too much about surveillance of the “huge, modern, gorgeous” mosque.
Then the lanky reservist quickly leaned forward on his elbows and unleashed some of his highly charged frustration about the NYPD, the passion rising through his voice. “This act of surveillance of innocent Muslims in New Jersey by the NYPD,” he said, has set back law-enforcement relations with Muslims 10 to 15 years.
“All the inroads that certain departments of the government have made (with Muslim communities), have been thrown asunder,” he continued, “i.e., the FBI perhaps — or municipal police departments — because of the actions of this one police department. And this is national.”
He added, “It’s a slap in the face.”
Rights Vs. Security
In the 25-page lawsuit, the lawyers from Muslim Advocates paint the NYPD’s spying in New Jersey as coordinated, invasive and long-standing.
“NYPD officers snap pictures (and) take video … of congregants as they arrive at mosques to pray,” the lawsuit alleges. “They also mount surveillance cameras on light poles and aim them at mosques.”
The suit also contends the NYPD deploys plainclothes-officers called
“rakers,” who monitor daily life in heavily Muslim neighborhoods. And, the suit says, the NYPD also uses undercover-informants inside of mosques called
“mosque crawlers,” who keep tabs on sermons and conversations.
Still, in May New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa announced he had determined the NYPD’s actions in New Jersey did not violate any state civil or criminal laws.
And a Quinnipiac University poll released in April found New Jersey voters said, by a margin of 70 percent to 21 percent, that the NYPD is “doing what is necessary to combat terrorism” in the Garden State.
The NYPD, for its part, did not comment for this article, despite multiple requests. But in a five-page e-mail sent to The Star-Ledger in March, Paul Browne, the department’s spokesman, wrote that “NYPD surveillance has resulted in terrorist arrests, including in NJ, and was done within federal Handschu guidelines,” referring to a New York legal case that resulted in standards for NYPD surveillance of groups.
In his e-mailed defense of his department’s tactics, Browne also said the NYPD’s Intelligence Division has “looked to identify venues of radicalization or ‘hot spots’ in order to detect and disrupt potential terrorist plots in the nascent stages.
“We also looked to identify locations where operatives sent from abroad might hope to lie low, just as the 9/11 hijackers did in Paterson, New Jersey,” he added. And he noted, “These plainclothes officers were not conducting blanket ongoing surveillance of communities.”
“No one is doing more to connect the dots than we are,” Browne wrote.
Drawing the line
And, meanwhile, staunch national security advocates, like Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee — who held hearings last year on the radicalization of Muslim-Americans — say they believe the NYPD has an absolute right to spy on Muslim communities in New Jersey and elsewhere.
King noted he “admires (Hassan’s) service to his country,” but then quickly said the NYPD actions in New Jersey “are steps that have to be taken, considering the world we live in.”
“In earlier days,” King said, “when the FBI was looking for the Mafia, they went to Italian communities, social clubs, funerals, they took license plate numbers.” He added, “I’m not aware of any civil right that says you can’t be followed on the street.”
Hassan, for his part, answers people like King by saying he draws a bright line between law-enforcement actions taken because officials have dug up “actionable intel” or leads and a general spying on and cataloging of Muslim activities simply because “you’re a Muslim, and we need to watch you.”
“If there is actionable intel, then by all means, conduct the law-enforcement operation that you need to,” he said. “But this case doesn’t revolve around law enforcement and hog-tying them from doing their job. In the end run, good law enforcement is keeping all of us safe.”