A string of recent attacks in Paris and Orlando have led to renewed calls for surveillance of American Muslim communities from both Republican and Democratic politicians. Donald Trump wants surveillance of “certain mosques.” Ted Cruz thinks mosques are only the beginning and law enforcement should “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods.” Liberal darling Barney Frank has similarly called for “significant surveillance” of Muslims who adopt “angry Islamic hate views,” regardless of whether there is any reasonable basis to believe they pose a threat.
Such misguided calls for surveillance have recently become far more common, along with an upsurge in violence against American Muslims. They also betray a complete ignorance of the ongoing surveillance efforts against American Muslims, a luxury not afforded to those who have been on the receiving end of such untoward government attention. Various law enforcement and intelligence agencies have pursued extensive surveillance of American Muslim communities since 9/11, a project which now includes the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program.
At the forefront of surveillance efforts against American Muslims is the FBI. The agency has pressured people to become informants with promises of citizenship and threats of deportation, sent informants to infiltrate mosques, and used them to entrap mentally ill Muslims. It has also carried out “geo-mapping” of American Muslim communities, compiling “maps of businesses, community centers and religious institutions in ethnic enclaves” around the country. Its community outreach programs have too often turned out to be intelligence gathering operations, used to “secretly collect and store information about activities protected by the First Amendment” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The FBI, estimates Arun Kundnani in The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, has a spy for every 94 Muslims in the country, without including the NSA, regional fusion centers, and local police departments. This is a ratio which far surpasses even that of the East German Stasi, which was estimated to have one intelligence analyst for every 166 citizens.
The New York Police Department has done its best to keep up with the FBI, labeling entire mosques as terrorist organizations. Designating a mosque as such allows the NYPD “to use informants to record sermons and spy on imams” as well as treat “anyone who attends prayer services [as] a potential subject of an investigation and fair game for surveillance.” The Department’s infamous Demographics Unit carried out mass, suspicion-less surveillance of Muslims in New York City and in every mosque within a hundred miles of New York. NYPD Commissioner William Bratton would later admit that the Demographics Unit did not deliver “one single piece of actionable intelligence.”
The Obama administration’s CVE program expands these already-intrusive and ineffective surveillance methods into virtually every sphere of life. Teachers are spying on students and medical practitioners on their patients. Muslim communities are being asked to keep an eye on their co-religionists and discuss their findings with the FBI.
The effects of such vast surveillance efforts are not difficult to predict. According to a study published in the Journal of Muslim Mental Health, “American Muslim’s experiences with government surveillance are accompanied by increases in anxiety over future surveillance, avoidance discussing topics that may increase the possibility of surveillance, and avoidance of certain settings over concern it would lead to being reported to intelligence agencies.”
Another study looking at the effects of NYPD surveillance of Muslims found similar results. “Surveillance,” wrote the authors, “has chilled constitutionally protected rights—curtailing religious practice, censoring speech and stunting political organizing.” Every interviewee noted being “negatively affected” by surveillance in some way. The effects included “reducing their political or religious expression, altering the way they exercised those rights (through clarifications, precautions, or avoiding certain interlocutors), or in experiencing social and familial pressures to reduce their activism.”
The fear cultivated by a sprawling surveillance enterprise, the constant threat of being monitored throughout quotidian daily routines, has effectively stultified political discussions and organizing among American Muslims. Unsure of who is listening, many have entirely abandoned discussing anything that can even remotely cause suspicion.
The result is a political vacuum ably filled by militant Islamist ideology, which provides an explanation for the oppression and constant humiliation of Muslims and offers a way out of political impotency. Having done its best to deter political organizing within American Muslim communities by spying on constitutionally-protected activities, law enforcement agencies have left the toxic ideology of reactionary religious groups as the only alternative.
The very appeal of militant Islamist ideology is that it is capable of making some sense of people’s experience of the world. American Muslims are victims of routine racist violence, which is itself a counterpart to government violence against Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. An ideology which provides an explanation for these experiences and imperial geopolitics, framing these events in a particular religious gloss, and suggesting a way out of one’s impotence and toward political agency is going to appeal to those who are left without any political alternatives. Surveillance efforts against Muslims have worked toward ensuring those political alternatives are nonexistent.
The irony here is not only that calls for spying on Americans Muslims come from politicians seemingly oblivious to the already vast (and ineffective) surveillance apparatus, but also that they make possible the very thing they hope to combat. No amount of rhetorical flourishes against the Islamic State and calls for surveillance of Muslims will be successful in rooting out terrorism. Instead, the mass surveillance undertaken by the Bush and Obama administrations virtually guarantees its continuation.