Mass surveillance and the creation of a Muslim suspect

In the years since 9/11, the surveillance state has shifted from crudely trawling vast amounts of data to predictive surveillance where authorities try to identify crime before it happens. What this often means for Muslims is their everyday behaviour is seen through the lens of counter-extremism strategies.

'Fear-mongering to enforce and put in place policies... really tore apart people's lives,' says expert

Civil rights, legal advocates and residents held a press conference, June 18, 2013, in New York to challenge the police department's surveillance of businesses frequented by Muslim residents and area mosques. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

This is the second episode of a three-part series in which IDEAS producer, Naheed Mustafa, peers into the house the War on Terror built. 

*Originally published on Dec. 10, 2021.

We often associate the so-called War on Terror with invasions, bombings, renditions, and torture. But it was also a war for information. The last two decades have been marked by a deep and sophisticated strategy of surveillance in western nations that has often stood in stark contrast to fundamental rights and freedoms.

Soon after 9/11, mass surveillance based on crudely defined categories of what constitutes a threat scooped up entire communities. Asim Qureshi, research director for the UK-based advocacy group, CAGE, works with British Muslims on the receiving end of state scrutiny.

"The war on terror instrumentalized a fear of Muslims and of Islam in order for states to centralize increased powers for themselves, powers of surveillance, profiling, or discrimination," Qureshi said.

Long-established privacy protections were upended, allowing government agencies in the U.S., for example, to partner with telecom giants and social media platforms to capture unprecedented amounts of data. Hina Shamsi is the director of the ACLU's National Security Project and says American citizens, especially Muslims, are still struggling with mass surveillance.

American Civil Liberties Union's Hina Shamsi (in front of microphones) announced a lawsuit in June 2013 against the New York Police Department's surveillance program targeting Muslims, alongside plaintiffs (American Civil Liberties Union)

She says that despite the fact many of the earlier programs like the NYPD's mass surveillance of Muslim communities of the Bush-era, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) — effectively, a "Muslim ban" — were disbanded. The framing of those programs still informs the ways in which Muslim Americans are regarded today. 

"When you think about war as a legal matter, countries of the world have a set of  international laws which are supposed to govern exceptional situations," said Shamsi. She says they govern all kinds of safeguards for individual rights and freedoms that citizens take for granted in non-war contexts.

Shamsi adds that war context was applied to the domestic sphere. There was a "rhetorical shift" which, ultimately, resulted in a "cynical fear mongering to enforce and put in place policies and practices that really tore apart people's lives and had a really harmful impact on people's civil rights and civil liberties at home." 

Lack of government accountability

Legal academic and journalist Azeezah Kanji says a key feature of so many of these efforts at surveilling Muslims and their communities is that governments are almost never accountable to the public — even once those programs become publicly known.

Kanji points to the work of Harvard professor of literature, Elaine Scarry who calls this problem of accountability a paradox that in a democratic society, the citizen is the one who should have privacy while the government is subject to public accountability.

Azeezah Kanji is a legal academic who studies state-sponsored Islamophobia. (Submitted by Azeezah Kanji)

Kanji goes on to say that in the war on terror, that equation has been reversed.

"It is increasingly private communities and particularly racialized communities that are made to be evermore transparent while the practices of the state remain hidden and opaque."

In Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Commission called on national security agencies a decade ago to release race-disaggregated data to show these agencies don't engage in racial profiling. That data has yet to be released.

Kanji says the problem, however, is not only about the lack of information. "[It's also about] the active presence of narratives in order to justify the abuses that occur. Which is why simply making things visible, simply putting out information, simply making things transparent is not enough to deconstruct the racial violence built up through the war on terror itself."

It's the "active presence of narratives" that critics in the U.K. say underpins that country's counter-extremism strategy, Prevent. The strategy is focused on non-violent behaviour and thinking that authorities claim is a possible indicator of future violence.

Asim Qureshi from CAGE says what that ends up meaning is that Prevent is in the business of predicting the future. The strategy was updated in 2015 to require health and education workers, including doctors and teachers, to report any behaviour or talk they think is a possible sign of extremist thinking. 

'There was already a great deal of systemic and institutionalized racism within society that laid the groundwork for the kinds of profiling, surveillance and discrimination that we saw after the 9/11 attacks,' Asim Qureshi told IDEAS. (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Fear of being seen as extremist

Shereen Fernandez, a fellow in the department of sociology at the London School of Economics, says this fear of being perceived as an extremist has led to Muslims engaging in all kinds of adaptive behaviours from trying to appear extra friendly and explicitly non-threatening in front of law enforcement to completely avoiding any reference to Islam.

"I had one teacher who was teaching about alternative forms of finance. And she said, 'You know, I really don't want to use the word Shariah when it comes to talking about Islamic finance. It has nothing to do with anything quite threatening, I'm simply talking about Shariah finance, but that word in itself really scared me. I didn't want to use it in case my students went back home or they went to another teacher and said, 'You know, miss so-and-so is talking about Shariah in her classroom.'"

Fernandez says in the big picture while it's important to focus on the fact that Muslims are in the crosshairs of surveillance today, surveillance didn't start with Muslims and it won't end with Muslims.

She points out the Terrorism Act was first established to respond to the Northern Ireland conflict Irish troubles in the 1970s but it didn't end there. Over the years the scope of the legislation has expanded the types of people and communities it targets has diversified.

Fernandez notes that Prevent policies have recently started targeting animal rights and climate change activists as well.

"A lot of them would say, well, of course, I'm not a terrorist, you know, of course I'm not extremist. This is the white middle class." Fernandez says many of those activists were shocked they were referred to a counter-extremism program. "(They said) 'of course it's not me!' So the question is, well, who is? Who deserves to be on a program like this?

"Prevent isn't about violence. Counter-terrorism is not about violence anymore, but it's about nonviolent protest. It's about nonviolent actions which have really come under scrutiny. This isn't new," she said.

"History repeats itself constantly and we're seeing this with surveillance. It may strengthen and may become more sophisticated. But ultimately, who comes under surveillance hasn't really changed so much." 

Guests in this episode:

Asim Qureshi is the research director at the advocacy group, CAGE.

Shereen Fernandez is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology, London School of Economics.

Hina Shamsi is the director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union,

Azeezah Kanji is a legal academic and journalist.

*This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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