Saher Selod, an associate professor of Sociology at Simmons University, is the author of “Forever Suspect: Racialized Surveillence of Muslim Amerincans in the War on Terror.” On September 11, 2001, she was just one of millions of Americans watching in horror as planes hit the World Trade Center and the Twin Towers collapsed. In the moments and weeks after, she was afraid: not just of another attack, but also what the attacks meant for her family and community. Not long after 9/11, her father was detained and interrogated by TSA agents. The agents knew details about her father’s travel, including where he had been and what he bought while he was there.
Saher’s father’s experience is just one chapter of a larger American story of racialization and surveillance, in which the government has built upon the classic American trope of a traitorous foreign “Other” in order to justify its expansion of policies that monitor and control vulnerable communities. It is also the story of how the lives of Muslims in those communities have been permanently and irrevocably disrupted.
In the post-9/11 era, the word “terrorism” has come to be associated with a very specific image — that of the brown Muslim terrorist. Americans have become used to the notion that brown women who wear hijabs and men who have skull caps and beards are inherently suspicious. Even Muslim last names and accents are met with wariness and distrust. In his article, “Racialization of Islam in American Law,” Neil Gotanda explains that the trope of the “Muslim terrorist” is the newest iteration of an old stereotype — that of the Asian American “saboteur.” This trope portrays Asian Americans as permanent foreigners, forever unable to assimilate and always at odds with “real Americans.” It featured heavily in the United States during World War II and was used as justification for Japanese Internment.
In the modern era, studies of Orientalism made brown Muslims the new face of the ever-present foreign enemy. In 1990, Bernard Lewis’ article “The Roots of Muslim Rage” for The Atlantic argued that Islam was inherently tied to fundamentalism and violence; Samuel Huntington’s 1993 article “The Clash of Civilizations” for Foreign Affairs predicted that the next major global conflict would be between Islam and the West. Lewis and Huntington’s articles did not exist in a vacuum. These characterizations of Islam, when combined with the fact that many Muslims in the Untied States are of North African, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, inextricably defined brown Muslims as the embodiment of the supposed Islamic threat.
As author Taheen Shams argues, 9/11 made Muslims hypervisible where they had not been before. Suddenly, articles like “The Clash of Civilizations” seemed almost prophetic. It was easy to believe that the state had missed the internal threat right under its nose, just like people believed had happened with Japanese-Americans before Pearl Harbor. The state took advantage of this kind of thinking and used it to justify expanding its surveillance apparatuses. In October of 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the PATRIOT ACT, which gave the state authority to conduct secret searches of American citizens, monitor their telephone and email exchanges and collect records on their bank and credit cards.
Muslims were immediately made targets of surveillance by the American government. One policy, known as The National Exit Entry Registration System ran from 2002 to 2011, and required that any noncitizen man from 25 countries – 24 of which were Muslim-majority countries – be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated. In 2011, an Associated Press investigation revealed that the NYPD, under the guidance of the CIA, had mapped, photographed or infiltrated 250 mosques and 31 Muslim student organizations in New York. Muslims were so closely monitored that the police knew the names of the students and how many times they prayed. While there are some who would argue that this surveillance was necessary to root out a very real threat, the Chief of the NYPD Intelligence Division Lt. Paul Galati admitted that in the six years that he had been Chief, monitoring Muslims had not resulted in a single viable criminal lead. Living under constant surveillance has prompted many Muslims to practice self-censorship, with some refraining from engaging in religious activities or voicing political views.
Athough constant surveillance certainly has not made life easy or comfortable for Muslim Americans, it is important that we not do them a diservice by suggesting that they are passive reipients of the state’s control. In fact, many young people are turning the tables on the state and using their hypervisibility to practice counter-surveillance. They know the spotlight is on them and have capitalized on the moment to stage political performances that call for reform. While the racialized surveillance of Muslim Americans is unlikely to stop anytime soon, young Muslims are determined to rewrite the narrative and show us that there is power in being seen.