Resisting Surveillance

U.S. Government Policies Stir Controversy Over Muslim Profiling and Monitoring

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers participated in a silent march to protest NYPD racial profiling, including the Stop and Frisk program on June 17, 2012. (Getty)

by Joseph Braude*

American media last week exposed a classified draft report by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) with bearing on the status of Muslim immigrants to the country. Published in toto by Foreign Policy magazine, the document advised that immigrants deemed “at risk” of radicalization by virtue of certain demographic indicators should not only be vetted before their entry to the U.S.; they should also be monitored on a “long-term basis” after their arrival. The recommendation, consistent with the Trump Administration’s tough line on Muslim immigration, followed a January communique in a similar vein which was released by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. It found that three of every four convicts in terrorism-related offenses were born outside the United States, effectively reinforcing calls to severely restrain immigration.

Prominent American voices opposed to the president’s policies have reacted sharply. On February 10, Rutgers University professor John Cohen, who served as Homeland Security Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis under the Obama Administration, wrote in The Hill that the draft CBP document was wrongheaded. He argued that “there is no ethnic or religious profile” for people who join terrorist groups, and that the greater threat to American security stems from home-grown terrorists, including white supremacists as well as radicalized Muslims. “Using our border control authorities and vetting capabilities to monitor those here legally and who are not involved in illegal activity is constitutionally questionable and operationally inefficient,” he wrote. Cohen’s views were echoed by a currently-serving DHS official who conveyed a similar view anonymously in the Foreign Policy report. The official warned that demographic profiling called for in the CPB draft document “would steer policymakers to implement unfair and discriminatory surveillance of particular ethnic groups,” and judged the document’s underlying assessment to have been “misleadingly packaged as a comprehensive analysis of post-9/11 terrorism.” The statement appeared to reflect dissent within the American security sector regarding White House policies. The CBP document was also condemned by the Southern Policy Law Center, a liberal watchdog group primarily concerned with white supremacists.

Amid these critiques, the fate of President Trump’s attempts to restrain immigration from several Muslim-majority countries remains in limbo. Multiple executive orders by the president were successfully challenged by rights groups in Federal court last year. The Supreme Court has since announced that it will review the proposed measures and make a final ruling on their constitutionality.

Mona Haydar, center, leads guests into a dance during a workshop at a Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom conference at Drew University in Madison. The group brings together Muslim and Jewish women (photo/Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom)


From the vantage point of many American Muslims, there is a broader context to these controversies that predates the Trump presidency and concerns American- and foreign-born Muslims alike. Witness last week’s news that a Federal appeals court ruled to shield the FBI from opening up about its monitoring of Muslims in northern California. The case first arose from a lawsuit in 2010 which forced the FBI to release tens of thousands of documents, some revealing how agents took notes about the religious viewpoints of particular American Muslims. While the details remain sealed due to the appellate court ruling, no such order has blocked information from coming to light about the New York Police Department’s surveillance of some Muslim clerics, worshippers, and activists. The American Civil Liberties Union only recently concluded a years-long battle with the NYPD — whereby considerable evidence became public — with a settlement in which the latter committed to substantive reforms. Also last week, the ACLU alleged that the Boston Police Department had used computer software to monitor local social media discussions of politics and religion in such a way as to focus on Muslims and African Americans.

Nor has such surveillance been limited to law enforcement: In 2014, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency, the country’s largest intelligence service, had monitored the e-mails of several American Muslim leadership figures — including Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Whatever the purpose of these operations, their impact appears to have exceeded their more immediate targets. A study of 110 American Muslims by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley found that 18 percent had had some personal experience with government surveillance. The prevalence of the monitoring has caused widespread anxiety and stress, the study concluded, and Muslims have been modifying their everyday behavior out of fear of provoking government suspicion. The 18 percent figure, consistent with other recent survey data, would seem to imply that since September 11, 2001, several hundred thousand American Muslims believe that they have fallen under government surveillance.

Yet some Americans who empathize with American Muslims in their vexation nonetheless maintain that the security measures stem from a genuine attempt — however flawed — to grapple with valid security concerns. Witness 25-year-old Danny Eapen, a son of Indian parents who was born and raised in Qatar before emigrating to the United States. Early last year, after President Trump announced his initial halt on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Eapen told a CNN reporter that he did not oppose the ban even though he himself was subjected to “extreme screening” at airports due to his background. In light of terrorist threats, he observed, other governments are even warier than the U.S., and “people in the Middle East get screened by others in the Middle East [too].” As to security measures against some American Muslim leadership figures, Boston College professor Peter Skerry, author of a forthcoming book about the integration of Muslims into American society, warns against denying evidence that some have indeed been involved with extremist organizations. After the FBI severed its ties with Nihad Awad’s Council on American Islamic Relations due to evidence of a relationship with Hamas, Skerry confirmed the factuality of the Bureau’s findings in an article in Foreign Affairs. He also faulted mainstream American media for ignoring the Bureau’s evidence about CAIR and “continu[ing] to seek out CAIR spokespeople for comments” as if their civil rights activities were in no way compromised by the history of Hamas affiliation.


The contours of these longstanding debates have begun to shift since President Trump took office. Coarse statements by the president regarding Muslims, other minorities, women, and immigrants, coupled with a rise in far-right violence, have spurred a new coalition of opponents donning the mantle of “resistance.” In the current climate, the country has seen new Jewish-Muslim alliances under the banner of fighting bigotry; new Latino-Muslim alliances to promote immigration and citizenship for newcomers; and new disputes within the American conservative camp as to whether to support this Republican president. Distress among American Muslims as diagnosed by the Berkeley study — likely exacerbated by a documented uptick in anti-Muslim rhetoric — has contributed to the further growth of Muslim civil rights organizations. Supporters of Hamas, the likes of whom Boston College’s Peter Skerry described in the Foreign Affairs essay, have been among the beneficiaries.

The Supreme Court will likely meet in late April to hear arguments about the president’s immigration ban, then issue a final ruling in June. Whatever the outcome, the combination of heightened anxiety and actual insecurity appears poised to further tax American society and politics.

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