At the White House annual Ramadan iftar last month, President Obama spoke to a room full of American Muslim leaders and invoked their communities’ “obligation to do [their] part — to help others overcome barriers, to reverse the injustice of inequality and help more of our fellow citizens share in the promise of America.” Ironically, these statements came only one week after the Intercept published an expose detailing the United States’ surveillance of five prominent American Muslims — including civil rights activists, humanitarians, academics and lawyers. It seems that being Muslim in American and “doing your part” is a surefire way to find yourself on a clandestine government surveillance list.
At this time of year, from the East Room of the White House to the chambers of local government, elected officials sit down with American Muslim communities for such iftar dinners. These gatherings offer an occasion for officials to acknowledge the service that American Muslims are providing to this country and reassert core values of religious and racial equality. At the White House iftar, Obama asserted, “No one should ever be targeted or disparaged because of their faith.”
But the reality on the ground is that the surveillance and interrogation of American Muslims and those presumed to be Muslim — and particularly politically active ones — has become a routine practice from sea to shining sea. As the Intercept’s reports reminded us, and as our clients have known for years, American Muslims doing their part to further America’s promise by participating in fundamentally democratic traditions of political participation and dissent are continually rewarded by intrusive and stigmatizing government scrutiny. When an agent came across Hasan’s* writing about labor rights on the Web, his citizenship application was delayed for more than a decade while he was repeatedly questioned about his political leanings. Reza* was singled out for aggressive surveillance after he participated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Natasha*, outspoken about U.S. foreign policy and involved in debates on the Arab Spring, found herself on a government watch list and was questioned about her activism whenever she attempted to travel.
While the president encourages American Muslims to engage and serve, his administration’s surveillance and profiling policies send a starkly different message. If you are a politically engaged American Muslim, the government is watching you, reading your e-mails and observing you in your mosques, bookstores, campuses and homes, and might knock on your door. This message is hardly one that would inspire community service or engagement. To the contrary, our research has shown that this surveillance has a deeply chilling effect on political activism and civic participation. Our clients frequently talk about “laying low” and curtailing their engagement in public or “fraught” issues for fear of triggering further surveillance. And it happens in insidious ways: Just recently, a Muslim attorney sought our counsel on whether representing a young political activist would land her on a surveillance list, while another young professional asked us whether she should refrain from signing petitions and contacting representatives regarding Middle East developments.
When the sprawling nature of these surveillance policies are contrasted with their now well-documented ineffectiveness, one cannot but wonder whether that chilling effect is collateral damage from the misguided policies, or an intended consequence.
*Pseudonyms were used to protect client confidentiality. The authors also co-wrote the report Mapping Muslims: NYPD Spying and Its Impact on American Muslims.