Arab and Muslim student groups discuss activism in an age of surveillance

Thursday, January 9, 2020 - 10:20pm

Students discuss surveillance and Islamophobia at the Dana Building Thursday evening.

Students discuss surveillance and Islamophobia at the Dana Building Thursday evening. Buy this photo
Olivia Cell//Daily

Approximately 40 students gathered Thursday evening in the Samuel T. Dana Building to participate in a conversation surrounding the modern state of surveillance in Muslim, Arab, Southeast Asian and North African communities in the United States. 

LSA junior Fareah Fysudeen, MSA vice president external, said the event and two accompanying events later this month are meant to cultivate responsible and effective action from the Muslim and Arab communities on campus.

“The most important thing is that we're mobilizing Muslim youth in a way that’s informative and educational and deeply looking at the social fabric of the world around us,” Fysudeen said.

According to Palestinian Youth Group presenter Jenna, who requested The Daily not use her last name to protect her identity as an activist, colonialism and the subsequent Islamophobia it spurred has allowed a culture in which surveillance is accepted and normalized.

“Islamophobia is a system of power and prejudice, and it’s not always necessarily against Muslims,” Jenna said. “It’s very racialized … mainly based off of physical characteristics, or perceived beliefs and perceived origin.”

Jenna said this creates an uphill battle in which Muslim or Arab-presenting communitites are expected to reduce the pejorative assumptions around them by voluntarily inviting police into their communities. 

PYG presenter Jenin, who also requested The Daily not use her last name, explained how such behavior creates a “bad Muslim–good Muslim binary” based in the notion of respectability politics.

“Respectability politics is the idea of presenting a political critique without showing any form of emotion, because as soon as you show emotion, you're automatically seen as irrational,” Jenin said. “I mean, you can't be reasoned with, because you can't talk about critiquing the power structure without getting emotional.”

Jenin said painting Islamophobia as a “misunderstanding” that can be solved by outreach to greater society simplifies and undermines its power.

“Imagine we're in a video game right now,” Jenin said. “We're finished with Level 3 and we have to destroy a huge monster, and this monster has a superpower: producing minions. We have to kill the minions, and all we're doing is killing all the minions. It's not being productive because their minions are endless. That's exactly how Islamophobia is — we're not actually tackling the source.”

Noting how most social movements borrow structural techniques from Civil Rights–era Black nationalist groups like the Black Panther Party, Jenin stressed the importance of looking at surveillance techniques used in that period as well. 

She and Jenna highlighted the similarities between the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counterintelligence Program used during the Cold War and the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism initiative.

In the 1960s, COINTELPRO advised agents to “neutralize” Black nationalist groups without due process for fear of their “propensity for violence.” According to Jenna and Jenin, CVE is the same program under a different name.

“These tactics we see are so prevalent, still present and still targeting the same people,” Jenna said. “(The targets) all challenge established beliefs on both domestic and international policy.”

According to the PYG presenters, COINTELPRO and CVE were successful because they forced powerful activist organizations to deal with internal power struggles following the assasination of a leader or amid an unnecessary legal fight. Both of these things, presenters said, drain human and monetary resources.

“The goal of surveillance isn't just to collect information,” Jenin said. “It is to use this information to disrupt political advocacy.”

At the conclusion of the presentation, Jenna and Jenin told attendees to organize and unify in order to counter the effects of surveillance. They said if the community is unified and activism is founded upon an idea rather than a person, the government’s tactics lose their power.

 Fysudeen said the need to mobilize is a particularly daunting task given the diversity present in the Muslim and Arab communities. However, she said it would be “amazing” if more of that type of cohesion were present in the activism occurring at the University of Michigan.

“(Activism on campus) is accessible if you know the right people in the right communities,” Fysudeen said. “I find that if you’re in a network where this kind of thing is common, this kind of activism is common. But if you’re not, you will be separate from it and it won’t matter to you.”