Surveillance, discrimination stifling Muslim community

Syed Rizvi

Editor’s Note: Rizvi is an active member of all seven Muslim student organizations on campus, serving as an officer for United Muslims Relief and as founder and chairman of Texas Muslim Council.

Three weeks ago, the New York City Police Department curtailed its surveillance program that devoted a special task force to surveil Muslims and their communities. This program was criticized for its indiscriminate surveillance of Muslims. The news of NYPD’s decision to curtail its surveillance program was commended by the general public; however, the Muslim community has little reason to celebrate since the police will continue the use of “undercover informants” to gather intelligence on Muslims deemed worthy of investigation. This breach of privacy in spaces including mosques, an intimate place of prayer for Muslims, is just another example of why fear has become commonplace in the Muslim community, including the community here at UT.

I am a Muslim third-year at the UT, and through my time here and active engagement with the Muslim community I have learned that there is an undeniable fear of being politically active. Speaking from my own experience, my father has on several occasions advised me to abstain from raising legitimate political concerns. While my father urges me against such activism, I am lucky that he does not stop me  probably because he does not have the heart to stop something he believes in as well. My experience reflects what I understand as the norm for the Muslim community. The heart of this fear is the breach of privacy in our community.

The importance of privacy is articulated through Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs where Maslow puts safety and security as one of the basic needs. Safety and security are undermined when privacy is violated  ironic given that increased surveillance is supposed to increase them both. Because of that, privacy has become a popular topic of discussion for all Americans, especially considering the recent leaks of the once-secret NSA surveillance program dubbed PRISM. In fact, according to Gallup, 53 percent of adults disapprove of the government’s surveillance program and only 10 percent have no opinion. However, the popular discourse tends to leave out the discriminatory targeting of Muslim Americans. It is this specific targeting of the Muslim community that has introduced fear into the community.

In March, Edward Snowden spoke via webcam at the annual South By Southwest Festival hosted here in Austin. His talk highlighted the issue of privacy and PRISM, but it did not address the Muslim community’s marginalization in these breaches of privacy. Shortly after 9/11, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the federal government’s power to surveil suspected terrorists. What followed were policies and legislation that target Arab and Muslim citizens. In response, writes Arun Kundnani in “The Muslims Are Coming,” national Muslim organizations had to decide whether to assimilate or to take on the “movement-building tradition of black civil rights” in order to protest the violations of their rights. They chose to follow the “strategy of declaring one’s loyalty to America and presenting Muslims as model citizens.” Again, fear was the major barrier.

Like those Muslim organizations, Muslims here at UT are afraid to speak out. According to Veneza Bremner, senior police officer of the Public Information Office, the Austin Police Department does not have a surveillance program that specifically targets any one community. There may be surveillance programs based on investigative interests, but those details cannot divulged. This does not quell the fears of Muslims, however, especially when U.S. Representative Peter King (R-NY), former Chairman and current member of the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, and people like him say that surveillance of Muslims should increase. Muslims’ fears are further validated when our own community here in Austin reinforces such racism. For example, two years ago when a bomb threat was issued for the UT campus, the caller was described as having a “Middle Eastern” accent. This turned out to be false. Furthermore, such a characterization is impossible considering that there is no one set accent for the Middle East, a region of many languages.

We should note that fear has become a vicious cycle. Terrorists sought to instill fear in the hearts and minds of Americans on 9/11. In the wake of that horrific day, Americans passed and instituted a complicated system of surveillance and discrimination, thereby introducing fear into the Muslim community. In short, fear has given into fear; which is why as Longhorns, staying true to the motto “What Starts Here Changes The World,” we have an obligation and responsibility to break this cycle.

With this call to action, it is imperative to recognize that the gravity of this situation, the continued discrimination and surveillance programs, urges haste, but we can also find hope in what we have accomplished thus far. Students here at UT are starting to engage with issues that matter, and the Muslim Community is making strides in advancing UT and, more generally, America. During Islam Awareness Week at UT, Muslim organizations on campus held events to combat ignorance, one of the root causes of fear. The event on Sharia Law, or Islamic Law, aimed to clarify one of the religion's most misunderstood concepts. Nationally, the Council on American-Islamic Relations continues to work with law enforcement and legislatures on mutual understanding. These are just a few examples which show that by working together, Muslims and non-Muslims can break down the barriers of fear between them and establish in their place a new relationship built on trust. 

Correction: An earlier version of this column's headline was misleading about the connection between surveillance programs and the UT Muslim community. The surveillance program mentioned is a project of the New York City Police Department, not the Austin Police Department.