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After decades of surveillance, Muslims struggle with how much to share online

The long shadow of NYPD surveillance after 9/11

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Illustration by Ori Toor

Thirteen years ago, Mosaab Sadeia accompanied his father to a mosque in Staten Island. He remembers it was during the winter, after the last Isha prayer when his father went to meet with the sheikh. Mosaab remembers grabbing a book from the bookshelf and sitting down down to read it. Then, a man he had never seen before in his close-knit community came up to him and asked him, “What do you think of Hamas?” 

Sadeia was stunned. He was just nine years old. 

The man was suspected of being an informant, although it was never confirmed. (Many never are.) And though it was Mosaab’s first encounter with surveillance, it wouldn’t be his last. It’s a common story among Muslims in New York — and in an age of oversharing, that experience has had a strange impact. Many, like Sadeia, have grown up cautious of saying too much online, wary of others like the man he met that day. A younger generation of Muslims has taken a more vocal approach, eager to break out of the fear of surveillance. But for both, the experience of social media is inseparable from the feeling of being watched — and the experience of being Muslim in New York City after 9/11.

Since 2002, the NYPD has religiously profiled and surveilled Muslims in New York City and neighboring states in an attempt to find “radicalization.” The NYPD Intelligence Division has mapped Muslim communities, conducted photo and video surveillance, recruited informants, tracked those who changed their names, and generated intelligence databases, according to the ACLU. In 2011, the Associated Press exposed the extent of the NYPD’s surveillance, determining that the NYPD “subjected entire neighborhoods to surveillance and scrutiny, often because of the ethnicity of the residents, not because of any accusations of crimes.” In 2012, the NYPD acknowledged in testimony that the Demographics Unit — its name for the internal group that carried out the surveillance — never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation in its years of operation.

In 2014, the Demographics Unit was discontinued, but it still casts a long shadow over the city’s Muslim communities. Sadeia is now outreach director at Majlis Ash-Shura: Islamic Leadership Council of New York, and remembers countless other incidents where he felt he was being surveilled. He has had random people ask him what his opinions on the caliphate are; what he thinks about Israel. Some of the people who asked him such questions were later confirmed by the mosques to be informants.

“It’s just someone who you have no idea who they are. You’ve never seen them and no one knows them and they come inside the masjid and start asking really weird questions. And you’re just sitting there not really sure how to react,” he told The Verge. “A normal person in the time we live in doesn’t ask questions like that.” 

“I don’t share many details of my personal life online. That’s just my way of protection.”

Even though he attended an Islamic school, Sadeia says he was always cautious of what he said in class. In college, he learned to “speak smart.” Even after graduating, he is not as active on social media as other people his age. 

“Even after I made a social media account, there was always the rule of ‘You don’t talk about politics on social media, you don’t talk about what happens in other countries on social media.’ Partly because of the US government and its history of entrapping people and lying about it,” he said. “I don’t share many details of my personal life online. That’s just my way of protection. Not that it isn’t out there and can’t be found, but why should I make it easier for someone who is tracking me?”

Ainikki Riikonen, a researcher with the technology and national security program with the Center for a New American Security, says the conversation around Muslim surveillance is shifting, but only slowly. “Counterterrorism is a profession, it’s an expertise. People spend their lives getting Ph.D.’s and getting really specific knowledge on very specific groups and ways of network analysis,” Riikonen says. “Twenty years on, there’s no excuse to be doing this blanket surveillance and targeting people on the basis of religion. There’s absolutely no excuse.”

“Why do we even bother pretending that we’re not fully Muslim? Why do we even bother not being our authentic selves?”

Twenty-four-year-old Haris Khan, a community organizer and a board member at the Muslim Democratic Club of New York (MDCNY), is much more active on social media than Sadeia. When Khan was a student at the City College of New York, he heard from many of his classmates about their experiences and how afraid they were. During his own time in college, he found himself shying away from his faith publicly in an effort to not be so different, to try to fit in, to assimilate. Eventually he realized there was no point in staying silent.

“Trying to fit in or being quiet about issues … Even if you do all of that, you still get called a terrorist,” Khan said. “So why do we even bother pretending that we’re not fully Muslim? Why do we even bother not being our authentic selves? They’re going to weaponize our identity either way. We might as well use it to organize and mobilize and speak our truth.” 

Khan works in the political field, and even that doesn’t stop him from showcasing his opinions publicly online. After the historic Al-Aqsa Mosque was raided in Jerusalem during Ramadan this year, Khan put up a tweet about how he was feeling. Soon enough, he had people tweeting back telling him he should be fired from his government job because, as he saw it, “I have a political opinion about ending the apartheid.” 

Still, he sees Twitter blowback as a small price to pay for having a space to share his views openly. “I am not afraid of being surveilled for my viewpoints, for my desire to see a just world,” Khan said. “They can copy and paste my tweets and my posts. It is what it is, that is who I am. That is what my family has taught me. That is what the community I belong to values.”

In 2012, Asad Dandia, the community programs coordinator at the Council on American-Islamic Relations New York (CAIR-NY), found out he had been surveilled for seven months by a person he had befriended. The informant traveled with him and his friends to events, lectures, and would even assist them in delivering food to homeless people every night. So when Dandia found out that his friend was an informant all along, the betrayal was palpable. He remembers anxiety attacks and a constant paranoia. The next year, he joined a class action lawsuit against the NYPD over surveillance of Muslims, resulting in new protections against the practice.

Ultimately, the experience made Dandia value his ties to the community even more. “We have to keep each other safe.” he said. “One of the intended effects of surveillance is to stifle your speech, to stifle your community activity, and essentially they want you to not be active. I always say do the reverse. Be as active and involved as possible, get in touch with organizations that can help you.”

“And do not cower,” he continued. “Because they want you to cower.”