In 2012, the Associated Press released a news report titled “NYPD monitored Muslim students all over Northeast.” In the article, we learn that the New York City police department have been surveilling Muslim professors, students, and student group activities as far as 300 miles away. Despite the fact that no one, neither students nor professors, have been accused of any wrongdoing, the AP discovered that the NYPD had placed undercover police officers at Muslim Student Associations (MSA) in colleges within the city limits, rightfully outraging faculty and student groups.
The article also demonstrated developing ideologies of Islamophobia across the American public sphere that Muslim youth subjects must face everyday. In one NYPD report mentioned by the AP, an undercover officer details traveling with 18 Muslim students from the City College of New York to upstate New York on a whitewater rafting trip. The officer noted the names of participants who were on the CCNY MSA board. While there was some initial outrage from Muslim students about the deep level of infiltration of student clubs and possibly breach of civil rights, there was also a deadening silence from non-Muslim students, faculty, and administration. This particular event provides a frame to my study which focused on Pakistani-origin Muslim youth, who are seen as threatening by the state and city officials, and which meant that their college social groups, such as their faith-based groups, were deemed worthy of state surveillance.
Between 2013 and 2015, I conducted my dissertation fieldwork with student members of one such MSA in New York City. The Muslim college students I worked with were ever cognizant and wary of their position in the national and global discourse on terrorism that implicates them as possible extremists simply by being visibly Muslim. Imagine what it must feel like to be constantly seen as a suspicious character in your Facebook exchanges, on your daily commute to your college campus, while you have lunch with friends on campus simply due to your faith. For my participants, the Associated Press news story was just another instantiation of the state’s surveillance of youth subjects as ‘potential’ extremists that need to be monitored for matters of national security and the concomitant trend of increasing Islamophobia and civil rights infringements across the country.
Student consciousness around surveillance extended to their social media usage. During fieldwork, I became particularly close to my female participants, especially since I too identify as a Muslim woman. Over pizza slices at a local restaurant, they shared their feelings of having their online lives observed. During one such discussion, Ismat, Maria, and Noreen (names have been changed) were discussing some unusual comments that they had read on their college MSA Facebook group page. Maria explained that a fellow MSA ‘brother’ was purportedly voicing support for anti-American sentiment. As I asked more questions, Noreen laughed, “He’s probably a NYPD informant!” When I asked how they were able to make that claim, the girls told me that sometimes a student who had been getting into trouble for drugs or some social misconduct issues will leave college for a short stint. When this person returns, he seems to have transformed into a more pious, or practicing, Muslim and then he is seen to make more provocative comments on social media, sometimes even sympathizing with extremist ideas. Noreen explained this was a red herring for them because everyone knew better than to make such comments publicly. She elaborated that they were, of course, aware of the surveillance program. “The only reason anyone would say that is if they are already working for the police.” Noreen’s comment indexed that not only was nothing suspicious happening in their social media page, but that surveillance programs were the instigators in these settings, creating a sense of anxiety and mistrust of the police among American Muslim youth populations. Rather than creating bridges with Muslim youth communities, such surveillance efforts may actually be counterproductive by alienating and disenfranchising youth.
My larger research project focuses on the multiple migratory trajectories, mobility imaginaries, and complex stories of aspiration and future dreams that do not fit with the stereotypic, and increasingly popular, representations of Muslim youth populations as needing to be surveilled. At the very least, the variegated stories that participants told me made obvious the heterogeneity of concerns held by Muslim youth subjects during a moment when the American media discourse consistently tries to represent the Muslim identity as a fixed, stable, and homogenous form, while simultaneously depicted as threatening or dangerous. The moment I shared here is but one window into understanding the complex negotiations and reflections that Muslim youth, like Ismat, Maria, and Noreen, make about their subject positions as they traverse college, home, and community contexts.
Mariam Durrani, PhD, is a cultural and linguistic anthropologist, and an incoming postdoctoral fellow (2016-2018) at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
For more on Islamophobia:
The Council on American-Islamic Relations offers http://www.islamophobia.org
The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University: http://bridge.georgetown.edu
The American Friends Services Committee: http://afsc.org/audio/muslims-america-and-islamophobia