Surveillance of Muslims in the US is just the tip of the iceberg. What's behind the FBI and Homeland Security's push to find informants in Muslim communities? More importantly, what's next for Muslim minorities as they confront Islamophobia?

“We know our community is full of informants,” confides Mohammed A. of Hamtramck, Michigan, the first Muslim-majority city in the United States. 

“There are many in our neighborhoods and deep in our mosques.”  

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, surveillance has been a harsh reality for Muslims in the United States, particularly in towns like Hamtramck, home to concentrated and dense Muslim populations. 

Beginning in 2011, the US government’s surveillance strategy of Muslims took a major turn. The electronic monitoring program initiated by the Bush administration through a far reaching network of wiretaps and bugs, was replaced by another model that made the most of human intelligence. Namely, getting Muslims to spy on fellow Muslims.  

The Obama Administration signed this program into law in 2011, dubbed the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) act, ushering in a new strategy for the domestic war on terror, built upon the key assumption that Islam was linked to “homegrown radicalisation.”

This form of state-sponsored Islamophobia purports that any Muslim who exercises their religious identity in conservative ways, expresses views critical of American domestic and foreign policy, and maintains close ties with family or entities in Muslim-majority nations may be inclined towards radicalism.

Since its formal inception by the Obama Administration, the CVE Act has given the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sweeping powers, considerable resources, manpower and the necessary political will to focus almost exclusively on Muslims and Muslim communities.

A large part of this is involves developing on-the-ground informants and spies at the very heart of Muslim communities such as Hamtramck, Michigan, and in the places they use to congregate, worship, learn and live.

The program is currently operational under the Trump Administration, with Muslim Americans—and the scarce few aware of this ominous form of structural Islamophobia—dreading what comes next.   

Preying on ignorance                                                                 

The very communities where CVE is in place know little, or next to nothing, about the program. 

While Muslims in the US, particularly those who live in communities heavily populated by Muslims, take it is a given fact that surveillance pervades every part of their life's routine, their knowledge of CVE is very limited. 

In fact, FBI agents and local law enforcement, tasked with developing spies and informants within Muslim communities inside their jurisdictions, exploit this ignorance.  

This is particularly inside Muslim communities with demographics consisting of immigrants, recent immigrants, and poor and working class people – the very communities the FBI believes are at-risk for radicalisation and inherently possible of terrorism. These communities are disproportionate victims of CVE deployment.

Within the bounds of these communities, where Muslims generally hold firmly to their cultural traditions and religious piety, surveillance is most intense. Because these communities are already home to the struggles associated with poverty and unemployment, alongside threats of deportation and social vulnerability, law enforcement makes the most of these dire circumstances, and the Muslims they endanger, as fertile soil to recruit informants and spies. 

The less Muslims know about CVE, the better it is for the state. Especially within the national climate, the attention of these communities is fixated on the threat of privately-waged Islamophobia emboldened by the Trump administration, or standing policies such as the Muslim Ban – upheld by the US Supreme Court in June.  

Clear and conspicuous manifestations of Islamophobia that are explicit and fully out in the open hover above the heads of Muslim Americans everywhere, while CVE surveillance creeps into communities, unsuspected — causing even greater damage.

Islamophobia of the worst kind

The rise of Trump has shifted discussion of Islamophobia into the mainstream, with state and societal backlash against Muslims prevailing today as the central social issue. 

However, much of the popular discourse and media coverage on Islamophobia has focused heavily on Trump's rhetoric, reacting to brazen policies like the Muslim Ban or anti-Sharia legislation, or the sudden uptick in hate crimes against visible Muslim minorities and Islamic institutions. 

CVE surveillance—built upon the very baseline that Islam inspires radicalisation—is exempt from the broader discussions on Islamophobia, but may very well be its worst form.

In my book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, I analyse the destructive impact CVE policing has had on American cities, including Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and the metropolitan Washington DC area, where it was fully deployed. 

In Minneapolis, for instance, home to a large and concentrated Somali population, the FBI works in tandem with the Minneapolis Police Department to infiltrate high schools, mosques, and community centers, paying imams, students and even family members to keep tabs on youth in the community. 

Beyond compromising the religious, speech and association rights of Muslims subject to investigations, CVE surveillance divides Muslim communities, turning classmates against classmates, imams against their mosque's congregants, and family members against their loved ones.  

Abdi Warsame, a City Council member for the 6th Ward in Minneapolis, who intimately understands the destructive impact of CVE within his community, echoed, “CVE divides our communities and perpetuates Islamophobia — it does not make us safer.”

Even more than “perpetuating Islamophobia,” we must fully come to the conclusion that CVE is Islamophobia. 

It's a virulent form of Islam-specific xenophobia wielded strategically by the FBI, local law enforcement, and the Trump administration to keeps tabs on Muslims in the very spaces and places they deem most private, and most sacred.  

Only by framing CVE surveillance as Islamophobia can it be recognised as part of an existing policy program, enabling Muslim Americans to  begin the fight against it.  

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