Monday, February 10, 2020

Surveillance, Secular Law and Reconstruction of Islam


Sadequee, Sharmin. Surveillance, Secular Law, and the Reconstruction of Islam in the United States. Surveillance & Society 16(4): 473-487 (2018).

Since the inception of its War on Terror, the United States government has embraced an approach that specifically targets practitioners of Islam. In addition to the broad and formalized profiling of Muslims carried out by legislators, law enforcement agencies, and other state officials, the government has adopted programs that seek to alter certain orthodoxies of Islam that the state suspects of fostering militancy. In effect the state has actively sought to “reform” the practices of Islam from within (Haddad et al. 2004; Haddad and Golson 2007; Mahmood 2006).

Through extensive surveillance activities, preemptive “terrorism” prosecutions, and ideologically oriented “counter-extremism” programs, the US government has made a concerted effort to interfere with the ways in which Muslims practice their faith and experience their lives. Symbols of “excessive Muslimness” have been officially identified as markers of potential criminality, and diasporic Muslim communities in the US have been subjected to widespread state infiltration and monitoring. These efforts are supposedly based on the desire to make the world safer, but a critical examination of state discourses reveals that a particular religious ideology underpins the state surveillance and the broader national security apparatus. I will describe in this paper how the inordinate amount of control, surveillance, and violence inflicted on the American Muslim community is actually grounded in Protestant ideologies incorporated into the law and drives state policies and actions.

Many advocates in the US civil liberties community have been resisting these security practices and what they regard as “unlawful surveillance.” The main argument presented in the civil liberties discourse is that post-9/11 security policies have been applied selectively toward Muslims, violating the rights enshrined in documents such as the US Constitution and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (e.g., Cole and Dempsey 2002; Huq 2011; Aziz 2014; Rovner and Theoharis 2012; Akbar 2013, 2015; Torres et al. 2015; Said 2015; Greenberg 2016; Patel and Koushik 2017; Kundnani 2014; Kundnani and Kumar 2015).

While some claim the state has racialized and excluded Muslims throughout US legal history based on Orientalism (Beydoun 2013, 2015, 2016a, 2016b, 2018), the prevalent view is that a lack of respect for individual rights is the fundamental basis and problem of the surveillance state. Primarily oriented toward analyzing new legislation, constitutional violations, and law enforcement strategies, this discourse maintains that re-instituting the pre-9/11 constitutional and human rights standards would end the unnecessary violations of rights. A closer examination of this discourse, however, shows that it does not fully address the reality of how surveillance and securitized measures have been enacted by the state using “lawful” means throughout US history based on the law’s definition of “religion.” The civil liberties attempt to restore earlier standards of US law does not provide a robust opposition against such longstanding legal and religious prejudice.

As I discuss in more detail below, the organized suspicion and surveillance of non-Protestant religions has been established in secular law and governance ever since the foundation of the modern Western state in seventeenth-century Europe. The control of religions and the state-sanctioned demarcation between “good” and “bad” religion have been a historically entrenched and consistent aspect of modern law and political systems in the West (Sullivan et al. 2011; Massad 2015; Asad 2003; Agrama 2012; Mahmood 2015; Hurd 2015).

While the control of religion and religious expressions is an aspect of many different societies worldwide, both current and historical, it needs to be clearly emphasized here in the US due to the normative claim of secular law as being separated from religion and the modern state’s conceits of “neutrality.”

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