A shout out to those coming of age under surveillance

How can I meet new people, grow within my community and career, when the only thing I can think about is, Could someone within my close circle of trust be an informant?

I don’t remember the first time I played the Muslim-American edition of Mafia: the game where me and [insert loved one] took turns guessing who in our Muslim community had, would, or was generally interested in killing us. Unlike the favorite freshmen dorm pastime, the mafia and the undercover police this time were one and the same, the townspeople could only be Muslim, and the game never really ended because it was real life.

Most of the time when I mention to folks that “Guess the Informant!” is an actual *game* Muslim kids actually grew up *playing,* I hear awkward laughs. I get eye rolls that suggest I’m exaggerating. I get pursed lips that say ‘Such paranoia! Poor baby’. 

These responses have always shown me both how clueless most Americans—yes even, progressive Americans—are about the era of state surveillance, but also the frustratingly little attention that’s been given to its impact on young Muslim communities.

This is why seeing Jeanne Theohairis’ piece in The Intercept today, “I Feel Like a Despited Insect”: Coming of Age Under Surveillance in New York” was such welcome (and validating) national coverage. Theoharis, who teaches at Brooklyn College, details the chilling impact on young Muslim women—many of them, her students—finding out one of their Muslim Student Association members was an undercover cop for the NYPD:

“They report repeated panic attacks, pervasive apprehension, and trouble concentrating. ‘If you let it, it’s enough to make you feel like you are losing your mind,’ one former student observed. ‘There is no one who will call out the predatory targeting of you and your peers because as soon as you say the word ‘terrorist,’ the conversation is over.’ Some feel guilty for not confronting Mel years earlier. And after the initial shock, a blanket of sadness has set in; the relentlessness of surveillance, as Fatima put it, means ‘you will never belong, my children will never belong.’

Students report carrying mental rolodexes, worrying about which friends, loved ones, or romantic interests might be an informant or a cop. ‘I created an ever-growing list of possible spies, which included everyone from classmates, professors, neighbors, friends, and even family members,’ another former student wrote to me, describing her constant anxiety that it was only a ‘matter of days’ before she too might be imprisoned on false terror charges.

As Theoharis points out, these are not exceptional events. This is consistent with the NYPD, FBI and the American government’s political targeting of Muslim communities after 9/11, and part and parcel of the longer American value of surveilling, disrupting, and degrading the civil rights of communities that our state labels as a “threat” to national “safety” (think about Black Power and antiwar organizing on campus in the 1960s and 1970s—and today). As Theoharis notes, “Whose safety is actually being prioritized when the invasive nature of the NYPD’s surveillance apparatus is criminalizing an entire faith-based community?”

So here’s a special s/o to those whose safety never gets prioritized: a shout out to the young Muslims who have taped their webcams because they’re scared of undressing with surveillance possibly watching. Who jokingly say “waddup” to the FBI when they’re on the phone with their mom or significant other. Who worry about their dad flying to visit because they think he might disappear between a connecting flights.  Who don’t get super fucking angry at the world, but stick to feeling “mildly annoyed” because who knows—they might get pinned with fake terror charges. A shout out to all of you: we hear you, we love you, and we’re fighting back.

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Mahroh is a community organizer and law student who believes in building a world where black and brown women and our communities are able to live free of violence. Prior to law school, Mahroh was the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence and a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research addresses the ways militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally.

Mahroh is currently at Harvard Law School, organizing against state and gender-based violence.

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