In Surveillance’s Digital Age, Black Muslims Are Hit The Hardest

Our government surveillance culture has anti-black and anti-Islamic roots.

“Everywhere I look, Lord / I see FB eyes / Said every place I look, Lord / I find FB eyes / and I’m getting sick and tired of gover’ment spies” — Richard Wright, “FB Eye Blues” (1949)

I n an August 1967 document, former director J. Edgar Hoover described the purpose of the FBI’s COINTELPro program as “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.” A full twenty-two years before the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI would break into the bureau’s Media, Pennsylvania office and unlock COINTELPro’s secrets, Wright lamented the reality of what was becoming a staple condition in everyday Black life: government surveillance.

Although Wright’s poem discussed “FB eyes” lurking underneath his bed, the introduction of a digital age has helped usher in a shift of what surveillance entails. Stories like Amazon giving facial recognition tools to law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Orlando, and a Black activist being jailed for his Facebook statuses help to highlight surveillance’s new adaptability, both as a culture and an institution. However, our modern surveillance culture has the worst ramifications for Black Muslims. Black Muslims are used to being surveilled, and the knowledge that somehow you are being watched has found an uncomfortable, yet sometimes distant, residence in the Black Muslim’s minds. This distance allows for new surveillance methods to grow right beneath Black Muslim’s feet, trapping them where they stand before they even have a chance to move. It provides people with almost a false sense of calm that transforms itself into lowered security.

That mission to expose, disrupt, misdirect, and discredit the activities of Black movements, whatever their nature, has shaped the lives of Black people in America before the name surveillance was assigned to it. But for Black Muslims the discussion of surveillance is similarly evergreen, and even more pronounced. Black Muslims have been singled out as threats, long before things like the development of the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism program (an entrapment program that piloted in Minneapolis targeting Somali Muslim youth) or the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban. Tracing the position of Black Muslims through America’s history helps illustrate not only how elegantly surveillance can adjust itself with the times, but what that entails for the digital landscape Black Muslims navigate today.

That mission to expose, disrupt, misdirect, and discredit the activities of Black movements, whatever their nature, has shaped the lives of Black people in America before the name surveillance was assigned to it.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns facing Black Muslims is the ways in which current discourse erases the anti-Black roots of America’s Islamophobia. By ignoring how surveillance draws from policing enslaved African Muslims, Black Muslims are left ignored. Black and Muslim are viewed as two identities, instead of one whole that has always been cast as a threat to the American public.

Some of the earliest examples of the American government surveying Black people, with the intention of disrupting culture and movements for liberation, can be tracked throughout slavery. Although the period is not commonly conjured when Big Brother’s name is invoked, it’s important to trace institutions back to their earliest manifestations. During slavery, Islam had a significant presence; the estimate is that fifteen to thirty percent, or as many as 600,000 to 1.2 million, slaves in antebellum America were Muslim. And often, they were the ones being watched the most.

Within North America, prohibitions based on observances of Islam helped lay the roots for early manifestations of surveillance of Black Muslims. In efforts subtly influenced by tales of African Muslim revolts in Spain’s South American colonies, and an overall effort to control the religion of a people in order to conquer their spirit, American plantations cracked down on Islam amongst enslaved people. Documents from Sea Island, Georgia, known as the Ben Ali diary, detailed the ways enslaved African Muslims navigated observing their religion under constant watch. There are records of Muslims observing Ramadan, the month of fasting, which includes gathering to break meals and hold nightly prayers. But, for instance, in the Virginia Slave Code of 1723, the assembly of five slaves was considered an unlawful meeting; every state throughout the south had their own versions of this law, to put an end to religious practices and any hopes for rebellion.

Although laws forbidding gatherings of enslaved people did not specify Islam, the setup of religion throughout chattel slavery positioned Islam and Christianity at odds. Enslaved Africans were allowed to occasionally gather for the purpose of Christian ceremonies and attending worship. Religion existed as a tool to further control and surveil enslaved people. Plantation owners were unable to manipulate Islam, but their familiarity with Christianity presented them with unique opportunities.

The majority of enslaved Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity. But, for some, Christianity presented new avenues for their own, individual freedom. The National Museum of African American History and Culture notes how some enslaved Muslims, such as Lamina Kebe, pretended to become Christians in order to earn safe passage back to Africa under the guise of performing missionary work.

Targeting visible tenants of faith like dietary restrictions and prayer gave way to an early model of surveillance that continues to feed into the surveillance of Black Muslims today. Although that early method did not occur through FB eyes, the intention was the same. More than anything, COINTELPro existed to paint liberation movements as backwards, savage, and threats to the supposed moral superiority of the United States. Attempts to forcefully convert enslaved people or to otherwise stifle Islam arose from similar beliefs.

Targeting visible tenants of faith like dietary restrictions and prayer gave way to an early model of surveillance that continues to feed into the surveillance of Black Muslims today.

Now, though, surveillance methods have evolved with the times. “FB eyes” don’t need to linger under your bed when your laptops and phones sit prettily on top of it, after all. In political organizing, it’s standard practice to keep all electronic devices, particularly those with microphones, out of meeting spaces; but what about the times we forget that we can be watched? Agencies can infiltrate organizations today, like in the case of the Black Panthers and William O’Neal, but there’s now the assistance of greater technology. While there’s no need to immediately fear tech improvements, there does need to be more discussion about how a digital age has impacted surveillance, particularly for Black Muslims who sit at a heavily targeted intersection.

In 2008, the Combating Terrorism Center echoed this fear with their release of an article titled “Evaluating the Terrorist Threat Posed by African American Muslim Groups.” Although the article in question is now ten years old, it’s clear that the fear of Black Muslims is still deeply embedded into the American psyche. COINTELPro in the past targeted proto-Islamic institutions like the Nation of Islam. With the release of “The Hate That Hate Produced,” a 1958 documentary focusing on Black nationalism, Black Muslims gained now spotlight within the media. Black Muslims, as both a religious and political identity, were portrayed as a domestic threat.

It was fear around Black Muslims that dominated discussions. While some of the visibility would later be turned onto non-Black Muslims, that unease around the Black, the unknown, and the uncontrolled has never faded. Black Muslims were seen within their own politicized identity that the state perceived as one of the greatest threats of the time. An FBI report on the Nation of Islam described the group as promoting “fearless and outspoken anti-white, anti-Christian attitudes…As long as racial inequity continues, the militant and arrogant manner of cult members remains a potential threat of violent action.”

There, it can be seen how the state already formed the idea that Muslims would equal violent action of some kind. That fear was not only rooted in their Muslim identity, but equally promoted by their Blackness.

In October of 2017, a situation reminiscent of the COINTELPro spill occured: an FBI report warning of a domestic terror threat sweeping across the nation emerged. The threat? Black Identity Extremists. And while the concept of Black identity extremists, and thus the surveillance of activists, is not new, it’s important to note how social media is used as a method of surveillance within it.

In February of 2018, the ACLU gathered documents which revealed “the Boston Police Department’s Regional Intelligence Center used a social media surveillance system called Geofeedia to conduct online surveillance in 2014, 2015, and 2016.” The BDP used Geofeedia to monitor hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and words associated with political action, such as protest. In addition, the BDP monitored the use of various, basic Arabic words and the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter.

Immediately after 9/11, the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division created a secret spy division to spy on American Muslims in New York City and the surrounding area. Known as the Demographics Unit, they spied on residential, social, and business landscapes. Of the 28 “ancestries of interests” included, American Black Muslims were featured on the list. According to Black Perspectives, NYPD documents revealed that the NYPD Demographics Unit spied on Black mosque attendants and Black imams throughout New York and New Jersey. Methods of surveillance within the Demographics Unit were varied, given the numerous aspects of Muslim life being investigated. But, they included NYPD officers taking pictures and videos of people leaving and entering the mosques, recording the license plate numbers of worshippers attending services, and NYPD operated remotely controlled cameras on light poles aimed at mosques.

Noted as borrowing from the NYPD’s Demographics Unit, the Countering Violent Extremism program launched in Minneapolis and targeted Somali Muslim youth. The program notes the importance of digital surveillance within identifying signs of extremism. “Digital marketing experts have a sophisticated set of tools and methodologies that are proven to work,” writes a Department of Homeland Security document, “such as discovering a range of relevant information, creating, branding and marketing compelling content, and tracking real-world metrics to identify the most effective content for further distribution.”

These various methods of digital surveillance highlight the dangers of being Black and Muslim within digital space. Black Muslims do not simply face the consequences of anti-Blackness and Islamophobia, but they deal with a particular manifestation of the two that works as a single unit. Understanding anti-Black Islamophobia as its own form of violence allows for discourse to broaden itself, without falling into traps such as those painting Muslims as recently racialized victims of surveillance, when the beginnings of surveillance existed with the racialization of enslaved African Muslims.

Black Muslims do not simply face the consequences of anti-Blackness and Islamophobia, but they deal with a particular manifestation of the two that works as a single unit.

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me,” Muhammad Ali once said, a direct confrontation to America’s fear of Black Muslims, the unknown and uncontained. America has long feared Black Muslims, and has attempted to allay that fear by keeping close watch. Moving forward, understanding surveillance requires the conversation to focus on digital justice and keeping in mind how the internet serves as a new playground for “FB eyes” to explore.