Pursuing A People's Exegesis: An Islam Against Surveillance

"For Muslims in the occupied Americas today, surveillance is the issue of our time- the mechanisms of surveillance, our Pharoah and our Abu-Lahab, and our Tafsir to the Qur’an, our call to action."

📝 Monthly Round-Up

Muslim Activists Say It’s Time to Join Black Lives Matter Calls to Reform Law Enforcement, Amal Ahmed —We don’t do reform in this house but we also don’t judge a whole article by the headline. Ahmed’s article offers a rundown of CVE programming and many masajid’s cooperation with law enforcement.

TikTok and the Evolution of Digital Blackface, Jason Parham — TikTok has been the topic of much discourse, including questionable calls to ban the app from U.S. politicians. But in Wired’s latest cover story, Parham avoids all that hysteria to get to TikTok’s real ugly underbelly: digital Blackface.

Talib Kweli’s Harassment Campaign Shows How Unprotected Black Women Are Online and Off, Ashley Reese — We all watched Talib Kweli’s harassment campaign against Maya Moody during which Twitter was mostly zero help. Is that a surprise, though? As Reese’s article illustrates, Black women have always been fair game.

My interest in surveillance is partially driven by who I am as a person. That is, being Black, being Muslim, and being a former organizer. Sometimes, I like to joke that converting to Islam while actively organizing against the police — in Minneapolis, nonetheless — ensured my placement on at least a couple DHS lists, give or take.

On some level, people must like what I talk about and how I talk about it. You’re reading, right? But I feel there is a misunderstanding regarding how I approach surveillance and Islam. I do not only engage surveillance as it relates to Muslims, the people, as if surveillance is an issue somehow separate from Islam, the theology. To start, that distinction isn’t as neat as people want it to be. And besides, I’ve been frank about how I see and engage with Islam as a religion for the oppressed.

Anytime I speak against surveillance, I am incorporating Islam into what I do. Maybe I don’t always quote the Qur’an or hadith — mostly because my Arabic is complete shit. Nonetheless, I engage Islam through an anti-surveillance lens, just as I engage anti-surveillance work through Islam, and I am not alone. So for this edition of NAZAR, I invited Muslims to partake in what I’m calling a people’s exegesis — a term I’m purposefully leaving undefined because each of the people below have their own ideas of what it means.

Now, I know that an Islam explicitly against surveillance and a push for a people’s exegesis didn’t begin with NAZAR. That’s fine. I’d be sad if it did.

That being said, I hope that it doesn’t end here, either.

Sumaiya Zama, Greater Boston Area

The antithesis to surveillance, is not to be unwatched- but to be in community.

I am a local organizer and civil rights activist from the Greater Boston area. I’m an incoming first year M.A. student in Islamic Studies at Columbia and Aga Khan University where I plan to pursue my passion of reading Islamic texts as liberation theology while learning from scholars to further develop its theory and praxis.

The Word of God has always served as a guide to understanding and elevating the material conditions of the people to which the Word is delivered. The Word is a mirror, when held up to the faces of the people, reveals truths about empire, power, wealth, and what it means to interact with these entities while living in the light of Divine Justice. Be it the Tawrat for the Bani Israel, the Injeel for the followers if Isa (as), or the Qur’an for Muslims, vital to the text is the way in which it lives outside of the hearts and minds of people and elevates the material conditions of those that read it.

From the very birth of the American empire, Muslims have served as human vessels for the collective trauma of state surveillance, as seen from the surveillance of enslaved Black Muslims; through the subsequent surveillance of the Nation of Islam in the 1960s; up until the current digital surveillance of young Muslim activists. Muslims are inherently at odds with an empire that seeks to subject and assimilate its citizens into white supremacy, and surveillance of the Muslim subject has been the primary means through which that subjugation is orchestrated both domestically and globally. For Muslims in the occupied Americas today, surveillance is the issue of our time- the mechanisms of surveillance, our Pharoah and our Abu-Lahab, and our Tafsir to the Qur’an, our call to action.

The antithesis to surveillance, is not to be unwatched- but to be in community. The sole purpose of surveillance is community disruption, the toppling of our elders and the maiming of our youth, a practice that is, at its core, anti-Islamic. The byproduct of surveillance is fear and inactivity. It is the irreversible loss of all mobility, spiritual, physical, and political. Approaching Islamic texts with an anti-surveillance lens means centering all parts of our community and asking the questions, who is policing? And who is being policed?

To be Muslim and to participate in the global fight for justice are not mutually exclusive pursuits for me. Islam for me has always been undoubtedly married with the idea that the interrogation of justice and power was a Divine command made evident through scripture: “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves, or parents, and relatives” [Qur’an, 4:135]. Standing for justice does not begin nor does it end with the personal and interpersonal nor the systemic and structural. Justice is all encompassing of these four spheres- I know that my hands, my heart, and my tongue are all held accountable for my action and inaction.

Ayesha Nasir, Canada

Reading the Quran through an anti-surveillance lens is not only the need of the future but it’s an active requirement.

The fact that we are all affected by both mass and targeted surveillance - some of us more than others - is what I think about a lot as a Muslim woman. It’s a reality with as physical of a presence in my life as a surveillance drone would have were I of those who are forced to live under its shadow.

Muslims believe that privacy is a default in Islam. In a hadith attributed to Abdur Rahman ibn Awf, he recalls accompanying Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab as the latter patrolled the city at night. On one such patrol, Umar saw a lamp lit in the house and heard loud voices coming from inside. He grabbed Abdur Rahman’s hand and asked him if he knew whose home it was. When his companion said no, Umar named the owner and said the inhabitants of the house were drinking. “What do you think?” Umar asked.

Abdur Rahman replied, in an answer that I would like etched in the halls of every intelligence agency claiming to be run on Muslim principle, “Indeed, I think we have done what Allah has prohibited for us. Allah Almighty said, ‘Do not spy,’ (49:12) and we have spied on them.” Hearing this, Umar turned around and walked away from the house. [Source: al-Mustadrak 8198]

In our quest to understand the Quran, we are using platforms that are not entirely private. Rather than accepting the fatalistic view that the surveillance apparatus is too strong to be resisted, we need to return to the books and re-annotate them in order to equip ourselves with the language we need to talk about what we’re afraid of.

When we were being taught journalism ethics in Pakistan, an instructor pulled up her slideshow and began with the verse from the 49th chapter of the Quran: “Believers, avoid making too many assumptions- some assumptions are sinful- and do not spy on one another or speak ill of people behind their backs: would any of you like to eat the flesh of your dead brother? No, you would hate it. So be mindful of God: God is ever relenting, most merciful.”

Even if we feel that we “have nothing to hide”, there are many in the Ummah whose race, activism, class, and political beliefs cause them to be hounded by the states they are in. My elders migrated from India to Pakistan. From among those who stayed behind in India, there are still many who are terrified of even placing a phone call to their family in Pakistan. The fear of surveillance is very real for them - it even stops me from enjoying any existing or new digital interaction.

Our lack of unease and wariness with regards to technological surveillance reeks of our privilege. Digital literacy is also essential - for many of us, being physically followed on a street is a cause for alarm but it is business as usual if what we’re streaming, reading, and photographing is being observed by a government or advertiser.

Reading the Quran through an anti-surveillance lens is not only the need of the future but it’s an active requirement. When we let our hijabs fall in private and intimate spaces, the assumption is that we will not be photographed without our informed consent and that if we are, our pictures will not be circulated. In 2013, the NSA leaks by whistle-blower Edward Snowden showed that in the modern security state does not respect such privacy. He shared how NSA employees would consider it “a fringe benefit of a surveillance position” to access a “intimate nude photo of someone in a sexually compromising situation”.

Snowden added: “So what do they do? They turn around in their chair and show a coworker who says, 'Hey that's great. Send that to Bill down the way.' Then Bill sends it to George, who sends it to Tom.” I don’t want any Bill, George or Tom looking at my pictures. If Bilal, Gulsher, and Talha should not have access to it despite being my brothers in Islam - what makes the NSA so special?

I seek refuge in Allah from the surveillance state, in the words of Maryam (peace be upon her): ‘I seek the Lord of Mercy’s protection against you: if you have any fear of Him [do not approach]!’ (19:18)

Amaal Y. Abdul-Malik, Washington D.C.

Whether real or perceived, surveillance invasively affects an individual down to the way they relate to and perceive themselves, other people, God, worship, religious texts, and theological perspectives.

My research interests center on the psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Black Liberation Theology, women in ministry, and how to rethink the mosque as a grounding, supportive, and inclusive space of holistic enrichment, safety, and self-sufficiency for adherents (and the surrounding community) living within a secular society. I am a first-generation Black Muslim woman with a Deep South Christian upbringing and I use she/her pronouns.

I believe “a people’s exegesis” means whatever message is being shared must be presented in culturally-appropriate ways to help people understand how to apply the information in their daily lives. There must be salient points of cultural relativity, the message cannot simply be shared as-is. It cannot be expected for the people to have an accurate, fully-digested understanding when the message hasn’t been presented in a way that considers lived experiences and how these experiences affect self-awareness and worldview. Furthermore, this translating of the message must help the listener be able to “see” examples of the message in recollections of their lived experiences. If the listener cannot hear a statement and then immediately see an applicable experience in their minds that makes them nod with acknowledgment, the translation method is insufficient because it is not triggering lived cultural moments or experiences. In this way, the message hasn’t been made real to the listener. And this results in the message being tuned out.

When we specifically seek to address surveillance from a theological standpoint, we must keep in mind the religious and ethnic cultural experiences of the people to whom we are speaking. Are we speaking to a group of people who have been culturally ‘othered’ and subjugated by a theologically-informed system of surveillance and control from their birth to death? Are we speaking to a group of people who have experienced inconveniences of state-sanctioned surveillance due to their religious beliefs? Or are we speaking to a group of people who exist within a state of surveillance under all the aforementioned factors? With each social association, the message must be translated to liberate the oppressed from the effects of state-sanctioned, theologically-based, culturally-mandated surveillance in their daily lives.

Whether real or perceived, surveillance invasively affects an individual down to the way they relate to and perceive themselves, other people, God, worship, religious texts, and theological perspectives. All of the Abrahamic faiths have a similar “concept of a watching deity”. As a result, Eric Stoddart, author of Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society, makes a very good point concerning how the concept of “divine surveillance” can affect a person’s perception of state surveillance, stating:

“It might be that particular beliefs in divine surveillance sharpen or blunt people’s political responses to being targets. Perhaps a failure to perceive acute religious sensitivities around surveillance may exacerbate conflict when a more nuanced justification by the state might increase cooperation?”

An example that comes to mind of a blunted perspective is the acceptance and participation in the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program by many mosques down to the present day. Despite several warnings and public outcry, many mosques still believe participation in this program is a civil duty. It almost seems to be thought that, “If we openly support CVE programs and maintain close ties with politicians and Law Enforcement, then we will be heard, understood, and suffer less.” It is a great disillusionment that many Black Muslims have been trying to explain to non-Black Muslims for decades. And there is something to be said about the presence of what seems to be a strong aversiveness by many Muslim communities concerning the discussion of and engaging in self-regulation and self-policing. Allaah advised Muhammad, sallallaahu ’alayhi was sallam, in Surah ad-Dukkaan (The Smoke), ayah 59:

“So watch, [O Muhammad]; indeed, they are watching [for your end].”

To explain this ayah for the present-day, CVE programs and those over them are supporting the State in surveilling the Muslim community for the expressed purpose to gather information and create situations of entrapment which can be twisted and reformatted to damage, control, and imprison any of us. So if we were to translate this ayah into a plan of action, what would this look like? This question is the starting point that must be addressed soon if we are going to transform our communities into safe spaces of liberation and self-sufficiency.

These interviews have been lightly edited.

📌 Organizing

Muslim Justice League — How have I not shouted them out yet? If you want to remain updated on anti-CVE (and now, TVTP) work, this Boston-based organization is one to follow.

Vigilant Love — Like Muslim Justice League, Vigilant Love’s organizing consistently embodies anti-CVE / surveillance principles. Based in Los Angeles, they’re a good organization to follow if you want to know about Muslims on the West Coast.

MPower Change’s Policing Is Haram — This zine includes interviews from Muslims on abolition, a resource hub, and a much appreciated shoutout to NAZAR.