Thirteen years ago, Mosaab Sadeia accompanied his father to a mosque in Staten Island. He remembers it was during the winter, after the last Isha prayer when his father went to meet with the sheikh. Mosaab remembers grabbing a book from the bookshelf and sitting down down to read it. Then, a man he had never seen before in his close-knit community came up to him and asked him, “What do you think of Hamas?”
Sadeia was stunned. He was just nine years old.
The man was suspected of being an informant, although it was never confirmed. (Many never are.) And though it was Mosaab’s first encounter with surveillance, it wouldn’t be his last. It’s a common story among Muslims in New York — and in an age of oversharing, that experience has had a strange impact. Many, like Sadeia, have grown up cautious of saying too much online, wary of others like the man he met that day. A younger generation of Muslims has taken a more vocal approach, eager to break out of the fear of surveillance. But for both, the experience of social media is inseparable from the feeling of being watched — and the experience of being Muslim in New York City after 9/11.
Ainikki Riikonen, a researcher with the technology and national security program with the Center for a New American Security, says the conversation around Muslim surveillance is shifting, but only slowly. “Counterterrorism is a profession, it’s an expertise. People spend their lives getting Ph.D.’s and getting really specific knowledge on very specific groups and ways of network analysis,” Riikonen says. “Twenty years on, there’s no excuse to be doing this blanket surveillance and targeting people on the basis of religion. There’s absolutely no excuse.”
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