The Feeling of Being Watched: Discussion Reflections

November 17, 2020
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By Yara Younis

As part of Islamic History Month 2020, our team at the SFU Centre of Comparative Studies wanted to create a space to unpack what it means to be surveilled in our communities. We organized a special screening and discussion of Assia Bandaoui’s The Feeling of Being Watched, a documentary that unravels long-hidden truths of the FBIs’ surveillance operations on Muslim-American neighborhoods and in her hometown of Bridgeview, Illinois. 

Our guest speakers, Nasir Almasri, Nada Elmasry, and Laura Gaaysiigad Cuthbert, shared their own experiences from Muslim and Indigenous perspectives, when discussing the main themes of the documentary. Nasir is a Palestinian-American activist with strong ties to Bridgeview. Nada is a Palestinian-Canadian familiar with Canada’s surveillance operations on Muslim communities, and Laura, from the sands of Brunette Creek in New Westminster, is a community organizer who shed light on the surveillance of Indigenous communities in Canada.

Throughout the discussion, it became apparent to me that surveillance operations intentionally target racialized groups and communities. To say that a group is racialized means to acknowledge the “processes of racialization” (Yee, 2008) that attribute generalized racial meaning to a group’s identity in relation to the social structures and institutional systems they live in. When a group is racialized, it is assumed that they are on the lower end of a social hierarchy in a system based on racial inequities (Yee, 2008). That said, the lives of racialized people in North America, and around the world, have become a valuable commodity for State institutions: information is collected about you and is used against you through targeting and control by State governments. 

The transnational expansion of surveillance networks--from tech companies like Google and Apple, who sell personal data to intra-governmental intelligence partnerships-- shows how being Muslim and Indigenous is perceived as a threat. 

In Colonizing Surveillance Craig Proulx, a Métis associate professor at St. Thomas University who specializes in Indigenous justice issues, argues that the Canadian State actively constructs Indigenous peoples  as “potential insurgents, terrorists, and criminals collectively or individually threatening the security of the State.” The framework of security policies selectively focuses on issues that frame Indigenous lives as a threat. 

In the case of Muslim communities, a similar security strategy is enacted by the State through institutional policies, unnannounced visits, and political and media discourse (Ahmad, 2019). A consequence of these security strategies on communities is the act of self-policing. Even though we might reason saying “I haven’t done anything wrong” (a statement repeated throughout the event discussion), this line of reasoning is problematic as it allows the State to manufacture consent when it comes to pervasive probing mechanisms guised as friendly support. These dynamics are portrayed in Boundaoui’s documentary, and are mirrored in the lived experiences of several communities in Canada and beyond.

Just a day before our event, I had a telling experience that revealed to me the intricate nature of the experience of surveillance. I had posted a tweet denouncing the news about visa-free travel between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. My tweet did not come from a place of rage or shock. Instead, it was a statement I made for others to know exactly where I stand on the matter, especially in light of having intimately known the covert security and intelligence activities shared between the two states for many years prior to apparently publicly normalizing relations. 

Shortly after posting the tweet, I received a call from a friend based in Dubai who unleashed a barrage of concerning questions: “What are you doing? Aren’t you scared? Don’t you have family here?” Even though the message was well intended, the questions posed positioned me as the problem, despite the fact that we both knew that the real problem the UAE, which like most countries was always watching, whether I lived there or not.

That the freedom of expression is a right granted to everyone equally, is a common misconception. The freedom to simply express support or opposition for political, social, and cultural events, is not a right but a privilege. It is a privilege that I have gained in Canada, and one that is regularly denied to Canada’s Indigenous communities in their fight for self-determination. Thinking, speaking and criticizing without limitations is as foreign to me as an unlearned language. It feels unnatural. Where I come from, it is ingrained in one’s being to play it safe and place blind trust in the State because there is a perceived danger in not being cooperative. In this way, our lives become constrained by a system designed to limit our freedoms to think, dream, and pursue. Our worlds shrink and their knowledge of us grows and grows as it minimizes our ability to imagine. 

What it means to be watched by the State is affected by a long history of colonization and State establishment that impact many racialized groups. Many of us are complicit in a variety of ways, especially as settlers on Indigenous lands. We reinforce harmful systemic assumptions about specific racial groups, including our own (Crosby & Monaghan, 2018). Like Nasir, who shared how his family advised him to stay out of politics and keep his head down, I am constantly told to be less vocal, to be careful because of my career and my choice to be politically engaged. 

I disagree. Our discussion asserted my sentiments and highlighted the need to have even more open conversations in order to abolish the stigma surrounding the very real and traumatic experiences of surveillance operations. The experiences of being visited by State authorities in front of your colleagues, friends, or neighbors, can be traumatizing, creating unwarranted shame (Ahmad, 2019). In the process of blaming each other and creating distances, communities fall apart. The constant feeling that State agencies are surveilling you can create high levels of anxiety, which also distract from issues of community-building (Ahmad, 2019). We breed mistrust with self-policing and community stigma. We should instead be working together towards solidarity and an action-plan to prevent the normalization of surveillance operations.

When news spreads that someone in our social circles is being approached by intelligence services, such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the default reaction is to cut ties with that person or to ask them what they did wrong. This reinforces a false sense of entrapment and a belief system in which the immediate assumption is that we, the targeted group, are violent, and the State is just doing its job by gathering evidence to back up that conclusion. This explains the emphasis the State and the community place on what we should look like and how we should behave to look non-threatening, normal, and safe, all of which feed into predetermined notions (Ahmad, 2019). 

During the discussion, one participant asked,  when faced with challenges that infringe on our rights and humanity “why do we just give up?”, instead of strengthening our community bonds. I do not think it is that simple. Many racialized communities are exhausted by the time and energy they spent worrying. These worries unfortunately create psychological and physical symptoms, in addition to the challenges and struggles accompanying the immigrant experience (Hutchinson, 2018). 

Targeted communities question the extent to which their interactions with State authorities are coincidental. According to Nasir “the events in our minds tend to playout over and over when understood from the eyes of the surveilled.” Once you are aware of being watched, surveillance activities can lead to paranoia. This feeling is amplified by an absence of critical information, especially when it comes to knowing what your rights are and what State authorities are doing.  

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018) Shoshana Zuboff explores the ways in which tech giants use digital knowledge to accumulate and aid State intelligence. Reflecting on these practices, Nasir points to the ways in which “surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. Surveillance capitalism knows everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us.” 

These realities have several implications for targeted communities. Beyond their obvious unethical privacy violations, it becomes easier for authorities to manipulate communities by using information asymmetry as a tool of oppression and fear. In fact, a 2014 study by Lightfoot and Wisniewski argues that information asymmetries are deliberate to maintain dominant power relationships. Common techniques used to foster knowledge imbalances include “media, educational systems, legal and organizational structures, information networks, and surveillance.” Not only does this diminish transparency and trust between the public and the State, it also diminished it within and across communities. 

In reflecting on these themes, Nada points to Tugba Basaran’s work on “Security, Law, Borders: Spaces of Exclusion” (2008), which explores how liberal states instrumentalize policing powers to exclude people from legal rights and procedures, creating “spaces of exclusion” where the law stops in the name of national security when it comes to targeted populations. 

I think of the times I was ‘randomly’ stopped at the airport, denied a visa, or received a casual phone call asking what I was up to working with refugees and migrants. I was surprised to learn that in Canada citizens and residents have the right to challenge probing efforts under the Access to Information act. In fact, you can find out what information is being collected about you by State agencies. This knowledge, however, presents a downside:  it can feel intimidating and risky, and create anxieties of being a target.

When I used to hear the term “surveillance state,” I would often dissociate it from my own experiences of growing up in the UAE. The event we held at CCMS, however, made me question the different ways I was, and continue to be, surveilled. Can I confidently declare that Canada has not been surveilling me as a Muslim and a Palestinian refugee? 

The day after “The Feeling of Being Watched” event, I asked my parents about their thoughts on State surveillance operations. It was the first time we had ever talked about it. I was surprised to see the ease at which they justified such operations, saying it was for everyone’s safety, while also condemning France’s growing hostility towards its Muslim communities in the same breath. Balancing such contradictory perspectives can be challenging. I feel torn when navigating between my own values as an individual and the need to appease family members who are not easily swayed from their opinions, especially when they have faced an unspeakable level of injustice and trauma in their own lives. For me it is about understanding why they think the way they do by having more open discussions with one another. 

An implicit expectation demands of us to always prove that we are good enough in exchange for basic safety and rights. Not only is this a misleading double standard, but it emphasizes the othering of racialized people in a given space, particularly in the North American context. 

A 2016 study by Elizabeth Stoycheff demonstrates the ways in which mass surveillance silences minority opinions. The study finds how participants from minority groups behave differently when they are being watched. It leads to minorities not doing things and self-censoring in public spaces (Stoycheff, 2016). Another major consequence of being surveilled is the effect it has on domestic violence cases. There is a compounded fear in calling the police or filing a report, which is perceived as harming the family even further (Ahmadzai, 2015). 

In reality, the structures upholding intertwined surveillance systems are a consequence of colonization and constitute a form of control on “Others” by indirectly and intentionally changing the behavior of the targeted communities through security tactics. In our discussion, we agreed that these structures are what need changing. Among the participants’ suggested steps toward change, the main one was breaking the silence around being surveilled. A non-Indigenous and non-Muslim participant reflected on the shock of the extent to which Muslim and Indigenous communities were surveilled when she first found out. Raising awareness is an essential next step to uphold solidarity within and across Indigenous and Muslim communities, which is why we created this event to begin with. Indeed, living in a “free” and “liberal” context offers the luxuries of safety and opportunity for many people, where one’s voice matters, or should matter. But, what does it mean to be free while being surveilled? And who among us gets to be really free? It is apparent that freedom comes with conditions. Yes, you too can be free, as long as you obey.

Works Cited: 

Ahmad, F. (2019). Securitization and the Muslim Community in Canada. Retrieved from https://www.broadbentinstitute.ca/atlast_atweet/securitization_and_the_muslim_community_in_canada

Ahmadzai, M. (2015). A study on visible minority immigrant women's experiences with domestic violence.

Basaran, T. (2008). Security, law, borders: spaces of exclusion. International Political Sociology, 2(4), 339-354.

Crosby, A. & Monaghan, J. (2018). Canada’s surveillance regime targets Indigenous peoples. Retrieved from https://ricochet.media/en/2289/canadas-surveillance-regime-targets-indigenous-peoples

Hutchinson, D. L. (2008). Racial exhaustion. Wash. UL Rev., 86, 917.

Imai, S. (2009). Indigenous self-determination and the state. Indigenous Peoples and the Law: Comparative and Critical Perspectives.

Lightfoot, G., & Wisniewski, T. P. (2014). Information asymmetry and power in a surveillance society. Information and Organization, 24(4), 214-235.

Proulx, C. (2014). Colonizing Surveillance: Canada Constructs an Indigenous Terror Threat. Anthropologica, 56(1), 83-100. 

Stoycheff, E. (2016). Under surveillance: Examining Facebook’s spiral of silence effects in the wake of NSA internet monitoring. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 93(2), 296-311.

Yee, J. (2008). Racialization. In R. T. Schaefer (Ed.), Encyclopedia of race, ethnicity, and society (Vol. 1, pp. 1111-1111). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. 

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power: Barack Obama's Books of 2019. Profile Books.