Arab and Muslim communities react to NSA surveillance leak

Public phone in downtown Seattle. (Photo from Flickr by James Callan)

So the government’s been spying on us? Arab and Muslim activists in Seattle say they aren’t surprised.

When news broke earlier this month of the NSA’s vast, intrusive surveillance programs, U.S. citizens had the uncomfortable experience of suddenly feeling like suspects.

Even for the majority of Americans who say they approve of the program, it was hard not to rack your brain for things you had said in a phone call or email that might have caught the government’s attention.

But that feeling was nothing new for Arabs, Muslims, South Asians and other groups who have been subject to surveillance and prejudice since 9/11.

President Obama responded to the leak with assurances that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” Instead, he said, the surveillance only takes place when “they may identify potential leads with respect to people that might engage in terrorism.

Devon Abdallah, secretary of the Arab American Community Coalition (AACC), based here in Seattle, says that the kind of “reasonable suspicion” used to justify NSA surveillance often amounts to little more than racial profiling.

“The reality is, in our society there is so much institutional racism and subconscious stereotyping that people naturally are going to just pay more attention to someone with an Arab name,” Abdallah said. “I’ve seen the people they’ve deported that they’ve seen as ‘terrorists’ and I can guarantee you that they aren’t.”

National Security Agency headquarters, in Maryland. (Photo from Wikipedia)
National Security Agency headquarters, in Maryland. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Damon Shadid, a Lebanese-American attorney who also works with the AACC believes that if people knew the extent of the personal information that has been collected, they wouldn’t be as supportive of the program.

“The thing that disturbs me most…is this poll that is being cited all over the Internet that is saying 60% of Americans are okay with [the surveillance system]… the poll does not ask the right questions.” Shadid said. “If they asked the question ‘are you okay with your text messages being read,’ or ‘are you okay with the subject line of your email being read by the government’ the public would have a completely different response.”

“As a Lebanese-American who deals with international clients, all the sudden my metadata may be looked at closer. [That] could create suspicion on me where none should exist,” Shadid said. “And that goes for every Arab and Muslim in the community.”

Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95 percent of the world instead of 100 percent,” whistleblower Edward Snowden said in an online Q & A hosted by the Guardian last week, referring to assurances that only communications outside the US are being monitored. “Our founders did not write, ‘we hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.’”

Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Washington Chapter, agrees that the system is unconstitutional. But he’s more optimistic about the ultimate outcome of the leak.

“I hope the good that comes out of this are clear guidelines that regulate when and how the government can survey a person.” he said. “For too long we’ve had unconstitutional surveillance. We want to make sure the constitution is the law of the land and is followed — which means you have to get a warrant.”

Egyptian-American Muslim activist Tarek Dawoud compared the government’s actions to that of other countries. “This is what is happening in Egypt… it’s not a good sign you can see this country going down that path and it’s a concern because one of the greatest gifts people have here is to be free and the ability to challenge authority.”

A June 15th rally in support of leaker Edward Snowden, held in Hong Kong, where he was taking refuge at the time. He's currently in Russia, seeking permanent asylum in Cuba. (Photo from Flickr by See Ming Lee)
A June 15th rally in support of leaker Edward Snowden, held in Hong Kong, where he was taking refuge at the time. He’s currently in Russia, seeking permanent asylum in Cuba. (Photo from Flickr by See Ming Lee)

Ultimately all of these voices on the issue, including the person behind the leak, echo feelings of betrayal by the government. And they seem to agree that the existing system is unconstitutional and vulnerable to racial profiling.

Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians have been experiencing government surveillance as a “national security measure” ever since 9/11. So for the entire country to suddenly realize they may be subject to the same thing is almost a relief.

“Often, if you have certain communities targeted for certain things it’s only a matter of time that the entire American population is targeted with the same sort of tactic,” Bukhari said.

“There is a huge discrepancy between what the US citizens think their government is entitled to do and what the government does” said Dawoud. “It’s about time that people became aware of this because its been going on for a while and it’s getting progressively worse.”