Under Watch

Hajer Al-Faham, a doctoral candidate in political science, finds that disproportionate surveillance of American Muslims stifles academic research.

Hajer Al-Faham, a doctoral candidate in political science

Within seconds of meeting someone for the first time, most people don’t expect to be asked if they’re an FBI informant. But it’s a question Hajer Al-Faham heard often during field research for her dissertation.

In 2019, Al-Faham, a Ph.D. candidate in political science, was conducting interviews for her study about the citizenship and political integration of American Muslims when she began to notice a theme: Virtually every participant she spoke with referenced government surveillance and its impact on their daily life.

The surveillance they mentioned includes arbitrary law enforcement visits to Muslim residences and gathering places, profiling at airports and borders, wrongful arrests and detention, wiretapping, and, yes, community infiltration by paid informants—tactics used in the “War on Terror” campaign launched by the U.S. following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As a Muslim woman, Al-Faham was aware of these practices, but she was still puzzled by her fellow Muslims’ suspicions that she was an FBI operative.

“This process of my co-religionists vetting me, asking all these questions to make sure I was who I said I was, was eye-opening, because I have a very traditional Muslim first and last name, I am a lifelong Muslim, I go to mosque—the whole deal,” she says, noting that establishing trust with her respondents took considerable time and effort.

Al-Faham’s experiences informed an article that she published in Perspectives on Politics in January 2021. In “Researching American Muslims: A Case Study of Surveillance and Racialized State Control,” she builds on other scholars’ work examining the political socialization of racialized minorities—the continuous process through which they form their political identities, opinions, and behaviors—and extends it to Muslims, whose responses to mass surveillance have gone largely unstudied.

Using data from a series of participant observation activities and ethnographic interviews involving 69 American Muslims in Philadelphia, Al-Faham deduces that an awareness of widespread surveillance politically socializes Muslims in distinct ways. For instance, her participants voiced almost universal support for religious accommodations in public spaces—provisions such as prayer rugs in hospital chapels and quiet areas for prayer in workplaces. But when she asked them specifically about face veiling in photo identification cards, their attitudes changed.

“Respondents overwhelmingly framed face veiling as an issue of national security, describing the obligation that we all have as citizens to prioritize public safety over almost anything else—even religious freedoms,” she says. “I had expected that if someone favored religious accommodations, their views would be consistent, but that was not the case. This is a core example of Muslims being politically socialized.”

Another product of their interactions with the state? Skepticism of scholars aiming to study their population. Social scientists often confront a selection bias that limits their access to members of vulnerable groups—but Al-Faham says that American Muslim experiences of surveillance and policing make them particularly wary of engaging with researchers. As an “insider” who easily navigates cultural norms, such as dressing modestly and participating in prayer, Al-Faham realizes she is better positioned to earn their trust, while non-Muslim researchers would undoubtedly face more rigid barriers.

“Researchers in the U.S. are working in a political environment that is structured by inequality, particularly around race. Methodologically, this affects how we carry out our studies, and also how research populations view and interact with us—if they agree to interact with us at all,” she says.

While social scientists cannot address concerns over state repression, Al-Faham says they can mitigate mistrust by designing studies that prioritize collaboration and transparency, emphasizing direct engagement with participants, and employing what she calls “bilateral reflexivity”—an understanding that research subjects are evaluating researchers just as intently as the researchers are evaluating them. Awareness of a population’s social, political, and economic positioning helps to build an invaluable rapport with participants who remain guarded, she says.

“The way we surveil and police communities is deeply tied to way we conceptualize them racially. Muslims are not only seen as un-American, but anti-American—and also as having these cultural and religious habits of violence,” she says. “Political science research finds that for American Muslims, racialization is based less on phenotype and more on assumptions about culture and religion. And it is the weighing of Muslim group identity with racial meaning that facilitates unfair and disproportionate surveillance—and that has many consequences, for their communities and also for social science research.”


By Karen Brooks