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FBI v. Fazaga and the Surveillance of Muslim Americans

Photograph Tapestry by Hasan Elahi. After being stopped at an airport because his name appeared on a terrorism watchlist, Elahi created a self-surveillance art project photographing the ordinary activities of his life. "By disclosing mundane details about my daily life, I am simultaneously telling everything and nothing about my life."

FBI v. Fazaga is among the many high profile cases to be decided by the Supreme Court in their current term. The case centers on Yassir Fazaga, an imam at a mosque in Mission Viejo, California and the use of an FBI informant to infiltrate his mosque and the Muslim community in the mid-2000s. At the time of surveillance, a man claiming to be Farouk al-Aziz was communicating with young men at local mosques, giving them workout tips, and asking peculiar questions about jihad and at one point suggested bombing something. Frightened by these encounters, the community members contacted the FBI and sought a restraining order from the man. They later learned that al-Aziz was in fact a paid FBI informant named Craig Montelih. Fazaga and his congregation were shaken by the incident, "Not only did it break the trust between the community and the FBI, it broke the trust within the community."

In 2011, Fazaga and two Muslim congregants sued the FBI stating the FBI discriminately surveilled the mosque and members of the Muslim community because of their religious beliefs. The FBI has stated in court filings that state secrets prevent the entity from being litigated "without posing an unacceptable risk to national security." Ahilan Arulanantham, former legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, states that "The message... is that the courthouse doors are closed if the government views your community as a national security threat."

"The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community. Those documents, they showed where we live. That's the cafe where I eat. That's where I pray. That's where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community." - Linda Sarsour, Arab American Association of New York

Since 9/11, the Muslim American community has been the target of the US surveillance dragnet including the utilization of undercover infiltrations, sting operations, and spying. In 2014, the NYPD ended a surveillance initiative headed by the Demographics Unit designed to spy on Muslim communities by eavesdropping on conversations and recording detailed information of where and how Muslims lived. The NYPD later admitted that the tactics never generated a lead about possible terrorist activity. Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York said that "The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community. Those documents... showed where we lived... They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community."

The result of this surveillance project is 977 terrorism defendants prosecuted by the Department of Justice on charges of support for terrorism, criminal conspiracy, immigration violations, or making false statements - all non-violent offenses leading to 636 defendants pleading guilty to charges and 202 individuals found guilty. Only 3 have been acquitted following a trial and 4 cases have had their charges dropped or dismissed giving the Justice Department a "near-perfect record of conviction in terrorism cases."

Social science has linked the unique encounters between law enforcement and Muslim Americans to the increasingly racialized context in which Muslim communities are surveilled. Saher Selod, an Associate Professor of sociology at Simmons University, argues in her book Forever Suspect: Racialized Surveillance of Muslim Americans in the War on Terror, that Muslim Americans have experienced greater levels of racism and that the religious identity of being a Muslim has created new racial meanings resulting in mass surveillance of Muslim communities. Selod states that her in depth interviews with Muslim Americans that the laws enacted following 9/11 created a "Muslim identity that has become racialized via the institutionalization of [police] surveillance."

As the Supreme Court decides on FBI v. Fazaga, Muslim Americans await answers and clarity on the decades of surveillance and discrimination that have impacted their communities.

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