By Samia Majid, MA History
The U.S. has an unsavoury history of leveraging surveillance campaigns on its unsuspecting Muslim populace. On 16 November, Vice’s Motherboard revealed that Muslim Pro, a popular Quran and prayer app, has been selling its user data to third-party brokers, and by extension the U.S. military. With over 98 million downloads, Muslim Pro is widely used by Muslims across the world.
‘This is wild and unacceptable. Download a Quran/prayer app and end up with your data sold to a counterterrorism unit of the US military.’
In response to the backlash, Muslim Pro denied any wrongdoing, asserting that it has never sold the personal data of its users. The Muslim Pro team announced that they have terminated their relationship with all third-party data partners. Although they pledged a commitment to protect user privacy and investigate their data governance policy, this is too little, too late. Omar Suleiman, a Dallas-based Imam and spiritual leader stated: ‘This is wild and unacceptable. Download a Quran/prayer app and end up with your data sold to a counterterrorism unit of the US military. No Muslim app should be selling data, especially not like this.’
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that ordinary Muslims have been targeted by an indiscriminate mass surveillance operation. The New York Police Department has a notorious history of spying on its Muslim citizens. In 2001, a newly created covert Demographic Unit within the NYPD sent informants, or ‘crawlers,’ into Muslim neighbourhoods, student associations, and businesses. These individuals were encouraged to gather information on vaguely termed ‘persons of interest,’ infiltrating ethnic minority neighbourhoods, with no prior evidence of wrongdoing.
Despite the fact that this initiative failed to produce a single lead, neither the NYPD nor the City of New York ever admitted any misconduct. Lawsuits directed at the programme contended that the NYPD’s unconstitutional surveillance of Muslim Americans presented a civil rights breach for overt discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion.
Lest we forget, the Patriot Act was passed by Congress just weeks after 9/11. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act sought to ‘deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.’
The act effectively sanctioned the surveillance of ordinary Americans. The FBI was authorised to obtain phone, computer, and banking records of any individual even suspected of engaging in international terrorism. So much for innocent until proven guilty.
The Snowden leaks revealed that the National Security Agency had used Section 215 of the Patriot Act to harvest the phone data of millions of unsuspecting Americans. Eventually, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board declared that there was not ‘a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.’
In June 2002, the Attorney General John Ashcroft drafted a list of Muslim and Arab countries from which all males were required to submit fingerprints to a government register upon entering the US. This regulation programme lasted until 2011, and unsurprisingly never generated a single terrorism-related conviction.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, hate crimes based on race, religion, and ethnicity proliferated. Muslim women became overt targets of abuse, harassment, and discrimination based on their outward appearance. Civil Rights groups like the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor and the Islamic Society of Portland reported that attendance numbers saw a sharp drop due to fears that the Patriot Act would be used to obtain its members’ personal records. The federal government had carte blanche to wiretap any device it deemed suitable.
Against a backdrop of civil liberty erosions, the vaguely defined Muslim ‘other’ caused a spike in fear of homegrown terrorism, a suspicion based more on state sanctioned Islamaphobia than rationale. From Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, the criminalisation of Muslims across the world is following an unsettlingly Orwellian pattern. We don’t need seemingly benign apps like Muslim Pro joining the insidious surveillance apparatus.
Photo Caption: The Islamic Center of America, the largest mosque in the United States, Dearborn, Michigan (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Dane Hillard).