VIDEO: Arun Kundnani on what's missing from the mainstream discussion of surveillance


While whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald have helped expose the extent of NSA surveillance, Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror says that they have encouraged legalistic debates and missed the centrality of racism. Kundnani and Deepa Kumar, a Rutgers professor and author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, co-presented a talk on Race, Surveillance and Empire at the Socialism 2014 conference in Chicago, in which Kundnani drew connections between national security surveillance and the history of empire.

Linking NSA surveillance of Muslims in the U.S. to NYPD’s stop and frisk policies, Kundnani argues that racialized groups have been the most effective analysts of surveillance, because intense scrutiny of particular groups is tolerated by the majority:

It’s racist fears that legitimize surveillance to the public, it’s racist ideas that form the basis for the ways in which surveillance is organized and deployed, and it’s racialized groups who’ve actually been the most effective in making sense of surveillance and organizing against it. And this is as true today as it’s been historically.

Edward Snowden’s comparison of the NSA to the security state in George Orwell’s 1984 has largely colored dissenters’ impression of the program. However, Kundani says that this is an inaccurate comparison; it assumes that surveillance oversees an undifferentiated mass population, when in reality surveillance is targeted towards so-called “bad guys”groups coded as suspect.

What we have instead today in the United States is total surveillance not on everyone, but very specific groups of people defined by their race, their religion, or by their political ideology.

In fact, the NSA’s surveillance of targeted groups is eerily similar to the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which spied on Vietnam War activists and civil rights leaders. A recent op-ed cowritten by Kundnani and Kumar for Albany’s Times Union detailed the implications of a report released by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain which revealed the NSA and FBI's spying on five prominent Muslim-American leaders. Kundnani and Kumar write: 

It appears that the government spied on these five not on the basis of reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal or terrorist activity but simply because of the expression of legitimate religious or political opinions that the government considers unacceptable.

Though disturbing revelations from NSA continue to come to light, Kundnani says the opposition movement is gaining momentum.

We have three cases over the last two or three years where we’re starting to see communities organizing against this. So it’s not from the legal process in DC that we’re gonna get an end to the surveillance state, it’s not through better encryption tools, it’s through community organizing.

Among the encouraging signs: The NYPD’s Demographics Unit responsible for spying on Muslims shut down in March. In the Bay Area, grassroots organizing curtailed plans for a Department of Homeland Security funded Domain Awareness Center, which would have spied on Muslims, among other groups.

These campaigns were successful because they built alliances between different groups. In New York, by naming surveillance of Muslims as a form of racial profiling, it became possible to build alliances with communities who were also experiencing different forms of racial profiling...So the lesson here is that while surveillance aims at creating fear and division and demonization, when communities organize and build these kind of alliances, they’re able to overcome that fear.

Visit We Are Many to watch more presentations from the Socialism 2014 conference. 

Visit Times Union to read Kundnani and Kumar's op-ed, "Stop Spying on Muslims," in full. 

The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror is available for purchase.

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