Hajer Al-Faham finds American Muslims are under watch, even in research

The doctoral candidate in political science, finds that disproportionate surveillance of American Muslims stifles academic research.

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.

Hajer Al-Faham
Hajer Al-Fahem, a doctoral candidate in political science. (Image: Courtesy of OMNIA)

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.

This story is by Karen Brooks. Read more at OMNIA.