Securitization and surveillance: The Feeling of Being Watched

Assia Boundaoui’s eye-opening “The Feeling of Being Watched” was screened at the Movies That Matter Film Festival , March 22-30, 2019, in The Hague (The Netherlands). Ibtissam Abaâziz, project coordinator Meld Islamofobie Foundation, introduced this fascinating and inspiring documentary on March 26.

Assia Boundaoui, a journalist who herself grew up in an Arab-American neighborhood outside of Chicago in the 1990’s, had a very particular experience as part of a community under suveillance. In fact, many people from the neighborhood suspected they were being monitored by the FBI at the time. Years later, Boundaoui decides to investigate that period and discovered that much was indeed not as it seemed. In fact, the entire neighborhood was under investigation by the FBI in the 1990s and afterwards. The documentary is about Boundaoui’s tireless search to unravel the truth and to help organize her community. It is essentially, more than anything, about the devastating impact that the politics of surveillance has on targeted communities. 

Ibtissam Abaaziz reviews the documentary as follows:

The Netherlands and The United States are two entirely different countries in terms of history, politics and security issues. However, this movie is challenging and forces us to reflect on securitization and surveillance in the Netherlands.

Last year our organization, Meld Islamofobie, received some alarming calls from Dutch Muslims, mainly converts, who had the feeling that they were being watched. They received unannounced visits from the police, who asked them several strange questions about how they practice their religion and which mosques they visit. Some of them contacted the police afterwards to ask whether the authorities kept records of them. They received a negative answer and turned to us to ask for advice. None of them wanted to take further action. They feared reprisals.

Surveillance goes beyond the work of intelligence and security services. 
Surveillance can take different forms. It can be performed by different actors. More importantly, it can be performed by actors from the targeted communities themselves.

Surveillance means that the state has several eyes and ears in society.  For example:

As in many Dutch cities, we have, here in The Hague, our local conservative liberals, the VVD. This party says it is concerned about the radicalization of the youth (well actually: only Muslim youth). Their viewpoint is that the preventative policies that have been developed so far are not effective.

So last year they presented their vision and solution. They argued that radicalization starts at a very young age. In order to be successful, professionals have to intervene as soon as possible to prevent radicalization. Therefore the focus should be on schools and teachers.

So they launched their plan: teachers have to follow a course to learn how they can recognize early signs of radicalization among young children. Not only that:  teachers are obliged to report cases in which they suspect early radicalization to the authorities. In others words: teachers can also be the eyes and ears of the state and watch your child without the parents knowing it.

This worries us. Because when we look, for example, at the UK and France, we see how these kinds of approaches have resulted in more exclusion, stigmatization and discrimination of Muslims. 

But the worst thing is: at this moment we don’t know whether this project has already started or not. We don’t know how many schools and teachers have been approached to take part. We don’t know exactly what this course is about and what kind of behavior is labeled as an early sign of radicalization. We don’t know who is being watched.  We also don’t know what will happen if a teacher reports to the authorities that a child shows these early signs.

The state has many eyes and ears in the targeted communities. Here in the Netherlands, the status quo is also fed by them. There is a huge anti-radicalization industry where a lot of money can be earned. Directly or indirectly, a lot of organizations and individuals from the targeted communities contribute to the implementation of these kinds of policies and surveillance practices.

So even if we smash the larger system, there is another subsystem that is not aware of the consequences of these practices and policies.

And that’s what makes the movie and the work of Assia Boundaoui very valuable and inspiring.

She shows how important it is to expose these kinds of surveillance practices and their devastating consequences for communities. Assia Boundaoui also shows how important it is to organize communities, how powerful they can be once organized and that successful grassroots activism start with raising awareness and self-criticism.

In this movie we will see that it has not been an easy road. But she didn’t give up. She was determined, courageous, hard-working and patient. And in the end, it paid off.

So again is not only about exposing and dismantling this larger surveillance system, but also about the subsystems within the communities.

What should be our first steps in exposing this process? Well, I would say: let’s watch the movie and let’s get inspired!

“The things they found suspicious about us, are actually the things that are the most important characteristics of our community. We are very philantropic and we are connected to each other.”

Assia Boundaoui

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van Meld Islamofobie

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