Fatema Ahmad threw the most exclusive New Year’s party in Boston, and only the most compassionate of organizers and their socially conscious friends were invited. The setting was a turn-of-the-century chalet, the residence of a local civil rights lawyer. Throughout the house, fellow organizers Janhavi Madabushi and Arifa Awadallah had hidden 20 small chests with truth-or-dare prompts like “repurpose the tools in a toolbox for abolition work” or “sing a song of liberation.” Attendees dressed to the futuristic theme: “The End of the World as We Know It”—as much an omen as a vision of something greater for organizers in the city of Boston. Such entails the personal and public work of the Muslim Justice League (MJL), a Boston-based organization aimed at addressing unlawful surveillance and criminalization of Muslim Americans.
“People believe that [Boston is] a progressive and liberal city. I think they’re honestly not willing to really dig in and understand what’s actually happening a lot of the time,” said Ahmad. “I think there’s an assumption that things here are great, and that they’re better than other places.”
Launched in 2014, MJL was created by three attorneys and one anthropologist, all Muslim women. Its work is increasingly relevant and necessary even in a purportedly liberal bubble like Boston.
“[MJL was] founded in response to the announcement that Boston would be a pilot city for Countering Violent Extremism [CVE],” Ahmad recounted. “I’m sure lots of people hear that very carefully constructed phrase, and that sounds like a less bad option. That doesn’t sound like surveillance on the surface. …We were founded because we know better.”
In 2014, the White House launched CVE pilot programs in the Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis metropolitan areas. Through these initiatives, federal funding from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security is filtered into law enforcement, nonprofits, and community groups ostensibly to prevent acts of terrorist violence. From the perspective of MJL and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the move amounted to encouraging the recipients of these funds to suspect or report on Muslims and members of other groups deemed suspicious by the state.
According to a 2017 poll by Pew Research Center, 48% of Muslim Americans polled experienced some form of discrimination from 2016 to 2017. Of those respondents, 10% said they had been singled out by law enforcement other than airport security. In the same poll, 70% of Muslim women respondents and 48% of Muslim men respondents expressed concern about government surveillance due to their religion.
Within the manifold Boston ummah, immigrants and Black Muslims are the most visible targets for these types of surveillance. At least two CVE grants have focused on the Somali community, and Somali Bostonians have joined forces with MJL to urge grantees to decline the federal funds with those CVE stipulations attached. In 2015, a Black American Muslim man named Usaamah Rahim was slain by undercover FBI officers in a parking lot of the Roslindale section of Boston. Rahim was allegedly approached by plainclothes officers, and what happened there is disputed; the Boston Police Department says Rahim brandished a knife at the officers, but Rahim’s family says he was shot in the back while holding a cellphone. Rahim had previously made Facebook posts claiming that the FBI had contacted him on his personal phone.
Almost immediately after the visionary New Year’s party, however, the counterterrorism discourse quickly shifted focus to Iran. The early January assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani by U.S. forces stoked embers of war internationally. Iranian immigrants faced increased scrutiny and accusations of complicity in terrorism, the assassination compounding the effects of Executive Order 17369 on travelers and immigrants, the so-called “Muslim ban.”
Late in the afternoon on this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Ahmad received an urgent email. An Iranian student at Northeastern University, Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, had been detained at Boston Logan Airport upon his arrival. Without haste, Ahmad quickly texted and tweeted at MJL supporters to mobilize to join a solidarity group forming in Terminal E. As Commonwealth Magazine’s Sarah Betancourt has reported, at least 10 Iranians with valid student visas have been detained and deported during the past year.
“Since Donald Trump became president, we are seeing a significant increase in questioning and apparent profiling of immigrants from predominantly Muslim or Middle Eastern countries, including of lawful permanent residents and sometimes even of naturalized U.S. citizens,” said Susan Cohen, the immigration chair for Mintz, a Boston law firm, and an active member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This includes more cases of people being taken into ‘secondary inspection’ and subjected to hours of intense questioning. I have one client who is a lawful permanent resident who, upon entry, was questioned for three hours and all his devices were taken away from him; it’s been three months and they still have not returned them to him.”
At the terminal, attorneys huddled around laptops to contact federal judges about Dehghani’s case, rooted on by a chorus of activists and supporters chanting in the direction of Customs and Border Protection. Finally, an attorney on site received word from the federal court that a stay of deportation had been granted, and a hearing had been scheduled for the coming Tuesday morning. Hearing the news of that small but decisive victory, Ahmad felt relief and catharsis.
“You get a federal stay of deportation, that means you’re not leaving! So we all erupt in applause. We think he has a hearing scheduled, we’re going to see him at the hearing in the morning. We won.”
During the morning commute on Tuesday, however, Boston-based immigration attorney Susan Church tweeted that Dehghani had, in fact, been deported despite the stay of deportation being granted. His phone had been confiscated; he was not able to contact anyone until the flight he was placed on touched down in France. By 10 a.m., supporters were gathered at the federal courthouse to show support for Dehghani’s case, demonstrating outside in below-freezing weather. District of Massachusetts Judge Richard G. Stearns quickly and summarily dismissed the case as “moot” on account of Dehghani having already been removed from the country.
Outside, Ahmad delivered the news to the press and demonstrators using a megaphone. Though her initial feelings of catharsis may have been revoked, Ahmad remarked that the mobilization “was both devastating and empowering at the same time.”
Speaking on the combined mobilization work of MJL, the ACLU, and the National Lawyers Guild, Cohen said, “Their work is very public and well publicized, and it brings much needed attention to the violations of the rights of these citizens.”
From Ahmad’s perspective, anti-Muslim policing and surveillance didn’t start with the impulse of the Boston Marathon Bombing or even with 9/11, but with a governmental neurosis against Islam dating back to the 1930s.
An excerpt from the Survey of Racial Conditions in North America (1943), from the book The FBI’s Racon: Racial Conditions in the United States during World War II (1995) ed. Robert A Hill.
“What’s really helpful for any Muslim to know today is that one of the first significant things that the FBI did in terms of surveillance was this big surveillance program [including] Muslims.”
What Ahmad is referring to and names explicitly in our conversation is the FBI’s Survey of Racial Conditions, which was known internally by the codename RACON. For example, a 1942 memorandum authored by Atlanta FBI officer J.K. Mumford listed majority-Black activists and religious groups, including the “Moslem, Islamic, or Mohammedan Sects,” as being “pro-Japanese.” Mumford made the case that this alliance was revolutionary: “…the attitude that the present war is a racial war, and for that reason, Negroes should align themselves with other colored races such as the Japanese.” This little-known reconnaissance was a template upon which later schemes of activist surveillance, like the Counterintelligence Program from 1956 to 1971, were scaffolded.
This era of increasing surveillance against Muslims and groups deemed controversial to public security leads organizing work to a critical junction: Organizers aren’t fighting solely for privacy, safety, and civil liberties, but instead are making the case for the preservation of community.
“One of the deepest impacts for the Muslim community is that we self-censor, right? We all know that we’re being watched, and we’re being heard and surveilled. So people don’t say what they want to say, and people don’t show up how they want to show up.”
What propels Ahmad forward is connectedness rather than enforced isolation.
“We want to be able to be in community with each other. We want to be able to talk openly and freely. And it’s really important for us that we’re always building community in the face of that.”