Collage by Khaled Alqahtani

Khaled Alqahtani
11 November 2020

Growing up in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Chicago, journalist and filmmaker Assia Boundaoui rarely felt left out; she was surrounded by a community that shared her faith and many of her ideals. But outside of this bubble, living as a Muslim person in the United States did not align with the way she perceived herself and her community— she was always the outsider, the terrorist, and the dangerous “other.” And once she realized that she would always be deemed a threat, “[she] became aware of how others see [her] and learned how to not come off to people…not a terrorist, not an alien, not a traitor.”

Early in her life, Boundaoui noticed that she wasn’t the only person who experienced this constant urge to be careful about the way she represents herself. Muslims in the U.S., along with other minorities in general, constantly undergo this feeling of being watched in societies that exclude them because they’re portrayed as the “other.” Boundaoui’s experiences with Islamophobia, however, extend beyond weird looks she receives on the street. Once she noticed that her existence as a Muslim person in the U.S. wasn’t just a threat to random Islamophobes, but in fact a threat to the U.S. Government itself, she started investigating FBI surveillance on her neighborhood in a 2018 documentary titled, The Feeling of Being Watched.

One of the ways the “supremacy” and “dominance” of any racial, ethnic, or religious group is sustained is through the portrayal of the “opposing” group as the “other.” The construction of otherness, in this case, leads to opposing binaries: if the dominant group is civilized, then the other must be uncivilized; if the dominant group is intelligent, then the other must be ignorant, and so on. When these binaries are adapted, then it is clear which group would be considered superior and on top of the hierarchy, and which group is inferior and on the bottom. In her analysis of the purposes of surveillance, Boundaoui highlights that the supremacist finds themself obliged to exclude, police, and terrorize any group it desires, using these binaries as a justification to protect and sustain their position on top of every hierarchy. And to survive and ensure their safety, minorities find themselves—whether by force or by choice— appealing and adapting to the supremacist group’s ideals and practices.

Minorities do so by overanalyzing their movements, language, and policing their religious and cultural practices to refrain from imposing behavior that may “threaten” or “trigger” individuals and governments alike. And because almost anything about Islam and Muslims has become a threat, their day-to-day lives, backgrounds, and histories are thoroughly policed and excluded from the common public. Although various forms of explicit discrimination may exist, such as hate-speech Muslims experience on a daily basis, a form of discrimination that has a lasting effect is placed on them to ensure fear and compliance: surveillance.

Assia Boundaoui uses Michel Foucault’s notion of the “panopticon” as a metaphor for the surveillance of Muslim communities. According to Barker and Scheele, Foucault used the panopticon, which is a prison with a tower in the middle and cells surrounding it, to explain how modern societies operate in general. This is how it works: there’s a tower in the center surrounded by cells. The guards in the tower can see through each cell, yet are completely unseen by the inmates. In this way, no torture is needed to enforce discipline — the inmates are forced to police their behavior under the pretense that they are always under surveillance. Not only do these systems of control ensure that the people they consider, “alien” are perpetually under investigation and policing, but also become the products of a hidden process of forced assimilation. This may include taking off the hijab, shaving beards, and avoiding the demonstration of any other signs or symbols associated with Islam in public. 

To ensure Muslims become docile and function for the benefit of the majority, Boundaoui states that “the prisoner is seen without ever seeing, and the guard is seeing without ever being unseen.” In this case, it is a tactic used to govern and control people who have no choice but to forcefully fall into this trap to ensure their survival. This fear of authority in its disguised form can be seen in her predominantly Muslim neighborhood. When asked to be interviewed about forms of surveillance they have experienced, one individual said, “A lot of people in my neighborhood have stories about being watched, but most of them are afraid to talk out loud about it, especially with cameras around them.”

Moreover, the media one consumes, in all its forms, influences how they perceive the world. When that media is saturated with images of Islam and Muslims that characterize them with terrorism, hostility, and backwardness, it transforms from media that is casually consumed, into embedded stereotypes and generalizations that affect how an entire religious group is perceived. Muslims then, according to Edward Said’s Orientalism, become a threat, a danger, and the “other” that needs to be addressed, investigated, and excluded. From the Muslim ban during the Trump administration to anti-Islam sentiment all over Europe, it is clear how these stereotypes transformed from beliefs held by individuals, to policies enforced by governments. Not only do these images impact how others perceive Islam and Muslims, but they also affect the way Muslims navigate their lives in countries and communities where Islamophobia is normalized. Similar to Boundaoui, Muslims become careful about how they represent themselves.

The Feeling of Being Watched encompasses the various meanings of surveillance. It shows that it can be explicit, such as authority-driven investigations, or implicit, such as this unexplained sense of being watched all the time. These different forms of surveillance are fueled by the initial exclusion of any community that does not belong to the supremacist group that dominates and governs the society as a whole. And as Boundaoui traces the roots of this surveillance and policing, she finds out that it all begins with the opposing binaries Muslims and other minorities are placed at— after all, they’re the dangerous and alien “other” that always needs to be controlled and policed.