Democracy and terrorism: when definitions stifle free speech

Concepts like democracy, the constitution, and freedom of speech are slogans that are only meaningful in so far as they protect public faith in the American system.

Ismaail Qaiyim
12 January 2015
Muslim Student Union protest.

Muslim Student Union protest. UC Irvine/Flickr.Some right reserved. Three women, leaving a political event at a university see a shadowy figure in the distance who seems to be watching them closely. As they peer back in the gloom they inch towards a man who dashes around the corner. They follow. No man, no person, no trace. A dead end. They giggle nervously and shrug off their suspicions. “We joke that so and so could be an informant. But this person really could be an informant,” one of the three Muslim students said later in conversation.

The true value of an idea is captured in the way it interacts with the real world. Democracy as an ever-present benchmark of modern civilisation is deemed worth protecting, even at the expense of ordinary citizens who are the casualties of the overt intimidation inherent to the post-9/11 era. But Muslim students on American campuses are increasingly targeted for monitoring and surveillance as existential security threats, and as this happens, the sanctity of safe spaces and ‘democracy’ itself is completely compromised.  

The halls of universities should be hallowed places for budding self-expression and personal development. Free speech is not just a right on college campuses, but a basic ingredient for all the valuable things that these establishments provide. Yet, for many Muslim students at American institutions of higher education, free speech is a long lost privilege, whose loss is determined by unspoken rules and accompanied by ever-present paranoia.  

 “Of course there are things we can’t say. There are tons of things we can’t say,” said an executive board member of the Muslims Student Association at a major American University.

Lawyers at the City University of New York Clear Project, among others, have written about the ways in which the current social discourse has chilled free speech and political activism for Muslim students. Perhaps this consequence of ever-increasing surveillance linked to preemptive security measures is one most Americans can accept. However, if people easily accept the current state of affairs, then they must also accept that all expressions of democracy are qualified and limited by the contours of unspoken prejudices.

Perhaps this is not news to most, that the practice of democracy reflects wider social attitudes and is reinforced by the unequal history of surveillance in the United States. However these developments do not only imply that democracy is discriminatory, but that the practice of democracy is an opaque reflection of dominant social attitudes reinforced by dominant institutions.

The irony, particularly in the United States, is that democratic principles that were intended to be separate from institutions like the state or the collective group now only exist as extensions of those very same actors. Concepts like democracy, the constitution, and freedom of speech are slogans that are only meaningful in so far as they protect public faith in the American system. Meanwhile, the public response to the Senate report on CIA torture demonstrates that Americans have generally accepted gross violations of principles that are generally believed to be integral to American values.

The narrative of democracy, the principle or the overarching presence of values such as openness, matters more than the practice of democracy itself.

The sheer size of the FBI spying program demonstrates that the violation of ‘democratic principles’ is so vast and standardized that violations of rights are overtly part and parcel of everyday life. The FBI spying program entitled “Operation Flex” utilized a paid informant with a criminal history to track potential terrorists and to create potential FBI informants. For instance, women with whom the informant had sexual encounters from the Muslim community in Orange County California could be shamed into becoming informants. Worst of all, the Department of Justice has effectively blocked a lawsuit filed on the behalf of Muslims affected in the FBI spying program by claiming that divulging such information would compromise national security.

Democracy as an idea now comes wrapped in the security complex that has gripped media and public discourse.

Muslims on American college campuses are psychologically burdened with responsibility for the actions of others far away, while they monitor their own speech for fear of being associated with extremism.

One student I talked to maintains that, “many Muslims on campus have expressed fears that their own MSA may be bugged or spied upon similar to Penn and New Jersey.” When asked about being politically active on campus, it became clear that the struggle with perception really is the primary saga for Muslim students that engage in activism. “Ultimately it (NSA spying) is very disconcerting to activists, activists of color, Muslims.”  

 “No views I hold are immoral. I believe in human rights. I believe there should be always be a trial before ever killing people. I don’t believe in killing innocents. I believe the problem is with the person listening, not me for saying it. Ultimately what I’m saying is consistent with what America was founded upon.”

The fear of being viewed as a potential suspect or threat obviously creates a culture of defensiveness and self-censorship. “It all depends on the person listening, I can say I believe in human rights and that’s (construed as) dangerous,” said one politically active Muslim student.

The widespread FBI targeting of Muslim communities with informants and the spying campaign of the New York City Police Department which reached into areas far beyond NYPD jurisdiction are examples of flagrant violations not only of rights, but of the democratic ideals that underpin the American narrative. The attitude of suspicion toward the Muslim community is rooted in a long cycle of projecting fears onto minority populations. Ethnic and religious minorities are told to ‘deal with’ the bad apples in their communities for the greater good of the silent majority. This logic falsely assumes that the extremism Americans fear emanates from the American Muslim community and that somehow a single minority ethnic group is responsible for the actions of all those like them. This racialized discourse which has been used by law enforcement and policy makers in reference to criminality in the black community, has become the norm in reference to Islam and terrorism.

The underlying assumption behind the belief that the many in the Muslim community can stop the few is a notion that silently implicates all Muslims. If Muslims are not viewed as perpetrators themselves by not condemning terrorism, then they are viewed as enablers because of their apparent cultural and religious proximity to individuals committing crimes.

Ironically Muslim leaders and organizations condemn acts of terrorism consistently and overwhelmingly, yet the perception that they remain silent in the face of terrorist violence remains in place.

If Muslims are perpetually viewed as a threat to democracy and by extension everything America believes itself to be, then the primary factor in public attitudes toward Muslims is not the way in which Muslims relate to extremism, but the way in which extremism is projected onto Muslims. Muslims now are walking enigmas who could turn into a force for violence at any time.

Negative perceptions of Muslims extend from Main Street all the way to the halls of the Pentagon. Yet, for all the emphasis on security and protecting American democracy, the sustained fears of Muslims students show that democratic principles which are in theory held dear to most Americans, are the only American things that have been actively detained and retarded. When asked about the effects of surveillance on student groups, one MSA member summed up, “self-censorship.”

Perceptions are largely maintained by definitions that are reinforced through public imagery and symbolism. For instance, the recent bombing of an NAACP office has not been labeled as terrorism within the larger American media. Hence, terrorism, like democracy is about linking markers of identity to actions according to a specific narrative troupe. Ultimately the idea of democracy, like that of terrorism, becomes the focal point. The small details like statistics on terrorism and conceptual approaches to understanding terrorism are secondary to the fact that the phenomenon of terrorism endangers the phenomenon of democracy.

As public values, such as democracy come to be valued as principles that exist for the purpose of legitimizing the American system as a whole, they cease to be useful vehicles for criticizing powerful institutions or public attitudes that operate in ways that are harmful to an open society and an equal society.

If an entire generation of Muslim intellectuals is stifled and terrorized into an oppressive silent submission to an unfair status quo, then the beliefs that Americans hold about their own society are not only proven false, but the very thing that can address the proliferation of violent extremism, dialogue and understanding, is also put to sleep.

Yet some Muslim students also know that political activism is integral for addressing all these issues and creating a more equitable world. “Political activism is the bond that links different struggles together.”

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