This episode of Reclaiming Academic Freedom examines the state`s use of university campuses as sites of surveillance and recruitment, and its effects on students and faculty. STATUS/الوضع host Tareq Radi interviews Muna Sharif, Arshad Ali, Jared Austin, and Danya Zituni about their experiences.
The program episode below includes four parts that you can click on separately. Please find the transcript below the player.
Muna Sharif is a Palestinian-American organizer based in Anaheim, California and an associate field organizer with Amnesty International.
Arshad I. Ali is an educator, youth worker, and scholar who studies youth culture, race, identity, and democratic engagement.
Jared Austin is an active member of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society and is committed to antiwar and antiracist activism around the Tampa Bay area.
Danya Zituni is a senior at the University of South Florida majoring in International Studies.
You can find full bios here.
Program Episode Transcript
Tareq Radi (TR): This is Tareq Radi hosting Reclaiming Academic Freedom on Status, where we expose violations of academic freedom, and repression on campuses in both the region and the United States. In our fourth episode, “The Panoptic Gaze of the Ivory Tower,” I focus on the use of campuses as sites of surveillance and recruitment for the state, and examine the effects this has on politically active students and faculty, as well as marginalized communities. Joining us are Muna Sharif, Dr. Arshad Ali, Danya Zituni, and Jared Austin.
Muna Sharif is an associate field organizer with Amnesty International as well as the head of the Palestinian Youth Movement, Los Angeles chapter’s Anti-Oppression Committee. She is also the former director of the Muslim Student Association-West’s anti-CVE campaign, the Jibreel Project, as well as the president of Students for Justice in Palestine, Long Beach.
In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security formally introduced their program entitled “Countering Violent Extremism,” also known as CVE. The program seeks to encourage individuals in American Muslim communities to intervene with and report to law enforcement, suspect expressions and behaviors of others in their communities to law enforcement. While some Muslim elite endorsed the initiative, LA-based Muslim organizations have expressed concerns regarding the program’s lack of transparency, and possible repercussions. Our interview with Muna discusses CVE’s implementation within the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s outreach program to recruit members of Muslim Student Associations [MSAs]. Her interview touches on the difficulties of organizing Muslim youth on campus as a result of post-9/11 policies.
Our second guest, Dr. Arshad Ali, is an assistant professor at George Washington University and is completing a book-length manuscript examining the cultural geography of Muslim student surveillance. In his interview he discusses how the effects of surveillance manifest in the lives of Muslim students.
The final portion of this episode is a combined interview with student activists Danya Zituni and Jared Austin. In their interview they consider the deeply entrenched relationship between the University of South Florida and the US military, and the ways in which this relationship affects their experience as students. Jared and Danya are both active members of the Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society organization. Danya also works with Students for Justice in Palestine as well as the Committee to Stop FBI Repression in Tampa.
TR: Our first guest—Muna Sharif, associate field organizer with Amnesty International—explains her past experience in combating CVE on university campuses.
Muna Sharif (MS): For the past six months I have been organizing with the Muslim Students Association-West and Asian Americans Advancing Justice to launch an anti-CVE campaign that was meant to inspire community action and resist state oppression through the mobilization, education, and action of Muslim youth and other communities of color, primarily looking at students on campuses. The reason we started this campaign was to address the problematic CVE initiative by the Department of Homeland Security [DHS]. We were looking specifically at resolution HR2899, evaluating how the resolution had progressed over the past six months, and looking at how we could inform students on campuses to organize against it.
One of the issues with CVE is the absence of a clear model of implementation for the three pilot cities. So the way we have been able to organize against it is by looking at the programs that informed CVE and using those models to organize. We were primarily looking at how COINTELPRO [Counter Intelligence Program] and Stop and Frisk were implemented, specifically at universities, to get a better sense of how they planned to use CVE to surveil communities of color. Over the six months that we were working on the campaign, the actual CVE framework changed multiple times. One minute it was looking at criminalizing certain behaviors and actions, and then a few months later the framework was rewritten to criminalize certain types of speech. So that definitely changed the outlook of the campaign and what we were really targeting.
TR: Muna explains the experience of college students on campuses engaged in CVE programs.
MS: The way that CVE has manifested itself on campuses is by creating this culture of surveillance that students are hyper aware of. Muslim students now are already living in this post-9/11 society where they know they are already marginalized and they are the Other, and this program has just made them hyper aware of their identity. They have already been limiting themselves—limiting how they can organize, what they can say, and what they can do. But just as they start to feel comfortable, this new policy comes out that makes them rethink all of their choices. Now students are reluctant to join MSAs, to openly express a certain identity, or to say things in classrooms because they know that they are constantly going to be watched and surveilled, and anything they say can and will be used against them.
TR: The chilling effect that surveillance programs have on free speech is no surprise, but perhaps one of the more overlooked outcomes of CVE is the criminalization of other forms of normal behavior.
MS: It is criminalizing their expression, and it is really making students rethink their choices on campus. A normal student would join a club and feel free to say whatever they want to say. Muslim students are now rethinking joining their MSAs, which is ultimately debilitating the type of organizing that Muslim youth can do because now they do not have a space to do that anymore.
TR: Historically, campuses have been a place for students to engage in critical thought and activism for the first time. I asked Muna if she thinks the presence of surveillance programs on campuses could have an effect on the political development of Muslim youth in America, who are now weary of joining groups known to express political dissent.
MS: Absolutely, especially when that is something that students have had to deal with their entire lives, and there have been no strong community leaders showing them exactly what organizing can do and its effects. They are just going to accept the reality that they are in and believe that that is the only environment they can live in. They do not see a reality where they have the ability to speak openly about their religion or their identity. They only think that they are going to be ‘othered’ and ostracized their entire lives, and they think that this is something they have to become okay with.
TR: Following the events that occurred on 9/11 the relationship between law enforcement and the Muslim community in the United States has been especially strained as law enforcement has employed a variety of methods to spy on and monitor Muslim communities, despite a lack of any suspicion of wrongdoing. In recent years various security agencies for the state have increased their attempts and evolved their tactics to surveil Muslims. The Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement agencies are conducting community outreach events to obtain information willingly from the Muslim community, using initiatives like CVE and the If You See Something, Say Something campaign. This method of outreached has further penetrated the community as local law enforcement conduct similar events on university campuses. Muna discusses her campaign to challenge these types of interventions on campuses in California.
MS: A few years back the LA County Sheriff’s Department launched an initiative called the Young Muslim American Leaders Advisory Council, which was meant to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the Muslim community. It was essentially a very active civic engagement initiative. Recently they planned an event, co-sponsored by the CIA, called “The Power of Dialogue,” and it was supposed to take place 21st November 2015 at California State University, Fullerton. One of the actions I wanted to take as the director of my campaign was to plan a rally against it and call out all the problematic things that this initiative was sent to do. So we started organizing this rally. We started reaching out to local organizations and other Muslim students, trying to get a good number of people to show up. Eventually word did get out about what we were planning, and the event was cancelled.
We found out a couple of weeks later that the event had resurfaced and taken on a different name. It was relocated to a private university with the hopes that the new location would deter any type of activism or organizing. So instead of being called “The Power of Dialogue” and having tiny writing at the bottom that says, “co-sponsored with the CIA,” this event was now called “Conversations with the CIA,” hosted by the LA County Sheriff’s Department and the Young Muslim American Leaders Advisory Council. It was a much more overt attempt by the CIA and the LA County Sheriff’s Department to integrate with the Muslim community and really push these civic engagement initiatives.
TR: The subtle cancellation and rebranding of the event at a private university with the support of the Young Muslim American Leaders Advisory Council suggests that DHS and local law enforcement would prefer to draw as little attention as possible to this CVE program in areas where it may be challenged by the local community. By relocating the event to a private university local law enforcement was able to contain Muna’s efforts to galvanize the community and expose the surveillance program.
MS: We did not receive any pushback for organizing the event—which could have been due to our discretion—but they just cancelled it, and it was not until much later that we actually found out why. We just received a Facebook notification saying that the event had been cancelled. A few weeks later, we found out from a colleague of ours that it was cancelled because of the rally we were organizing. At the time we did not view the cancellation as a victory because we did not know why it had been done. I was actually kind of upset that it was cancelled because I was so confident in the organizing that we were doing, and I knew that our rally would be more successful. It would have been a great space to showcase our coalition building. But in retrospect it is good that the event got cancelled because it shows the power of organizing and that the effectiveness of the work is not really determined by how flashy the final result is.
TR: Muna briefly comments on the challenges of organizing in Muslim spaces as many MSAs continue to shift their focus away from political organizing.
MS: One of the most difficult issues with organizing the Muslim student body is that they all grew up in a post-9/11 society, so they have grown up in this atmosphere and dealt with Islamophobic rhetoric their entire lives. As a result they have internalized their oppression and now they do not know what it is like to have full authority to express identity freely. They have always had to be extremely careful and watchful about what they say, what they do, who they work with, and things like that. So when CVE became an issue it was nothing new for them. But because there has been so much fear within the Muslim community, the youth have become extremely apathetic and do not really know how to organize anymore. It has been fifteen plus years of them dealing with Islamophobic rhetoric, trying to assimilate, and not really trying to combat this oppression actively.
So when CVE came along it was just another thing they had to deal with. They did not see it as something they had to actively organize against. And that is why the Young Muslim American Leaders Advisory Council—also known as Young MALAC—was created. They are trying to reach out to the Muslim community and say, “Hey, we are just like you. We are here to help you and create these initiatives that are going to help engage our community with your community.” And the problem is the Muslim community—especially in Los Angeles and Orange County—do not see an issue with that. They do not see what is wrong with that, even though we have reports, like the Brennan Center’s report, that specifically pointed out that these types of efforts have historically been intelligence gathering efforts. But the Muslim community feels that it is safer for them and that they have a better bet engaging in these types of initiatives, rather than actually organizing enough to have a victory and not feeling like they have to work with law enforcement. They kind of feel like they have to now.
TR: One of the nonsensical arguments against the academic boycott of Israel is that it singles out the apartheid state or demonstrates bias against Israelis. As CVE is an initiative that targets the Muslim community, I asked Muna if local law enforcement has targeted other groups on campus and if universities have shown any reluctance to facilitating such initiatives, considering their commitment to being balanced.
MS: These are not two different things. This is one thing. There are policies created to police a community. This community is being policed because of all this Islamophobic rhetoric and because people believe these horrible things about a certain population of people. It is one population that is being very specifically targeted. As you mentioned, you would never see anything like this happening to the Hillel group or any type of other religious group on campus. That would never happen.
TR: As surveillance of the Muslim community is not a new development, Muna highlights the specific effects that CVE may have on Muslim students on campus.
MS: One of the major differences between CVE and other surveillance policies is that it does have a huge social media component. CVE is one of the first surveillance policies that look specifically at tracking social media pages, and I think Muslim youth have really gotten used to the idea of organizing in a virtual realm. A lot of Muslim youth only know how to make Facebook events, private groups, and share messages with one another, and that is what they consider organizing. So that is how CVE is really going to hinder that movement.
I recommend for Muslim youth to take a step back and look at the more grassroots type of organizing that can be done, not only for their own safety but just because it is more effective. Meeting with somebody in person and organizing face-to-face are a lot more effective and powerful than organizing behind a computer screen. I think that can hopefully work to dispel some of the political apathy that has grown among Muslim youth post-9/11.
TR: Echoing similar sentiments and picking up where Muna left off, our second guest, Dr. Arshad Ali, gives us a deeper understanding of the effects of surveillance on Muslim students. I asked Dr. Ali, who is a youth organizer in New York City and scholar researching this very topic, to discuss the methods in which the New York Police Department [NYPD] surveilled Muslim students on university campuses.
Dr. Arshad Ali (AA): It is a bit of a tricky question to ask how the state has been surveilling because what we know about surveillance is only that which has been revealed, so we only know small portions and small moments of it. The largest piece of it has come to knowledge through a series of Associated Press reports that began in the summer of 2011 and through the work of a couple of big journalists at the Associated Press. What their work revealed—and this is the work of Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman—was that the NYPD was broadly putting Muslim American citizens and residents under surveillance and scrutinizing where they ate, where they prayed, and where they worked, solely because of their relationship to Muslim communities. Any Muslims who were engaged with Muslim communities were really being treated as potential terrorists.
I think one of the things that we see here, and in the leaked documents, was that in addition to the NYPD surveilling Muslim communities throughout the boroughs of New York City, they were also specifically targeting students on college campuses. One of the revealed documents was something called “The Weekly Muslim Student Association Report,” and it showed that the police were monitoring the activities and communications of hundreds of Muslim groups, presumably throughout the northeast. Within a single week of surveillance there were email reports and activities from over fifteen different campuses. These were things as simple as student group meetings, halaqas on campus, and the general activities that the students were engaged in.
I think one of the things this points to is that when the NYPD, or when a policing agency, is looking at the religious and academic matters that young people are engaged in, it is not about some notion of terrorism or violence. Rather, it is about drawing a link between a Muslim personhood and some sort of abstract notion of a potential for terrorism. Again I think this question of surveillance and the question of monitoring on campuses is very tricky because we only officially know what the state reveals or what is leaked, and we know surveillance policies have historically been far broader than what was revealed at any particular moment in time. If we think about COINTELPRO and those programs in the United States from a prior generation, the things people knew about the Counter Intelligence Program during that moment in history were far less than we know now fifty years later, and I think this is going to be the same for the case of the NYPD demographic surveillance.
TR: Despite many Muslim students already assuming that they were being surveilled, the discovery that the NYPD was, in fact, surveilling them has had a dramatic effect on their participation in the classroom, as well as their non-Muslim peers.
AA: One of the things I have seen on college campuses is a true fear for Muslim students. They are very conscious of the things they are seeing in classroom discourse. And actually these are not just Muslim students. I should clarify that these are students who are broadly from what we might call the Muslim world. Regardless if they are Muslim are not, whether they believe in Islam or not, whether they grew up in Muslim households or not, or whether they are Egyptian Christians or any other religious identity, they are broadly from what the West might define as the Muslim world. They are very conscious of what they are saying in the classroom. There is an assumption that someone is paying attention, someone from the state is listening to their critiques of US foreign policy and Western imperialism. And this is part of what mediates and organizes the Muslim student experience and, more broadly, Middle East, Arab, and South Asian students in the university today.
TR: The effects of surveillance on campus are not limited to the classroom. Compounded by post-9/11 policies, surveillance has led to the depoliticization of student groups who, rightfully out of fear, want to avoid any unnecessary exposure to law enforcement.
AA: Again this becomes a tricky issue to materially and empirically provide evidence for. The question is: How do we provide evidence for the lack of a campaign? But I think one of the things that we see is the deeply chilling effect we get on the types of conversation that Muslim students more broadly will engage with on campus through student groups and student meetings, whether it is through the Muslim Student Association or through ethnic student groups. I happened to see this on campuses throughout the country, where Arab national student groups and Muslim student organizations are moving away from talking about politics, moving away from focusing on international or domestic issues, and see themselves as solely religious or apolitical, cultural organizations. I think this is one of the things we have to think about in terms of the project of surveillance.
What surveillance does to young people and to all people is that it cultivates a culture of fear, where it does not matter if a particular space is actually being surveilled. If the assumption and the knowledge is that any space can be watched by the state, then one has to always act as though all spaces are being watched by the state, and this provides a particularly chilling effect for any sort of leftist, radical student, or community-based organizing. If you are assuming that someone who has nefarious aims is listening in at all of your meetings—beyond even the act of organizing—one of the things we see is that even the expression of concern becomes something that feels like it is being policed. To even say, “I do not like that the state is surveilling me, I do not like that domestic policies target Muslim communities,” is felt many young Muslims almost as an act of sedition. That is what the chilling effects are. If one cannot express some sort of collective identity or experience of oppression or suppression, then where is the space to cultivate any sort of political identity, let alone a radical one?
TR: As previously discussed, one of the ways Muslim leadership in America—including university chaplains—has responded to police surveillance is by collaborating with the state and providing information about their own communities. As a result of this collaboration, campus chaplains and community leaders have instructed students not to organize on their own. Augmented by the discovery of pure informants, this collaboration has created a culture of mistrust among students that both tears at the social fabric of the community and furthers self-censorship.
AA: I think this apolitical shift is something that has become readily apparent in my own research and just in observing Muslim communities as well. Like you said, it is not simply true on the campus, but it is true within mosque communities as well. We see this type of self-disciplinary behavior within Muslim communities. If there is a Friday khutba about international politics, you will hear people have conversations saying, “We do not want people talking about politics.” There is this notion that any conversation about politics is somehow a suspect conversation, or any conversation critiquing US domestic or foreign policy is somehow leading toward this notion of radicalism or terrorism.
Whether it is chaplains, community leaders, or imams broadly working with the project of the surveillance state—and whether it is with a policing agency directly or with another aspect of the surveillance state—one of the most difficult parts is that there is an assumption that Muslim communities have terrorists and terrorism somehow built within them. This is a history that takes us far beyond the contemporary political context of the post-9/11 world. This idea of the Muslim as the foreign, abstracted terrorist Other is a narrative that we see written through Western history since the crusades, this continues to ring true. Some of my own work is really looking at the narratives mapped onto Muslims during the Spanish Inquisition, and how that then was mapped onto indigenous communities in America. We see these same narratives of distrust that one can never trust a Muslim body.
A saddening part of this is that Muslims want to take this up and they want to believe this narrative about their own communities, rather than thinking about the fact that people are engaged in non-state political violence across a number of communities, not just Muslim communities. What would make someone engage in violence are mental health issues, deeper issues that are affecting lots of young people, particularly in the Western context and uniquely within the United States. That is the question we should be asking: What is it about the context of this country that is causing all sorts of young people to act out in all sorts of troubling ways?
I think that has very little to do with Islam and what is happening in the Middle East in any given moment. Rather, we have to ask about the concern of gun violence in the United States and how young people are accessing weaponry to create havoc locally. As we have seen in the actual data, the instances of what we might define as terrorism, what we could define as non-state political violence, are far more rampant within white nationalist communities in this country. That is really where our concerns should be rather than over whether or not someone is in a mosque critiquing American foreign policy.
TR: Pivoting from the focus of the surveillance of Muslim students, we discuss the emergence and implications of intelligence community centers on university campuses. The intelligence community centers are part of a congressionally mandated program whose mission is to create an increased pool of culturally and ethnically diverse, multi-disciplinary job applicants for the intelligence community. The centers recruit students to work for agencies of the state through grants and internships. They also provide research funding to faculty. In this discussion, Dr. Ali brings up broader questions of the role that the universities play in our society, and the ability of scholars to express academic dissent.
AA: I think we have seen that very readily and we do not need to hypothesize about how that can play out. We have seen it happen very readily in critiques of Israeli policy, even in students advocating for Palestinian humanity. Those become places where academic freedom is more than slightly under attack. I think the bigger set of issues though related to setting up intelligence centers on campuses is: What does it mean that our universities work in direct service of state intelligence policies? That is a bigger question that we need to ask ourselves about the function of the university and the function of intellectual space. Broadly, if someone is making the argument that universities should work in the process of building and serving democratic society in the broadest definition, I think that is a productive utility of the institution of the university. But for the university to directly serve particular policies of the state, this becomes a very, very dangerous move for universities, both in terms of academic freedom, but also in terms of what the function of higher education should be in society.
Materially, the ways that this mediates academic freedom is first by funding particular types of research and not funding others, but also by changing the campus climate in which state intelligence becomes built into the everyday practice of the university by not knowing who is on your campus at any given point. So I think the question of academic dissent becomes a very real and palpable question, not just through intelligence centers but through the monitoring of email, the paying attention to, and the reading of the types of conversations scholars are having with their students. We have seen this most recently with the installation of computer hardware in the University of California [UC] system for the purpose of monitoring emails going in and out of the UC system. We have to ask: What are our goals in this? What are the state’s goals? How to do these goals, even within the project of the state, function to increase or to restrict democratic debate and engagement?
TR: While many would like to believe that the university is a safe place for the free exchange of ideas, it is difficult to deny its complicity with the state. Previously Dr. Ali mentioned the UC system’s recent installation of hardware capable of monitoring the emails of its faculty. It is important for us to ask: Who was it that ordered the installation of such invasive software? The answer to the question is not difficult to discover. It was former secretary of homeland security and current UC president Janet Napolitano. This is the same person who supported the UC system adopting a definition of anti-Semitism that would classify most expressions of Palestine solidarity as hate speech. As we expose these connections to the state we begin to understand the policies that repress academic freedom, and we should no longer be surprised that students and faculty are punished for expressing political dissent.
AA: The notion that the university is somehow a safe space from the gaze and the material practices of state disciplinary procedures is a naïve assumption. You referenced the Red Scare, COINTELPRO, and a number of other historic moments where we can say there was a targeting of particular types of scholars—whether they were scholars who were advocating for a Marxist or socialist political position, if they were advocating for a black radical position, or any other kind of third world peoples, or communities of color. But I think we have to remember that the policies of intimidation, the policies of constructing fear, the policies of disciplining critical action or speech out of the voices of academics, these are not isolated to particular historical moments. These have always been the case, and there are moments when they become more apparent, but they do not stop and they do not start, they continue to evolve and they look different in different historic moments.
Not even a full generation ago, Edward Said dealt with this throughout much of his in his career, and that was not during the Red Scare or COINTELPRO. These things continue to occur and they will always occur. So I think it is a false assumption that the university will ever be a safe space for critical discussion, for people to actually question the assumptions of what we might discuss today as neoliberal capitalism. But we also know that this is the role that engaged, and this is the role careful intellectuals have played in society, and we want to encourage this among a larger swath of society and among all of our young people.
When we shift this conversation back away from the university and the question of faculty, this becomes a question of what we mean when we say democracy. I think for those of us who work in university settings, our goal is to increase the forms and the types of democratic debate and engagement that all of our young people are engaged in. In essence, we want to create more opportunities for young people to ask the question: What do I want my world to look like? We want to create more opportunities for young people to say, “I am going to act in ways in which I want my society to look.” To me, that is what we want to cultivate. We do not want to cultivate a quiet, docile citizenry that is willing to accept whatever happens. We want to cultivate young people who are asking: What should our society be doing for all of its people? Rather than: How can I simply be a cog in this machine and make it go forward for another generation?
TR: One of the concerns among critical scholars who are Arab or Muslim and whose work focuses on the region is that they may be flagged for frequenting areas that have been deemed conflict zones. Here we can observe that the panoptic gaze of the state infringes upon knowledge production. When Arab and Muslim scholars avoid conducing research that may expose them to state violence, we must ask ourselves: Who is left to access resources in the region to produce knowledge on contemporary issues? With the proliferation of security studies programs across the country, the likelihood of racialized knowledge is not something to be taken lightly. Dr. Ali discusses the access granted to various scholars depending on their identity.
AA: I think more generally the body we occupy determines the types of speech that we are allowed to engage in. We know this to be true, and this extends far beyond this particular moment of Muslims and surveillance. We know that the different bodies we occupy allow us to have access to different types of discourses. The types of critiques one can levy within one’s own community for that matter are different than the critiques that can come from outside of one’s community. Likewise, we know the types of discourses around terrorism and violence that white scholars, or even everyday whites in this country, can engage in. We see this through the far right movement in the United States. We do not see the same types of discussions around online radicalization through the Stormfront website, for example, or through any of these far right movements in the United States that we see around the various movements that we might call ISIS or Daesh. I am not saying all of them should be decriminalized or all of them should be criminalized, but rather one of the things we should ask is: Why are there different treatments for different bodies that are engaged in very similar types of discourses?
TR: He goes on to share his own experience of traveling to the region for academic purposes and expands on the assumptions our bodies carry.
AA: On a personal level, last summer I went to Morocco on behalf of my university with a dozen other faculty members and the president of the university to attend an academic conference. When I came back into the United States, I was traveling with one of the vice provosts of the university. She and I were on the same flight and we were in line together. I was pulled out and detained for about two and a half hours. I asked whether I was being detained or not. They responded, “Well you traveled to a Muslim country.” I thought, “Well clearly so did these other fifteen people.” All of my bags had gone through, many people have had things much worse, and I am not complaining about my treatment in comparison, but even as an academic who is traveling on official university business with the university president—with letters that documented everything I was doing and who I was flying with—it is the body you occupy, not even the position you have. I do not have that kind of freedom, not even as a scholar. Regardless of someone’s credentials, one is always suspect. We know this to be true across communities of color, across the experiences of women. In essence, there is this assumption that you are always what people write of your bodies, no matter what your position is in the world.
So if you are a Muslim, there is an assumption that at some point your hidden terrorism will reveal itself so that people can point at you and say, “See we knew it was there.” You are always an exception and there is always an attempt to look for the rule. This is true of Muslims, African Americans, and for minority communities throughout the West, and throughout the United States specifically. Serving a position in the academy does not make it any less dangerous, although it might provide some level of protection. We have seen this with scores of African American scholars who have been arrested by police. Just this weekend was not Imani Perry was arrested on Princeton University campus? She is a leading national scholar, and she got arrested on her university campus. The university is not a safe space.
On the other hand, it is disingenuous to say that the university is like ‘the street’. There are privileges we get by having our affiliations, our positions, our titles, our jobs, and we cannot pretend that we do not have those—at least those relational benefits. But I think it is a tricky issue, and I do not think it is a black or white issue. I think this is one of the problems where we do not tease out the nuance of understanding that these issues are multi-layered and multi-faceted. While the university is a repressive space, repression and freedom are not binaries, but they function in ways that are complex. There are varying levels, types, and manifestations of having a more free existence.
TR: In concluding Dr. Ali’s interview, we briefly discussed a report released by George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. It outlines the status of CVE in America and suggests methods to improve the program. In summarizing the European experience with CVE, the report indicates that rather than target large cross-sections of the population, it is more efficient to invest resources in training individuals to recognize the common causes, risks, and manifestations of radicalization. The officials receiving this training in Europe include police officers, educators, university administrators, health professionals, social workers, housing officers, prison guards, and probation officers. While an official framework for CVE in the United States has yet to be released, it would not be presumptuous to assume that the program may take a similar approach, as it has done with domestic surveillance programs in the past. In examining the individuals who receive this type of training, we can further understand the matrix that makes up the Academic Military Prison Industrial Complex. Through a Foucauldian analysis, we can come to the realization that the university is actually another site of social control, despite its liberatory potential.
AA: The one thing I would want to add is thinking about the context of surveillance and the treatment of Muslim students on campus as part of a larger assemblage of disciplining critical voices both within the campus and within our society. We cannot disconnect the surveillance of Muslim bodies from the attacks on black bodies in this country, as well as the attacks on immigrant, non-dominant, and non-white bodies. I do not think it is coincidental that it has become much more apparent. Thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement broadly is a great way to think about some of these issues around Muslim surveillance. We know that black men in particular have been murdered by state policing agencies since the very foundations of this country. It is in this particular moment that this is growing into a national movement, but that does not mean that this has not been happening in the past. Rather, there are particular formations around technology and political movements that have brought this issue to the fore.
I think it is a lost opportunity if we do not understand how that becomes deeply tied to the broader matrix around counter terrorism, disciplining Muslim bodies, and telling immigrant communities that they are not welcome here. I think we have to remember that what the United States is engaged in internationally always has a domestic reflection and domestic ramifications. So the War on Terror overseas manifests itself domestically in surveillance policies, and US global imperial projects manifest themselves through the killing of black and brown bodies in the global South. They also manifest themselves locally through the violence perpetuated by the state against black bodies since the inception of the United States.
TR: For the final portion of this segment, we further explore the relationship between the university and the state in a discussion with two students from the University of South Florida [USF]. The University of South Florida enjoys a strong relationship with MacDill Air Force Base, home to both US-central command—which is responsible for Middle East military operations—and US special operations command. The university also hosts an intelligence center, which offers a certificate in national intelligence to students. Not only does USF host an intelligence center, but the university’s Florida Center for Cyber Security has its own top-secret cleared workspace. Our guests Danya Zituni and Jared Austin discuss how this relationship manifests on their campus and in the lives of the student body.
Jared Austin (JA): In my department on USF’s campus, the geosciences, we have this new program being set up that is aligned with the National Government Agency, which recruits for the National Security Agency [NSA] and other intelligence agencies. So far what they are doing is taking students who have high GPAs and who have done successful coursework related to what is called geographic information systems [GIS]. GIS is something people use to make maps and use for city planning, but it can also be used for intelligence purposes, such as spying on American citizens or spying on foreign governments. So by funneling kids into the new program they are getting the best of the best of a new generation of intelligence people. They also provide incentives by telling students, “We will pay for your graduate school as long as you are in, as long as you commit to working for us however long you are in graduate school.” They have these immensely high salaries and you get all of these government benefits, so it is a very cushy job to have right out of college—especially in light of the economic situation that many students face. So it is kind of a predatory tactic to get new people to basically spy on American citizens and other countries around the world.
TR: Danya discusses the relationship between USF and MacDill Air Force Base further.
Danya Zituni (DZ): We found out through our campaign to cut the contracts between USF and the US military, that these contracts that USF has with US Southern and Central Command—which are the military bodies in charge of operations in Latin America and the Middle East, respectively—give the US military access to resources and space on our campus to further their agenda of aggression and domination. According to the memorandums of understanding,
“Both organizations have engaged in mutual activities since 2002 to include research, education, training, conferences, speaking engagements, and outreach programs that further the parties’ respective public and educational mission.”
TR: I asked Danya and Jared to share how student organizers are responding to the presence of government agencies on campus.
DZ: On 21 October 2015 we disrupted a CIA recruitment on our campus and on 10 March 2015 we disrupted an FBI recruitment on our campus.
JA: But the CIA won, they tried to threaten us with disciplinary action, going as far as to say that we could potentially be expelled for disrupting the CIA’s event. Even though it is supposedly a public institution that our tuition dollars and taxpayer money goes toward funding, and is supposedly an open and public space for all students.
DZ: They attempted to charge six members with disrupting a private event, even though there was no guest list or anything upon us entering.
TR: Attempts to severely punish students who engage in protests on campus are one of the ways university administration seeks to quell dissent. The presence of intelligence centers on campus as well as the indistinct dichotomy between university programs and those of government agencies further complicates the ability of students to engage in protest. In some cases students are required to attend lectures given by state officials and foreign soldiers for class participation.
DZ: Recently there was also an event about the Iran nuclear deal that was hosted by a former member of the Israeli Defense Forces who orchestrated the occupation of the south of Lebanon. The event was specifically for international studies students, and it was required for my class to attend. I did attend, but I attended to disrupt it.
TR: On USF’s campus, it is clear that the relationship with the intelligence community and the state has had a substantial effect on the curriculum and programing of certain departments.
JA: Last semester I took a class called economic geography that was taught by a really good professor. He and a guy named Dr. Mark Hagen, who is an instructor in the international studies program, were both very instrumental in getting the Patel Center for Global Sustainability up on its feet and setting its focus on challenging the status quo on environmental concerns. He informed me that a lot of faculty from the international studies program and the political science program got put in more of the upper-tier positions in terms of organizing it. Now almost every single event at the Patel Center is related to some sort of militaristic intervention, or—I do not want to say recruitment events—information sessions that are clearly geared towards Western imperial interests in terms of its expansion abroad and what it continues to do. They are trying to paint certain groups, such as the CIA, the FBI, and Homeland Security, in a better light than others, and trying to recruit students into them.
TR: In addition to the ethical concerns of state actors undeniably affecting university curriculum, we must question the influence that faculty wield over students’ academic or professional trajectory. Many faculty and departments “benefit” from the funding they receive from programs instituted by the Director of National Intelligence Fund. Some faculty members go as far as to recruit their students to these programs as well.
JA: My advisor said to me, “You have a high GPA, you are graduating soon, you would be an excellent candidate for this,” and he sent me the flyer about the meeting they were having for it. My professor for my GIS class did the same thing. Even though I have told them multiple times that I am not interested in going into any field of intelligence, they still continue to say, “You know there are all of these great benefits, this great pay,” and they really want you to go into it. Of course, they try to sell it to you by saying, “You want to go to grad school maybe? Well they will pay for it.”
TR: Jared’s experience is representative of the general experience of students with intelligence centers on their campuses. Jared’s anecdote helps us better understand the relationship between the neoliberalization of the university and the exploitation of students. As university budgets shrink and tuitions rise, students are increasingly burdened by debt that forces them to consider careers based on monetary compensation rather than personal fulfillment. Many government agencies that offer scholarships to students require mandatory employment within the agency following graduation. While the job opportunities and scholarships offered by state agencies may appear to be generous, they are actually quite insidious in nature as they exploit the financial vulnerability of students, which was created by the university’s tuition hikes to begin with. We must also call into question the effects that government agencies may have on campus culture in regard to transparency at public universities. Despite students’ complicity in the actions of the university through their tuition, they are denied access to the relevant information of their university’s endowment. This is a direct violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law, which indicates that the public has the right to know how government institutions use taxpayer dollars and make decisions that affect their lives.
DZ: USF as an institution is very private and not transparent when it comes to what the university invests in and where the endowment money actually goes. I think that is part of the reason they were so vehement against the divestment resolution. Part of the resolution included increasing transparency of the endowment and where the money goes. While we were doing research about where the investments go, there were several public records requests made to the USF foundation and the university denied it. This is actually illegal and considered a violation of the Sunshine Law in Florida, and there has been a lot of legal action around this. It is sort of a pattern that USF does.
Also, when we were researching the contracts between USF and the US military, we were only able to find the memorandum of understanding between USF and US Central Command. We were not able to find the one with US Southern Command—which is in charge of military operations in Latin America, including overseeing torture in Guantanamo Bay Prison. So there are a lot of documents that are not available for students even though we are technically complicit in the activities USF engages in with our tuition dollars.
TR: Jared expresses fears similar to those of the Muslim students that Dr. Ali discussed in his interview. In Robert Gonzalez’s chapter “Militarizing Education,” he draws to our attention the cloak of secrecy surrounding the scholarships granted to students. He observes that neither peers, faculty, nor administration may be aware of the financial support that is granted. We can observe that the presence of intelligence centers and the recruitment of students and faculty further bolsters the panoptic gaze of the state, not only affecting Muslim students, as discussed in Dr. Ali’s interview, but also progressives who may not accede to the status quo.
JA: I know for a fact when the National Government Agency [NGA] contract—whatever you want to call it—was being negotiated with USF, my GIS instructor was the one who was trying to set it up at USF. I know that she had to go to a week in Washington and meet with all of these intelligence people, had a top-secret security clearance, and had to go through this huge ordeal to get it. I know that students involved in the program who work with the NGA while they are getting their masters degree are also going to have those security clearances. So if they are at USF—and obviously we do not know because there is no way to document something that is top-secret—it would not be even remotely surprising to me if it were to come out that there were students on campus actively joining groups, embedding with student groups, or just listening in to try to thwart the student demand. That is, given a brief history of the United States, what universities have done in league with US national security interests, what they have done to progressive groups on campuses in the past, and how advanced the intelligence community has gotten with its level of spying.
TR: Danya discusses the effects that the panoptic gaze of the state has on her organizing with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Students for a Democratic Society [SDS].
DZ: There are people in SJP who will give pseudonyms in interviews. The person who wrote the recent divestment resolution that passed through student government successfully did not identify publicly as a member of SJP, even though he coauthored the resolution with a member of SJP. So there are people who, even if they support divestment and are active in the struggle to divest from apartheid Israel, will not join SJP or SDS or formally identify themselves publicly with Palestine solidarity activism.
TR: Pivoting from this point, the students discuss some of the campaigns they are involved in on campus, which further reveals the administrations allegiance to power over students and faculty.
DZ: In 2014 SJP collected ten thousand signatures—which is known as the largest student petition in the history of Florida—to divest from companies engaged in human rights violations against Palestinians. When they brought this petition to members of the USF Foundation, the foundation rejected the petition within only thirteen minutes of deliberation using pre-written statement. Later on, Ben Norton, who is a journalist for Mondoweiss, reported that the USF Foundation actually met with officials from Hillel to coauthor this pre-written statement to reject the divestment. Then Ed Rosenthal, who is the executive director of Hillels of the Suncoast, publicly boasted in an article saying that our students did an incredible job behind the scenes thwarting the efforts of SJP. They had private meetings with the USF Foundation board and one-on-one meetings with Jewish trustees, who actually themselves have personal investments in these corporations, in Israel and in illegal settlements. Actually the president of USF, Judy Genshaft, received an award from the Jewish National Fund for her so-called charity work in Israel.
TR: It is important to note the history of repression that USF holds. As this program seeks to map the militarization of universities, it comes at no surprise that USF both shares strong relationships with the US government and was also the university that fired Dr. Sami al-Arian after he was falsely accused of terrorism. Danya details how her student group is combatting the university’s honoring of an icon of repression in Florida.
DZ: The SDS has put forth a demand that USF change the name of the C.W. Bill Young building, which is the building that is home to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps [ROTC] program. C.W. Bill Young was a Florida senator and he was a member of the Johns Committee. This committee had the primary role of finding, persecuting, and harshly interrogating LGBTQ students and faculty across the Florida university system, including at USF. The committee also targeted civil rights activists, it terrorized people who were presumed to be communists, leftists, or subversives, as well as people who were thought to be enemies of the state. This took place during the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare, which were waves of state repression against anyone presumed to be a communist or a homosexual and vice versa. So people who were presumed to be homosexual were accused of also being communists.
TR: Here we can observe one of the many contradictions in university rhetoric that attempts to appropriate the language of diversity, which is typically employed by progressive segments throughout the United States.
DZ: We find that for a university that allegedly prides itself on its diversity and support for LGBTQ students and faculty, the name of this building is not only inappropriate but also extremely reprehensible. So we have started gathering petition signatures to change this name. It has received a lot of support, not only from students but faculty who are again against the oppression of LGBTQ students and faculty.
TR: Danya offers an important example of where the establishment receives its support and underlines the relationship between repressive institutions and those who benefit from allying with them.
DZ: The only opposition we have faced from the students has been from people in the ROTC program who are very homophobic. I do not think it is a coincidence that the building that houses the ROTC program is named after C.W. Bill Young. We have also received opposition from Zionist student groups, such as Hillel and Bulls for Israel, who are also involved in the ROTC program. There is a huge overlap between students in Zionist student groups and students who are in the ROTC program.
TR: As we develop a Foucauldian understanding of the role that universities play in the United States, faculty and student activists who appeal to the university framework of campus reform should not be discouraged when their concerns are sidelined. The processes required to enact change within the university are actually part of a system to circumscribe the power of student organizing. At USF this is most apparent when analyzing the process to pass divestment. Despite garnering the support of the student body and student government, the resolution must still pass through the faculty, then the staff, and finally the board of trustees. In closing Jared and Danya’s interview, Jared offers a reflection on this process.
JA: It is first of all extremely important to come to the reality that USF is by no means, in any way shape or form, a democratic campus—along with just about, if not all, universities in the United States, period. They are ruled by a certain class of people that has absolutely no interest in the student body whatsoever. They put on the façade, make it look all nice, hang a pretty picture of it, but at the end of the day, it does not matter who you vote for or who gets elected. Your demands are not going to be met.
However, they can be when there is an extreme mass support of students and faculty united to say, “We are not going to play into the administration’s hands, we are not going to play by the rules that administration wants us to play by, and we are going to do the political work necessary to really garner change through protesting and such.” I think the best example would be the Missouri University boycott, when the football team refused to play. That was a huge deal for the university; it affected them materially, not just ideologically. So, as students across the United States, and not just at USF, we really need to come to terms with and understand that that is the only way we are going to enact real change. The student government stuff is nice. It is nice to pass resolutions. But at the end of the day when the entire ruling apparatus at your university is completely complicit in the material interests of oppressing people abroad, destroying the environment, whatever the case may be, they are not going to let your demands pass through conventional means.
TR: Thank you for listening to this episode of Reclaiming Academic Freedom entitled, “The Panoptic Gaze of the Ivory Tower,” on Status. I would like to thank our guests Muna Sharif, Dr. Arshad Ali, Danya Zituni, and Jared Austin for sharing their experiences and insights with campus surveillance. As always, I hope you will heed our call for your submissions on issues concerning campus repression and academic freedom. This is Tareq Radi hosting Status’s segment on Reclaiming Academic Freedom.