The intimacies of surveillance

The internalisation of governmental narratives about oneself, especially as an individual or a group, is a common and arguably essential by-product of state policies aimed at controlling dissent, particularly from minoritised communities.  Niyousha Bastani argues that the Prevent policy in the UK, with its racialised hierarchies and normativities, has permeated Muslim life, thinking and, crucially, resistance.

The embeddedness of structures of surveillance in everyday life encourages Muslims, along with everyone else, to “see like a state.” This essay grapples with one consequence of violent anti-Muslim surveillance structures — their potential internalisation by Muslims, in public and intimate spaces.

Governance through surveillance works by categorising people into flat and essential identities – through categories such as race, gender, class, religion, and ability – and making decisions based on assumptions about these identities. In its targeting of Muslims as ‘potential terrorists’ or as ‘vulnerable to radicalisation,’ anti-Muslim surveillance then also defines Muslimness and pins it down. When the state’s constructions of Muslim identity are internalised, Muslims can struggle to see themselves outside the reductive terms of the state. In the recent collected volume, I Refuse to Condemn: Resisting Racism in Times of National Security (Qureshi, 2020), Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan and Yassir Morsi write eloquently about the difficulty of seeing oneself outside this dominant gaze. Manzoor-Khan writes that “we have more knowledge of how our identities are understood by others than we have of who we are on our own terms” (2020, 188-9); Morsi writes of the ‘Muslim’ as constructed by the ‘War on Terror’ as a shadow he must reckon with (2020, 137-148). I expand on the gaze they speak of here as the liberal white gaze of the ‘War on Terror.’

Especially important to the surveillance state is the idea that Muslims are inherently out of place in “the West.” The habit of “seeing like the state” naturalises Muslims feeling alienated in “the West” by blaming this experience on their inherent Otherness. It marks their feeling lost due to feeling ‘Other’ as a danger to society at large. At the same time, to be too certain of one’s religious identity is also marked as being “fundamentalist.” Muslims’ religiosity is deemed dangerous if they are too “practising” or committed, or conversely, if they are too “confused” and figuring it out. The acceptable way of being Muslim is then squeezed into a small suffocating space of being neither too committed nor too confused — the safest way of being Muslim becomes being ambivalent about religiosity. This dynamic flattens being Muslim into static tropes and limits the scope for cultivating Muslim spaces on different terms and for nurturing spiritual and religious curiosity.

In the UK, the state has embedded its gaze and its definition of Muslim authenticity through providing counter-extremism funding to materially influence the agenda of community groups, among other tactics; beyond such direct influence, this piece grasps at the less tangible impacts of the surveillance state’s rigid delimitations of Muslim identity. My focus is on the UK, where I’m currently researching the implementation of the anti-Muslim counter-terrorism legislation known as PREVENT in university settings, but it is fair to hypothesise that similar dynamics are played out in other nation-states where anti-Muslim surveillance is prevalent through counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies. Experiences in other such places also inform this piece. Policies like PREVENT operate on the premise that Muslims who are “vulnerable to radicalisation” can be identified by anyone through visible signs of increasing or “too much” religiosity or signs of “identity confusion.” I outline and problematise the ways in which such a premise reifies acceptable and “authentic” Muslim identity.

My thinking draws on my research, my own perspective as a woman committed to trying to become Muslim (and failing daily), and on stories research informants and loved ones have shared with me. In drawing on some of the stories I have heard through my research and in my daily life, I rewrite them here in a way that mixes accounts of different peoples’ experiences (including my own) without separating them out into different stories. I present these experiences as snapshots of a single imaginary character’s life throughout this piece, and I refer to her simply as she. This approach is inspired by ethnographic methods particularly concerned with maintaining anonymity. It is also a way of resisting reductive stories.

My conclusion is simple but fraught: to fight against the surveillance state, we must also let go of a particular notion of being authentically Muslim. These are notions that amount to performing Muslim identity as the inherently out of place Other of the white liberal norm. These notions of authenticity either echo the state’s reductive terms or mirror them through equally reductive terms of “our own.” The letting go that I speak of can manifest in our day to day lives, and in the communities and religious, activist, and scholarly spaces we foster; when they do, I believe they make it easier for us to be. 

  1. Counterinsurgency as keeping the house in order

Home: a place where one lives.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 placed a legal duty (“the Prevent duty”) on public facing social service providers, like the National Health Service and education institutions (from nurseries to universities), to partake in identifying those who might be “vulnerable to radicalisation.” The Prevent duty intervened in interpersonal relations where trust is essential: between doctors and patients, mental health counsellors and clients, teachers and students. It did more than that too: it pushed its way into households, looking to children as potential channels for finding out about “terrorist homes,” intervening also in parent child relations. Ambiguous drawings and misspellings of Muslim kids in schools brought police to family homes; Muslim university students for whom their institutions were meant to be a new home encountered instead a minefield of gazes that demanded they look “safe,” or else. 

Since 2015, the Prevent duty has made the provision of social services a direct method of policing Muslims and migrants, and those perceived as either, who are the obvious targets of Prevent and the broader infrastructure of hostile environment policies. The latter infrastructure also requires the NHS and educational institutions to act as border guards, partaking in visa and residency checks on the government’s behalf. Even before becoming a statutory duty, the selective provision of funding from Prevent to community groups so long as they agreed to participate in the Home Office’s counter-radicalisation efforts, was demonstrative of how consent can be coerced through welfare management.

When the cost of social services is widespread surveillance, those already disproportionately targeted by state violence are dissuaded from accessing these services on the one hand and on the other hand, incentivised toward conforming to the status quo when they do access these provisions — lest they catch the socially pervasive eye of the surveillance state.

In Economy of Force, Patricia Owens argues that “the defining social question of nineteenth century European thought” was whether the welfare of disaffected populations “at home” and in colonies could be prevented from revolt through the careful management of their life processes, that is, the processes involved in the reproduction of human life (2015, 16). Post-Enlightenment thinkers did not so much discover the social as “invent” it, as a space that scales up life processes previously embedded in family households and the hierarchies that go hand in hand with them. Scaling up the household also created a space wherein the state could regulate the activities of those most likely to revolt against the status quo.

Household: “one of the historically variable units of rule in which the life processes of members are reproduced and the collective unit of the household is maintained” (Owens 2015, 7).

Governing through the social realm, as PREVENT for example does, is “the distinctly modern and capitalist form of household rule” (2015, 7). Owens therefore argues that liberal wars of counterinsurgency — including the ‘War on Terror’ — are wars of social work, of “domestication.” Counter-insurgency wars pacify a population by managing its welfare in such a way to ensure that they do not revolt against the dominant international political order. That is, social services are selectively provided to coerce a population’s consent for counter-insurgency rule. That counter-insurgency works through the realm of the social, and that social regulation is a type of household governance, indicate the ways in which counter-insurgency intervenes in the most necessary and intimate life processes: health care, shelter, and access to other resources necessary for survival.

Social government then, as a type of household rule, is always counter-insurgent and concerned with reconfiguring intimate relations; it reconfigures relations in such a way as to coerce those at the margins to comply with the status quo of the national and (post)colonial household. Wherever counterinsurgency wars are fought, the violence of such governance is evident. On “the homefront” too, the “domestic” ‘War on Terror’ has certainly knocked down doors of homes at night to make arrests on thinly founded suspicions, to detain without charge, and sometimes to deport or extradite  — to make life processes difficult or unbearable. The work done by the incredible UK charity organisation HUGGS (Helping Households Under Great Stress) is emblematic of this. Committed to providingfinancial, emotional, and practical support and advice to Muslim households impacted by counter-terrorism, national security and extremism-related laws,” the organisation provides services to make life manageable in the aftermath of such violence.

PREVENT is the branch of counter-terrorism with the widest access to social space and therefore the greatest number of people in whose life processes it can intervene — everyone who attends an education institution, uses the NHS or has close contact with someone who does either is exposed to its gaze. As a strategy, it provides plenty of opportunity to intervene in life processes, and to make them difficult, exhausting or unbearable.

The processes that Owens outlines as being involved in the reproduction of life and therefore intervened on by counterinsurgency strategy are too narrow for fully grasping the extent to which counterterrorism policies conquer “a place where one lives,” or home. Sustaining life necessitates safety, shelter, food, medicine and healthcare; it also requires mental health support, intimacy; sustaining Muslim life, we may add, necessitates a community of faith and ability to practise one’s faith without facing violence. 

Precisely because PREVENT grasps living as such, a central premise underpinning the strategy is that “radicalisation occurs as people search for identity, meaning and community” and that “some second or third generation Muslims in Europe, facing apparent or real discrimination and socio-economic disadvantage, can find in terrorism a ‘value system’, a community.” With one hand then, PREVENT institutes discrimination against (those perceived as) Muslims, especially young people, by marking them as “vulnerable to radicalisation” and directing society’s surveillance gaze toward them; with the other hand, PREVENT sweeps in as the solution for those facing “apparent” discrimination (read: the same real discrimination that the policy itself institutionalises across society).

PREVENT referrals can lead to being enrolled in the Channel program, which can include being directed to a mentorship program, mental health support, or a religious leader deemed “safe” for guidance that will steer one off the path to radicalisation. A second premise underlying PREVENT then is that the line dividing ‘bad, at risk/risky Muslims’ and ‘Good ones’ is constituted by a sort of psychoeducational care. This premise is the basis of a particularly liberal flavour of anti-Muslim sentiment — that ‘bad Muslims’ need to be educated into being good liberal subjects. Bad Muslims are conceived of as emotionally lost and uneducated. For those of us who are lost, searching for meaning, community, and identity through faith, it can be difficult to resist internalising this white liberal gaze and its pernicious understanding of good versus bad (that is, at risk/risky) Muslims. It is a gaze encountered everywhere, not only in the institutions charged with the Prevent duty, but also at times in the eyes of near and dear liberal friends and family.  


It is their first time meeting in years. He was her childhood music teacher; he is familiar with her home, her family. In a cafe, they talk about how their lives have shaped up. She is a young adult now, in her early twenties. He is white; she is not. She mentions her increasing discomfort and impatience with her parents’ subtle expressions of homophobia. She thinks it is not exactly why she wanted to catch up with him; but she doubts herself, it very well could be exactly why. As a kid, he was the first openly gay person she had a close relationship with, and realising that this is probably why she is catching up with him now, she cringes at herself. He is surprised: “I always thought of your parents as really like, well, cosmopolitan, educated Muslims.” Again, she tries not to squirm. She had not said they are “not educated,” she had said they express homophobia in ways that upset her. She leaves confused. In recounting this story to a friend later on, she is ashamed of herself for tokenising her former teacher for this conversation. She is ashamed of opening up her parents to be reduced to tropes of backwardness and of Good versus Bad Muslims in the white, secular, liberal imagination of education and progress.


  1. Reconfigurations of being

Counter-terorrism and counter-extremism laws and policies that pin down Muslim identity through a white gaze reconfigure even our relationship to ourselves. The most recent and frightening example of this in the UK is the counter-extremism framing of the Department of Education’s Relationship and Sexual Education (RSE) guidance for schools. As two groups taking legal action against this guidance, the Coalition of Anti-racist Educators (CARE) and Black Educators Alliance (BEA), state in their pre-action letter to the Secretary of State for Education, guidance on relationship and sex education “has no rational link” to preventing extremism. However, when we consider that the unstated aim of counter-insurgency is always to intervene on intimate life processes and reconfigure our relations to ourselves and others, the rational link becomes clear.

Officially, the link to counter-extremism will no doubt be defended with references to protests in 2019 against the use of a curriculum called “No Outsiders in our School: Teaching the Equalities Act.” The protests outside Birmingham schools largely involved parents who did not approve of the curriculum. The curriculum was designed by an assistant headteacher at Parkfield community primary school, which has a 98% Muslim student population. From the get go, the programme was framed as part of a “counter-radicalisation” effort, using PREVENT buzzwords like “community cohesion” and “fundamental British values.” News reports gave accounts of parents’ reasons for protesting as being that the kids are too young for the curriculum’s content on sex and sexuality, and that the curriculum teaches about being trans and queer. These reports were then fed into justifications in public discourse of just how much counter-radicalisation efforts are needed in homophobic Muslim communities.

The framing of lessons about queer equality as a “fundamental British value” is an example of Jaspir Puar’s (2018) concept of homonationalism. To quote Rahul Rao’s explanation of the term, homonationalism is “an assemblage in which LGBT rights have come to be mobilised as new markers for an old divide between the civilised and the savage” (2020, 33). A poignant letter against the counter-extremism approach to equality by LGBT+ individuals and organisations that support LGBT+ communities lays out the hypocrisy of such homonationalism. They write, “it is worth remembering that the 21 MPs who voted against the new LGBT+ inclusive guidance on compulsory RSE earlier this year were predominantly white British men from the Conservative Party and the DUP” and that, “our (unelected) prime minister Boris Johnson has a history of making homophobic remarks, including attacking Labour for encouraging the teaching of homosexuality in schools and describing gay men as ‘bumboys.’” They insightfully note that while there is homophobia in Muslim communities, there is also homophobia in all communities, and that painting Muslims as uniquely homophobic and anti-trans has served to support a racist agenda.

I believe that it is entirely predictable how teaching about sex, gender, and sexuality under a counter-radicalisation framework will intervene in intimate relationships and make life unliveable, perhaps especially for queer Muslims. Anyone who has grown up Muslim during the global ‘War on Terror’ knows what it is like to constantly fight against the internalisation of a gaze that sees ourselves, our families and our faith as uniquely violent, misogynist, homophobic and “uncivilised.”


She is having her thousandth fight with her mom about this. They’re walking through the gay neighbourhood, and there are flags painted on the sidewalks. Her mom says it all makes her feel sick, nauseous. When she was little, she used to just cry when her family said stuff like that. Now, as an adult, she gets an immediate migraine and feels all energy drained from her body, but she tries instead to reason. They go back and forth, they go in circles. She tries her knowledge from school; she tries a lazier “all hate is bad” appeal; she tries referring to alternative readings of relevant Quranic passages. “I know you want me to be like the white moms. I know you’re embarrassed of me. But I have prayed and prayed to be more accepting, and I can’t do it,” Mom retorts, sounding genuine and desperate. She lasts longer than usual in the face of her mother’s disgusted face; this mother whom she loves and respects and in this moment cannot stand at all. But like always, she runs out of steam and starts grabbing at whatever she can, throwing in everything and the kitchen sink. She is surprised to hear the words coming out of her own mouth: “You can be SO backwards sometimes. Honestly, WHERE did they bring you from?” As soon as the words are out there, hanging in the air, she knows she has made her mother into an “uncivilised” outsider, and that she can do nothing to take it back. Nothing to do but unravel in shame.


  1. “Your silence will not protect you”

The letter from LGBT+ individuals and organisations is right to call for the abolition of PREVENT, to advise against framing equalities education through it, and to point out the hypocrisy in presenting homophobia as a uniquely “uncivilised” Muslim problem. They write, “Let us not forget that it was Britain that implemented anti-sodomy laws across its empire, and it is Britain that continues to deport LGBT+ people seeking asylum from those very laws.” We should however, be careful as well about the mirror of homonationalism, which Rao (2020) coins as “homoromanticism.” The latter is a framework that imagines Others as “blameless pawns in an essentially Western ‘culture war’” (Rao 2020, 33). Just as homonationalism imagines the ‘West’ as having ‘progressed’ beyond the homophobia of its “uncivilised” others, homoromaticism imagines homophobia to be exclusively a Western colonial import to previously queer-friendly places. In the framework of homonationalism, homosexuality is Western; in the framework of homoromanticism, homophobia is.

I have written elsewhere about my experience in some elite and educational Muslim spaces, where I have been surprised to see queerness as the defining otherness through which being authentically Muslim is defined. To give the same example, at a conference about Muslim identity, I listened to a renowned white Muslim scholar of Islam reiterate a notion at the very core of PREVENT: that it is “natural” for young Muslims to feel out of place in the ‘West.’ Like the PREVENT guidance, he did not mean to say that legally instituted anti-Muslim sentiment that haunts all social spaces alienates young Muslims; instead, he claimed that this feeling of alienation is “natural” because in the Muslim-majority world, “you don’t have kids in school being taught about non-binary gender and homosexuality.” With this allusion to the Birmingham school protests, the speaker presented the feeling of alienation as inevitable among “authentic” Muslims: in his framing, “authentic” Muslims are always foreign to (and feel foreign to) ‘the West,’ queerness is completely foreign to “authentic” Muslims, and queer Muslims are an inauthentic impossibility — always and everywhere out of place. The scholar in question thus uncritically invoked the racist vision of PREVENT, which sees Muslimness in the UK as “backwards,” homophobic, and out of place.

As I listened, I was aware that a number of people in the room full of academics doing critical work did not share this view and a number would strongly oppose this underhanded homophobic and racist view in other contexts. Yet, while the message was abundantly clear (authentic Muslims are not queer nor do they accept queerness; and authentic Muslims see queerness as foreign and feel out of place in the West because of the prevalence of queerness), no one raised their voice to oppose it. The scholar mediated “authentic” Muslimness (as scholars often do) through the dominant white gaze, and he did not face strong opposition. There was a silent consent to this gaze, my own heavy silence included. 

In an essay titled, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde (2017) reflects on the surgical removal of a tumour that led her to consider all the things she had not spoken in her life from fear of pain and death. The experience makes her realise, “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you”. As Muslims, I think, we have many reasons to share in this sentiment: we believe that there is nothing and no one to fear but Allah; we believe that after the pain and death of this life, to Allah we will return. We have Sura al-Nisa, which reads:

O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do.” [Surah al-Nisa: 135]

  1. On being, becoming, and bewilderment 

No doubt, what justice means for the themes I have been outlining will have no easy consensus. Still, I hope to clarify some points about the difficulties of being Muslim at times of institutionalised anti-Muslim surveillance and violence, and what will and will not help us be and cultivate better living room.

PREVENT (and indeed, the whole infrastructure of the ‘War on Terror’) has perniciously coerced a silent consent in the social realm for anti-Muslim feeling, language and action that reduce being Muslim to false static tropes. As a mode of household rule, domestic counter-insurgency has thus intervened on the most essential life processes and reconfigured the most intimate of relationships. If we believe as I do, to quote Lorde again, that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house,” then it is clear that quietly coercing consensus for “our own” reductive notions of being “authentically” Muslim will not protect us; it will not allow us to cultivate the homes, that is, the places of living, the living room that we desire and deserve, as all human beings do.

It might be useful to instead think about and speak of being Muslim as a process of becoming, to allow for confusion and the messiness of being an embodied human in a world with much injustice, without flattening ourselves into an abstract and ahistoric imaginary of idealised “authenticity.” We can resist without accepting PREVENT’s premise that confusion and uncertainty make us risky or at risk, and that to be “safe” we must assert our certainty in what being Muslim means through designating its other. This other construction is how whiteness knows itself; it need not be how we understand the self. 

There is much about faith that demands simultaneous certainty and bewilderment: what can we be aside from both certain and bewildered when we contemplate the limitlessness of Allah?

My not all too radical conclusion is that we can resist by cultivating spaces for becoming Muslim, without constructing a Self through an Other. In doing so, we may also nurture space to be bewildered, to become, to live.

Niyousha Bastani is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics & International Studies, University of Cambridge, where she researches ideas of liberal education, race, and care in counter-extremist UK. She is Features Editor at the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, and was formerly host of Declarations: the Human Rights Podcast at Cambridge’s Centre for Governance and Human Rights. She tweets @bniyoush.


Lorde, Audre. 2017. Your Silence Will Not Protect You. Silver Press.

Owens, P., 2015. Economy of Force: Counterinsurgency and the Historical Rise of the Social (Vol. 139). Cambridge University Press.

Puar, J.K., 2018. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer times. Duke University Press.

Qureshi, A. ed., 2020. I Refuse to Condemn: Resisting racism in times of national security. Manchester University Press.

Rao, R., 2020. Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality. Oxford University Press.