In recent years, the political and social activity of racialized Muslim American communities is transforming alongside the widening powers of law enforcement agencies and the carceral technologies that undergird their agendas. In the past two decades alone, Muslim Americans have been subjected to racist surveillance programs that sometimes result in violence and death. Both surveillance and racism have forced Muslim Americans to reassess their relationship to law enforcement agencies that publicly antagonize them, while also reassessing how to protect their physical and metaphysical existence as adherents of the Islamic tradition. This essay considers how Muslim Americans in North Carolina, where I have conducted ethnographic research since 2017, confront surveillance and racial violence that may result in their corporeal and spiritual death. How do Muslim Americans center the problem of death in their political and social activity in order to secure their communal and spiritual lives?
In his “Second Discourse,” Rousseau makes a passing, yet profound comment about the origin of the political subject and the descent from the animal condition, which organizes my inquiry. Prior to becoming a political subject, the “only good [animals] know in the Universe are food, a female, and rest; the only evils he fears are pain, and hunger.” He continues, “I say pain, and not death; for an animal will never know what it is to die, and the knowledge of death, and of its terrors, is one of man’s first acquisitions on moving away from the animal condition.” As Rousseau suggests, the movement away from nature and into social and political activity is a movement premised on the knowledge that one will inevitably die. What is expected from politics and sociality, in light of this knowledge, are the strategies, mechanisms, and protocols that protect from the “terrors” of finitude. If the knowledge of death is supersensible and cannot be experienced (as an aspect of death, which I return to below), how does it transform an animal into a political and social being who worries about their safety and security? If death gives the political life, race and racism are the names for the terror that death breeds in the US today, the insecurity that terror fosters in racialized communities, and the impetus behind political recourse. Breanna Taylor, Treyvon Martin, George Floyd, Razan Abu-Salha, Yusor Abu-Salha, Deah Barakat, and their respective communities are devastatingly aware of the terrors of death. The victims of racist murder reveal that the knowledge of death is more potent in some political communities than in others. It is not merely a fact, it is an embodied orientation toward the unpredictable imminence of death.
Beyond the advocated political and legal recourses that take shape in bureaucratic procedures or protest, communities who feel the immediacy of death are demanding a different kind of security and protection. This is especially the case for Islamic communities in the United States, who are the targets of counterterrorism programs (such as Countering Violent Extremism [CVE]) and racist violence in the form of arson, assault, and murder. Specifically in North Carolina, the murder of three young Muslim Americans—Razan, Yusor, and Deah—and disruptive government surveillance programs have encouraged the Muslim community’s newfound desire to secure Islamic life. In order to secure the vitality of the Islamic tradition and its adherents, Muslim American communities are implementing security protocols at their own behest. They are doing so by remediating their relationship with law enforcement agencies, the very agents who have antagonized and incarcerated Muslims.
Both racial violence and the poisons of counterterrorism programs promote a sense of fear, suspicion, and social fragility that impede Muslims from cultivating Islamic virtues and transmitting their tradition. In this space of violation and scrutiny, speculative warfare between Muslims and law enforcement agencies thrives. Here the difference between informants, “terrorists,” and practicing Muslims is indiscernible. While this may seem like Muslim Americans are complicit with the security state, their efforts to secure their tradition and community are irreducible to it. Muslims convert securitization and law enforcement from mere political mechanisms into spiritual exercises to secure the Islamic tradition.
Six years since the tragic killing of Razan, Yusor, and Deah, their deaths have profoundly transformed what it means to practice the Islamic tradition and transmit its spirit and teaching. Security protocols, moreover, that protect the body and soul are not limited to weapons, CCTV cameras, or other mechanisms associated with securitization. In fact, the desire for security also converts political and civic participation into security mechanisms against the imminent risks of death or social exclusion. Numerous Muslims in North Carolina have either run for political office (see the story of Nida Allam and Zainab Baloch), forged social justice initiatives (see the efforts of The Lighthouse Project and Muslim Women For), or created intercommunal dialogue between law enforcement agencies and other religious communities. As one Imam explained to me in the idiom of war, the establishment and remediation of social and political relationships are akin to fortifying the Islamic community with trenches.
This kind of political and social activity in Muslim American communities locates the sensible as well as the supersensible threats that endanger their way of life. As such, Islamic communities are invited to incorporate security in their communal spaces (including mosques) as well as in their repertoire of sensibilities. Such sensibilities are not limited to seeing, hearing, or feeling a potential security threat. Rather, security encourages one to cultivate a sensibility toward the supersensible, toward that which cannot be seen, heard, or felt. In the atmosphere of racial violence and counterterrorism surveillance, feeling and perceiving that which cannot be immediately sensed provides Muslim Americans with the psychic relief and fortification to practice, teach, and transmit the Islamic tradition.
With the knowledge of death lurking, Muslim Americans cultivate a sensibility of the supersensible with three primary concerns at hand. The first concerns the potential of racial violence. Racial violence in North Carolina is not merely incidental. It is constitutive of this polity, which recursively produces extraordinary events of violence. In this way, redressing the murder of Razan, Yusor, and Deah is situated within a political tradition of combating racism and forming anti-racist coalitions. While murder and violence do not occur daily, the Muslim American community in North Carolina seeks to sense the specters and prepare for the potential of racist violence.
Second, as governmental surveillance continues, Muslims cultivate a sensibility toward the supersensible in order to detect informants in their community, discerning between who is an informant and who is not. Because informants are often a part of the community, they instigate a sense of anxiety, fear, and circumspection such that Muslims are required to question their friends, neighbors, and fellow congregants. As one interlocutor explained to me during one visit at the Islamic Association of Raleigh, discerning between who is a Muslim and who is an informant is a “skill” that his community must acquire to protect the youth from being deceived. This kind of suspicion, moreover, is not a discernment between who is a “good” or “bad” Muslim. Instead, the hermeneutics of suspicion allows Muslims to perceive what is both a security threat and a theological threat, which may endanger how the tradition is understood within and outside the Islamic community. Political and social justice in this context involves repairing intercommunal relationships and presenting the Islamic tradition for the purpose of public understanding, which has been tarnished due to surveillance programs.
Lastly, sensing the supersensible is more than a security mechanism. It also entails reconfiguring a Muslim’s relationship to the Divine. Because security encourages a Muslim to sense that which is insensible, it also allows them to cultivate the attention and perception of supersensible beings that are a part of their theological topography. This includes sensing God, jinn, and angels who are usually imperceptible. Sensing the supersensible, which is encouraged by security protocols, also provides the conditions for finding spiritual sustenance from the Islamic tradition and seeking support from the Divine in a new manner. As some of interlocutors described it, the “spiritual strength” received from engaging with law enforcement or the implementation of security mechanisms provides a new foundation on which Muslim can relate to the Islamic tradition, God, and the Prophet Muhammad.
For Rousseau, the knowledge of death presents a severe evil to the political subject. Not because death itself is criminal, but because the knowledge of it petrifies this subject, turns them away from their natural conditions, and forces them to prepare for an event that cannot be anticipated. For Islamic communities today, the knowledge of death is a virtue, the preparation of which brings them closer to the divine and adjusts how they conduct themselves, spiritually, politically, and socially. Death breathes life into the political and makes present things unseen, unheard, and inexperienced. With the implementation of the logic and language of security inside Islamic communities, the knowledge of death brings them into the fold of a political world that they seek to fundamentally transform.