What is the film about?
In the Muslim immigrant neighborhood outside of Chicago where journalist and filmmaker Assia Boundaoui grew up, most of her neighbors think they have been under surveillance for over a decade. While investigating their experiences, Assia uncovers tens of thousands of pages of FBI documents that prove her hometown was the subject of one of the largest counter terrorism investigations ever conducted in the U.S. before 9/11, code-named “Operation Vulgar Betrayal.” With unprecedented access, The Feeling of Being Watched weaves the personal and the political as it follows the filmmaker’s examination of why her community—including her own family—fell under blanket government surveillance. The Feeling of Being Watched follows Assia as she pieces together this secret FBI operation, while grappling with the effects of a lifetime of surveillance on herself and her family.
Who are members of the community?
The Mosque Foundation community that was founded in 1954 by a handful of Arab immigrants living on Chicago’s suburban South-west side. Since then, the Mosque Foundation has grown to serve over 50,000 Muslims in the community. Controversy and interaction with the surveillance state are not new in the community. In 2004, the Chicago Tribune published a story pitting “moderate” Muslims against their more “conervative” counterparts,” by arguing that there is worry in the community that the “Muslim Brotherhood, a controversial group with a violent past, has an undue influence over the mosque.” In fact, as the film revealed, Muslims in southwest suburban Bridgeview had been under surveillance by the U.S. government for decades.
What themes will the film surface?
Racialized surveillance: Neighborhoods across the country have been under digital monitoring for decades in the United States. In Dark Matter: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne defines racialized surveillance as a “technology of social control where surveillance practices, policies, and performances concern the production of norms pertaining to race and exercise a ‘power to define what is in or out of place.’” Informed by centuries of anti-Black fear and suspicion, these practices reify boundaries and borders along racial lines.
Fear of religious practice: Law enforcement’s emphasis on indicators of religiosity as hallmarks of radicalization, and on religious spaces as generators of radicalization, has put the very practice of religion at the center counterterrorism policing. The perpetual and palpable scrutiny has deeply disrupted American Muslims’ ability to practice their faith. This becomes apparent in every facet of religious identity – from how one chooses to dress, to what types of religious activities one engages in, to where one prays, how one interacts with other members of his or her faith, and even what type of Islam American Muslims feel comfortable practicing.
Paranoia: All communities adopt and adapt defensive mechanisms in response to targeted violence. In this way, paranoia is a tool of caution that has protected our communities, yet, it continues to be weaponized to silence community members. It is a result of hypervigilance, which accentuates a state of extreme alertness and a constant search for hidden dangers – both real and presumed. Paranoia is also triggered in marginalized communities through racial gaslighting. This is defined as “the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist.” These processes include minimizing or denying the lived reality of people of color and other oppressed communities. This active denial causes the impacted community member to doubt the validity of their own experiences.
*It is important to note that paranoia is also associated with mood or personality disorders and may be a symptom of an individual becoming unwell. If an individual is expressing an abnormal delusion or hallucination which falls well outside the definition of a rational fear, this individual should be assessed by a qualified mental health professional.
Communal shame: Endorsing anti-Muslim caricatures and assigning collective blame to the community for the actions of individuals is normally thought of as an issue among Americans who are not Muslim. However, like other minority groups who suffer from internalized stigmatization, studies have found that Muslims (roughly one in ten) sometimes adopt popular stereotypes about their own community. The majority of Muslims (62%) say they agree strongly or somewhat that they feel personal shame when they hear that a member of their faith community committed an act of violence.
Angelique M. Davis & Rose Ernst (2017) Racial gaslighting, Politics, Groups, and Identities, DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2017.1403934
Mogahed, Dalia, and Azka Mahmood. “American Muslim Poll 2019: Predicting and Preventing Islamophobia: ISPU.” Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 12 Sept. 2019, https://www.ispu.org/american-muslim-poll-2019-predicting-and-preventing-islamophobia/.