Recently, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. Pursuant to this lawsuit, the Brennan Center for Justice obtained information that it, in turn, publicized. Although the information obtained by the Brennan Center, along with the entire incident, was extremely significant; like many things that have to do with Muslims and with Muslim interests, it went virtually unnoticed. The Brennan Center uncovered that an Israeli company called Voyager, using artificial intelligence programs, had designed a massive spying program that it was marketing to law enforcement agencies in several places throughout the United States.
Just a small segment of Voyager’s program would have cost the Los Angeles Police Department $450,000 of American taxpayers' money. It is not known how much money was paid by the various law enforcement agencies that were approached by Voyager Labs, or how much money they ultimately spent, but it is clearly in the millions of dollars. The program marketed by Voyager Labs claimed to be a predictor of violent activity perpetrated by American Muslims. Artificial intelligence is as intelligent as those who program it, no more, no less. In the case of the Voyager program, it had the ability to spy not just on the targeted Muslims, but on anyone and everyone that came into contact with those targeted Muslims. It then sifts through a massive amount of data to create a searchable database.
According to the indicators given to this program, it was created to predict radicalism, extremism, violence, or potential for violence by American Muslims. The Brennan Center discovered that the LAPD did buy at least portions of this program, if not everything, and that they did use the program. Whether they continue to use this program, we do not know. We do not know if this program is in use in New York, DC or Los Angeles at the current time. But what caught my attention is that the Voyager program itself gives a couple of examples to demonstrate the way it works to police departments. One example it gives is from a year ago, in which Adam Alsahli committed a terrorist attack against a Naval base in Corpus Christi, Texas, and was killed in this attack. The Voyager program claims that it would have predicted this act of terrorism and that it would have done so by sifting through and analyzing his numerous posts on social media, as well as all the messages that he sent out and received.
Of course, the program targets themes, ideas and terminology that are typically used by Muslims. The program targets any talk about Jihad or Shari'a, even phrases and terminology that all Muslims use for a variety of purposes like Taqwa, Iman, Shahada and Tawhid. So the first example is this fellow who, as a lone wolf, goes off and tries to attack a Naval base in Corpus Christi, Texas, and is ultimately killed in the attack. But the second example gives me pause and demonstrates precisely what is so problematic about the world we live in, in which companies are making incredible profits by selling themselves as monitors, spies and predictors, all targeted at Muslims. They market themselves to law enforcement agencies and governments who then institutionalize policies on the basis of the information that they are receiving from these companies.
The second example the Voyager program provides is of a New York man named Bahgat Saber. The program spied, not just on all media owned by Bahgat Saber - on his phones and his accounts - but it also spied on the 4,000 people who are part of Bahgat Saber's Facebook network. It spied on everyone that Bahgat Saber contacted, and on everyone that contacted Saber. One thing struck me when I was looking at the actual material that was disclosed per the Freedom of Information Act was that Bahgat Saber was identified by the Voyager program as a member of the “Muslim Brotherhood.”
One may think that this is mere labeling, but in actuality, it is much more meaningful. If you actually know anything about the actual beliefs of this man and the discourses of this man, you would know that Bahgat Saber is as far away from the Muslim Brotherhood as any Muslim can be. In fact, what Bahgat Saber is famous for is his stream of obscenities. He is a man who has a social media presence where he spews off a steady stream of obscenities against the dictatorial government in Egypt, as well as other dictatorial governments in the Middle East. When the coronavirus pandemic first broke out, the Egyptian government kept denying that there was coronavirus in Egypt. Only when they were embarrassed internationally did they admit that there was an actual epidemic in Egypt.
While Egyptians were being infected with the coronavirus and dying, the Egyptian government continued to deny that there was an epidemic in Egypt. Observing this, Bahgat Saber came up with a slogan, “A Corona for Every Oppressor,” and started inviting Egyptians who suspect that they have corona to greet an Egyptian official. In other words, the logic of, “If you refuse to admit the disease’s reality and refuse to treat me, then you should not be scared of interacting with me.” This diatribe is what the Voyager program identifies as a terrorist threat and within its analytics, it predicts who is worthy of being the target of law enforcement’s spying. The example that the Voyager program itself gives is absolute proof of how misleading these programs can be. In fact, they are far from objective indicators of criminality. They are an ideological project because as it turns out, the reason Saber is targeted is because of the Israeli link. Zionist organizations in the United States do not like Bahgat Saber because he opposes Sisi of Egypt, Israel is supportive of Sisi, and Israeli Intelligence considers anyone that opposes the dictator of Egypt to be, in turn, an enemy to Israel. Bahgat Saber is often also critical of Israel.
But what happened on the ground? What happened on the ground is that not only was Bahgat Saber targeted, but everyone that was in contact with Saber, up to 4,000 people. The Voyager program spied on them, finding out everything it could access on their computers or their phones. If they used social media at all, the Voyager program invaded their privacy and analyzed all the information it could, then offering it to law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.
Here, we have a particularly troubling scenario. Israeli Intelligence companies spy on American citizens and then sell this information to law agencies and anti-terrorism units. All of these units have gone through anti-terrorism training. Who provided these anti-terrorism units with training? Islamophobes, of course. Contracts to hire the likes of Robert Spencer or Daniel Pipes easily run over $100,000 dollars for a training session. But one of the consistent patterns since 9/11 is that the Islamophobia industry is paid an enormous amount of American tax dollars to provide so-called “training” to anti-terrorism units. So supporters of Israel get paid to train these officers to suspect and target Muslims, and to disbelieve anything that is said or produced by Muslims.
Then Israeli intelligence companies spy on American Muslims. Again, they get paid an enormous amount of money to provide this data to American law enforcement agencies. As Juan Cole pointed out in a recent article, these law enforcement agencies take on this data while consistently ignoring the threat of white supremacist organizations. They continue a policy of spying on every Muslim in the United States who seems to have a political opinion or a principled position about anything.
Does the American taxpayer know that not only is $30 billion given to Israel so that Israel can continue its colonial project against Palestinians, but that American tax dollars are also given again to Israeli Intelligence agencies and companies to spy on and target American Muslims. American tax dollars are spent on Islamophobes who, without exception, are staunch supporters of Israel. They are given tax dollars to educate law enforcement agencies about what Muslims are and are not. It is a mind numbing reality. You want to speak about the foolishness of democracies; all Americans complain about being taxed. There are so many Americans that work extremely hard, holding two or three jobs, that will have a medium level income of $40,000 or $50,000 a year, but still have to pay taxes.
Every time you earn a paycheck, the government deducts money for taxes. Every time you purchase something, you pay a sales tax. Every time you do anything in the United States, you pay taxes. While people could complain about economic hardship, taxes, prices, economic slowdowns, or the plight that the pandemic has forced upon so many people; our government is rarely held responsible as to the way in which they spend our tax dollars. They are not held responsible when our government uses religious bigotry, hate, racism and the label of anti-terrorism to enrich religious bigots, racists, Islamophobes, and private companies that had made war profiteering an entire legacy; made profiting of war against Muslims their means to gross wealth.
This is all our tax dollars, and the same Americans that complain about tax rates and economic hardship will never hold the government responsible for the way it spends our money. Simply put, if the government is not forced to be responsible or moral about its spending, the government will not care about how discerning it is when it demands that we pay up to support its spending. A small part of the Voyager Labs program that spies on thousands upon thousands of American Muslims cost the Los Angeles Police Department $450,000. How much does the entire program cost? We do not know.
What are the contracts signed with Voyager Labs? We do not know. All we know is what was disclosed about the two examples that I have mentioned, including labeling someone who actually spews out a string of obscenities against the Muslim Brotherhood, Bahgat Saber, as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Imagine what this program would do with someone like me. Someone sitting on the streets of New York spews out a string of obscenities against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Voyager Labs program labels him as a part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Law enforcement agencies then can use and rely on this information to obtain search warrants, and no one can hold them accountable. There is no way of engaging them. There is no way of correcting the misinformation. There is no way of speaking to the anti-terrorism unit, whether in the LAPD or any other police department, and say, "Wait a minute. The information you are getting from your Islamophobic training - when you hire these Islamophobes to provide you with anti-terrorism training and buy these programs from Israel - is not accurate. You are not getting an accurate picture." There is no way of doing that.
Muslims are oblivious. You see, it is not living on social media and spewing off your thoughts on different matters that will make any difference in this world. You hanging around, playing games with your friends is not going to make any difference in this world. Power only understands power. The only thing that will change us is Muslim commitment and hard work. If the LAPD and other departments that contracted with Voyager Labs found Muslims filing numerous lawsuits against them, they would learn that they cannot mess with Muslims without there being consequences. They would know that Muslims are conscious of and care about their civil rights. And that they live in the real world, not in the make-believe world.
They would know that in defending the civil rights of Muslims, you are defending the civil rights of all. They would know that when we hold our government accountable as to how it is spending our tax money, we are actually upholding democracy, and that we are enforcing accountability and responsibility upon our government. That if Muslims become sophisticated and understand that underlying all these policies is not ignorance of Islam, not that the government that signs a contract with a Daniel Pipes-esque figure to train its officers, not that this government is misinformed about Islam, but that what is happening is simple, old-fashioned racism; that Muslims are racialized.
When Muslims are racialized, they are then targeted because they are different. No amount of explaining how wonderful Islam is, what the true message of the Qur'an is, or what the real teachings of the prophets are, is going to make an iota of difference. The only way we can respond to racial bigotry is through righteous power. Education is no response to bigotry and racism by the state. Education can change the mind of your racist friend at school, or a racist student in college. It may even change the mind of your racist boss at work, but education is no response to racist policies by a government.
I always keep asking myself, “when are Muslims going to wake up?” If you, as a Muslim, think you do not matter; there is big business coming out of Israel, out of Saudi Arabia, out of the Emirates. Companies that are paid millions and millions of dollars seem to be very interested in you as a Muslim. Companies that seem to want to create a career of spying and monitoring you. You matter, whether you realize it or not. But do you matter simply as the perpetual archetype, or as a victim, or do you matter as someone who actually makes a difference in the world? Have you been created to play the role of the victim to humanity, or have you been created to actually stand up for something? Something righteous, something just, something moral. This is your choice, and the way you exercise this choice is what gratitude to God is all about. If you exercise the choice in a meaningful way, then you have made God's creation meaningful. If you exercise this choice in an apathetic and meaningless way, then you have made God's creation of you meaningless.
I often get messages from people writing to me from different parts of the world, and I am always grateful for these messages because they give me a sense of who out there actually is listening. One such message was from someone that noted that I have spoken about victims of oppression and persecution, and that I have spoken about poor Ahmed Sabee’, who still languishes in Egyptian prisons, simply because he became an intelligent, educated Muslim and criticized Christian theology in Egypt. I have spoken about Salman al-Ouda, the great Muslim scholar who continues to languish in Saudi prisons. But this person asked me why I have not spoken about Shaykh Hassan Farhan al-Maliki. To be quite honest, if I had heard of Shaykh Hassan Farhan al-Maliki in the past, I must have forgotten, because I knew nothing about Hassan Farhan al-Maliki.
After I received the message, I started educating myself on this man. This man is currently in Saudi prisons. He was arrested in 2017, and it was not his first arrest. But from 2017 until now, he remains in Saudi prisons like Shaykh Salman al-Ouda. One of his sons, because he tweeted about the arrest of his father, is also in Saudi prisons. Another son was killed in a car accident, a rather suspicious event. Saudi authorities, of course, did not allow Hassan Farhan al-Maliki to attend the funeral of his son. Now the prosecution in Saudi Arabia is demanding the execution of Hassan Farhan al-Maliki.
I started educating myself on the thoughts of this man and I must admit to you, I was blown away. Hassan Farhan al-Maliki is a remarkably impressive, sophisticated intellectual - someone who knows how to think about divine revelation embedded in history. Someone who, in a masterful, intellectual way, analyzes what Muslims ought to do with history in the context of revelation. A man who has given a considerable amount of thought to Islam as an enlightenment to humanity, and how can Islam ever be associated with darkness and backwardness. An intellectual like this in just lands, in lands that do not oppress scholars and kill off talent, would be a luminary. A scholar like this would be comfortably seated in a strategic center, a think tank, or a prestigious chair in a university. He would have students from all over the world, and would be an honored guest in symposia, conferences and keynote lectures. Living a few days with the writings and lectures of Hassan Farhan al-Maliki made me feel like a student all over again.
I felt humbled by the knowledge and scholarship of this man. Humbled by his analytical precision and the breadth of his education. Most of all, I felt humbled by his humility. Yet in Muslim lands, this man who could be contributing to a new Islamic Renaissance, who could be contributing to an age of Islamic enlightenment, is treated like a criminal. He is persecuted and thrown in prison, with the government seeking to execute him, and his entire family is targeted and prosecuted as well. He has one son in jail, another son dead, and a third son on the run.
I have never met this man in my life, and I did not even know about him until I received this email. But what education does to you is it makes you painfully conscious of your own ignorance when you come into contact with others who are educated. This is precisely what happened to me as I was reading the literature of Hassan Farhan al-Maliki and listening to his lectures. I became painfully aware of my own ignorance and my own limitations. For that, I feel incredibly grateful. But at the same time, I remember that we are an Ummah that imprisons the likes of Salman al-Ouda and Ahmed Sabee’. Every time that the glimmer of hope, morality, ethics and principles emerges in the Muslim world, it is picked up and thrown in prison. Understand the world that we live in.
There is no uproar by Western governments about Hassan Farhan al-Maliki. There is some cause by human rights organizations here and there, calling upon the Saudi government not to execute him. But the type of outrage that we observe when it is Muslim extremists that target an innocent victim is not there. The type of outrage when we see the Taliban victimize a poor Afghan girl, and she appears on the front cover of Time Magazine and is given a Nobel prize, that type of outrage is not there.
The governments that imprison the likes of Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, Salman al-Ouda and Ahmed Sabee’ are not close allies with some foreign alien state, they are close allies with our government. Saudi Arabia is not closely allied with Russia. Saudi Arabia is closely allied to the United States. So is the Emirates and Egypt, most of their weapons come from the United States. Their militaries are trained by the United States. Their economies are held up by the American dollar. In fact, these governments would hardly exist if not for the United States. I read in an article recently that 50% of American arms sales go to Muslim countries.
We make an impressive amount, not just by upholding dictators in the Muslim world and training the military of these dictators, but also by selling weapons to these dictators. Just recently, the Biden administration had a huge arms deal with the dictator of Egypt. Since Biden has come to power, huge arms deals have been approved with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Since Biden has come to power, new atrocities and genocides have been committed by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in Yemen. Do not kid yourself when an intellectual like Hassan Farhan al-Maliki - who would have been an honored professor somewhere because of the richness and sophistication of his thought - is languishing in a Saudi prison facing the threat of execution, and we remain complicit. Our government is part of who put him there.
Why? Because our government does not tell Saudi Arabia, “If you do not stop persecuting people because of their speech, we will not sell you the arms you want. We will not protect you. We will not maintain you in power.” As long as the victims are Muslims or engaged in Muslim thinking and Muslim scholarship, we do not seem to care. It does not seem to impact us or trouble us. After all, we spend millions of dollars targeting Muslims, not vindicating and standing up for Muslims. People then wonder why the state of Muslims is the way it is. Why are we where we are? Those who are most talented, gifted, and dedicated among us - who God has blessed with the talent and knowledge to help us make sense of our existence in this world and how to meet the challenges that confront us collectively as Muslims - are always persecuted and destroyed, as the rest of us do whatever nonsense we continue doing.
Before closing, there are two things that weigh very heavily on me. I read an article that Darul Uloom in India, an old Muslim seminary that has trained scores of Muslim scholars, is under threat because it is being targeted by the extremist Hindu nationalistic government currently in power in India. Darul Uloom, for the first time in centuries, is under a real threat of being shut down because of Indian persecution.
If Darul Uloom was a Christian institution or a Jewish institution, one could imagine the uproar around the world. But what do you do when we are represented as Muslims in the United States by the likes of Hamza Yusuf and the Islamic Center of Southern California?
The second equally, or perhaps even more so, troubling item is a shocking article about rapes and sexual assaults, perpetuated against Muslim women in India. That Hindu nationalistic groups speak openly in their social networks, gossiping about targeting Muslim women; even entering into bidding wars, targeting and carrying out systematic sexual assaults against Muslim women in India with no consequences.
These same extremist groups say to these women, “If you do not like being raped, then leave India. You as a Muslim are not welcome.” Yet the Indian economy relies on India's relationship with countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. If Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted to crash the Indian economy by saying, “If you continue persecuting Muslims, then we will not do business with you,” it would happen. Instead, we all know the Emirates honors and rewards Modi, the leader of Hindu fascism in India and the man directly responsible for the threat to Darul Uloom and for the sexual assaults perpetuated against Muslim women all over India.
There is no way around it. Your moral responsibility is great. You cannot simply continue saying, "Well, this person makes me feel better. What is the big deal if I follow this or that person?" You will bear a direct moral responsibility for your fellow Muslims. These women who are sexually assaulted in India will have grounds to testify against you in the Hereafter and say you working within your Islamic center, working within your mosque, working within whatever organization you belong to in the US, failed to do anything: failed to even write an op-ed, make a post, follow the news, demand action by our government, and shame those Muslims who are complacent through silence and apathy. I lived through the rape camps in Bosnia.
For all these Muslims who love to pontificate upon hijab, what do you think happens to the hijab of these girls in India that are targeted and raped because they are Muslim? Why are you not outraged about what happens to their integrity, their space and their bodies?