In June of 2013, Edward Snowden leaked documents detailing PRISM, a surveillance program run by the United States National Security Agency, to journalists at The Guardian. PRISM represented the latest incarnation of the American government’s surveillance program inaugurated shortly after the attacks of September 11th, 2001. It gathered information from a wide array of communications companies, many of whom cooperated with the government. It gave the NSA access to previously unimaginable quantities of information detailing the lives of American citizens, regardless of their background.


Surveillance discriminates against religious groups while working to define religion in the eyes of the broader public.


The scope and methods of PRISM easily fit a certain narrative of government power: surveillance programs affect all of us, and therefore represent yet another unjust intrusion of the state’s coercive power into the individual lives of its subjects. This story is a necessary one, but offers only a blunted understanding of the reality of surveillance and its effects. It bypasses the complexity of programs like those run by the NSA and ignores altogether more mundane forms of surveillance, such as those linked to public benefits programs. It forgets that surveillance pervades our daily lives in ways we do not expect or recognize, and above all fails to emphasize that surveillance does not affect all equally. Surveillance is, in many cases, a tool designed to monitor the marginalized and excluded; it targets all those who do not conform to normative identities. Here, surveillance intersects with religion.

Religious communities find themselves frequently among these marginalized groups. American Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others continue to find themselves the prime targets of government surveillance. Until recently, for example, the NYPD ran a program which infiltrated mosques, Muslim student groups, and other organizations in search of “radicalization.” Such programs not only represent profiling at its most blatant; they also reinforce a division between “good” and “bad” religion, and work to shape how we understand the limits of acceptable belief. Surveillance discriminates against religious groups while working to define religion in the eyes of the broader public.

The active role that this disciplining force plays in shaping belief and practice makes surveillance a religious concern in other ways as well. Faced with a set of programs that continually tie certain types of faith to violence, danger, or deviance, religious groups must search for ways to live in spite of surveillance while maintaining authentic forms of belief.

So while surveillance presents a challenge from the outside, it also possesses internal, and even theological, dimensions. How does one relate to the divine, if not through a framework of the watcher and the watched? How does one encourage ethical behavior without a dependence (or emphasis) on monitoring? And how, if one really is committed to a set of ethical principles precluding the discriminatory tactics of state surveillance, can one launch a theological critique of these entrenched practices? Surveillance confronts religious communities as an external threat, political challenge, and theological problem. Its presence, its affects, are multivalent—at once subtle and troubling.

Over the coming weeks, Cosmologics will feature several pieces, each highlighting a different point of intersection between religion and surveillance. Our series will begin on Thursday with the theological: in his contribution, theologian Eric Stoddart notes the unfortunate overlap between the logics of surveillance and belief. He pushes us to reimagine Christianity as a faith not premised on a God watching from above, but rather on solidarity with the victims of surveillance. In the place of harsh, regulatory monitoring, Stoddart proposes an approach to surveillance that shifts from discipline into attentive care.


The burden of surveillance does not fall evenly; it singles out, marginalizes, those on the edges of majority groups.


Next week, Cosmologics will speak to two scholars whose work comes at surveillance and religion in drastically different ways. Artist Hasan Elahi explores surveillance through the visual: his art highlights the logic and function of surveillance technologies in the modern world. He looks for new ways to disrupt surveillance by manipulating visibility from below. Writer and scholar Jasbir Puar‘s work, on the other hand, looks to the American War on Terror as a campaign deeply invested in ideologies of race, class, sexuality, and religion. Surveillance here helps produce the identity of the dangerous, terrorist other.

By connecting religion and surveillance, Cosmologics aims to do two things. First, we hope to emphasize that minority religious communities—and especially Muslim communities—remain key targets of surveillance within the US. The burden of surveillance does not fall evenly; it singles out, marginalizes, those on the edges of majority groups. Secondly, we want to provide a new platform for activism. If we understand surveillance as detrimental (in its most egregious forms, at the very least), and also as a specifically religious issue, then a theological or religious studies response to surveillance opens up a new realm of ethical and constructive possibilities. It offers us new points of solidarity, new forms of reasoning, and new ways in which to reshape a fractured society.


Image from Flickr via ep_jhu


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