Lives in the Crosshairs: Arshad Ali Explores the identity of Muslim youth | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Minority Post-Doctoral Fellowship Program

Skip to content Skip to content

Lives in the Crosshairs: Arshad Ali Explores the identity of Muslim youth growing up under surveillance


The Associated Press’s explosive 2011 series on how the New York Police Department had collaborated with the CIA to spy on Muslim communities post- 9/11 was definitely impact journalism. It helped curtail that particular espionage, earned the AP a Pulitzer Prize and sparked civil rights lawsuits that were tentatively settled only this month.  It also set Arshad Ali, who had just finished his first year in the city as a Minority Post-Doctoral Fellow at Teachers College, on the research path he has followed ever since.

“I had been exploring Muslim youth identity, how race and religion have affected young people’s identities in a post-9/11 world,” recalls Ali, now Assistant Professor of Educational Research at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education & Human Development. “When the first news story broke in the summer of 2011, the research I was doing around literacy morphed more into thinking about surveillance, which had really become the most pressing issue in their lives. Much of that grew out of the context of being in New York at the time I was there.”

In an article titled “Citizens Under Suspicion: Responsible Research with Community under Surveillance,” which will appear this month in the journal Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Ali describes a growing “culture of fear” among Muslim youth and a climate in which “spaces and places that should have provided safety to discuss their viewpoints, perspectives, and experiences were simply not safe.” He argues that the “dangerous, violent, rebellious, and suspect figure of the Muslim continues to haunt the American imagination,” hampering the ability of young Muslims to develop trust and positive relationships or to participate socially.  

Minority Postdoctoral Fellow Spotlights

“For these youth, there isn’t a time before 9/11,” Ali says. “Their conscious memory is only after that moment. For them, being in a world in which they’re a target of surveillance, of political attack, of cultural attack, of having people in government accusing their communities as a whole – that’s normal. So my interest is to understand how they are making sense of this world in which they’re living and help them see themselves as people who have agency and can act upon the world in productive ways.”

In another paper, Ali finds that the experiences of young Muslim students at universities in California are “reminiscent of what W.E.B. DuBois referred to over a century ago as double consciousness, or of ‘always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.’” Against that backdrop, Ali, who grew up in southern California and completed his PhD at UCLA, found his time as a fellow at TC critical to his own professional and intellectual development.

“I learned to acclimate to faculty life – to make the transition from the identity and practice of a graduate student to being a full-fledged scholar building a research agenda,” he recalls. “It was a really powerful experience for me to have someone like George Bond [the late TC education anthropologist] engage me as a colleague – as a scholar in my own right.”

Ali’s work is more topical now than ever – witness President Obama’s recent speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, in which he denounced the anti-Muslim sentiments expressed by several Republican presidential candidates and told the nation’s Muslims “you fit right here.” Ali calls Obama’s remarks “a welcome effort to protect Muslim personhood and discourage individual level violence,” but says a much greater response is needed. “The state actions – the spying on Muslim communities, as part of a larger concern of policing of communities of color, as well as drones killings, continue, amongst a number of other issues,” he says. “People’s rights and lives are on the line.”– Ellen Livingston

Published Friday, Feb 5, 2016

Arshad Ali