What’s wilder than Minhaj’s tales?

The FBI surveillance my Muslim community actually endured

by Assia Boundaoui

Last month, an article in the New Yorker detailed discrepancies in comedian Hasan Minhaj’s standup specials. In one story, Minhaj recounts growing up in a Muslim community in Northern California, and his experiences with an FBI informant, Craig Monteilh. The story was a fabrication. But Monteilh was real. In the mid-2000s, he was hired by the FBI to pose as a convert to Islam and work as an informant in Orange County mosques.

I’m no comedian. I have no opinion on what the appropriate percentage of fact and fiction a comic’s jokes ought to be, or whether Minhaj ought to be canceled. But as a journalist and filmmaker who has spent a decade documenting the surveillance of American Muslim communities, and as an American Muslim who has experienced it, I have felt deeply uneasy as these falsehoods came to light. I fear people will now believe that we are exaggerating or making up stories about surveillance. After the exposé, social media was flooded with disturbing posts — accusations that this is just another example of people of color falsely claiming victimhood.

But the fact is that all of us — Arab Muslims, Black Muslims, rich and poor Muslims, third-generation Muslims, newly immigrated Muslims, educated Muslims, working-class Muslims — have had our run-ins with the surveillance state. And the truth is wilder than any fiction a comedian could make up.

I grew up in a neighborhood in Chicago’s southwest suburbs of mostly Muslim Arab immigrants. My neighbors and family friends all have stories about being surveilled. About strange white men installing cameras on streetlights; about unmarked cars parked in front of the mosque; about white men following people in the neighborhood around on their daily errands; about strange clicks on the phone. When we were just kids, in the ‘90s, my mom used to tell us that whenever she went to the local public library, a man would follow her in and watch her, write down what books she was reading and then follow her out.

I became a journalist and started making a documentary film about these anecdotes. I was intent to find out the truth. I eventually filed a freedom of information lawsuit against the FBI and demanded all records about my neighborhood, including all the video, audio and documents related to surveillance. What I found out was staggering: In 1993, the Chicago field office of the FBI had launched one of the largest domestic terrorism investigations to date. It was code-named Operation Vulgar Betrayal, and it targeted my community.

A federal judge forced the FBI to release more than 33,000 pages of documents, and while the FBI redacted more than 75% of the record, the information around the redactions tells enough of a story to validate the decades of paranoia that have shrouded my community.

The record contains dozens of “physical surveillance logs” with handwritten initials of agents, signing in and out. Our mosque itself is listed by name as a subject of investigation, along with our local Muslim elementary and high school and dozens of area businesses and charities. More than 500 individual sub-files were opened on people in the community. I came across my father’s name more than once. (Even I make a cameo appearance in one of the documents.)

Surveillance was ubiquitous. Agents followed people around (“On Monday [redaction] at approximately [redaction] 35mm black and white photographs were taken by Special Agent [redaction] of an Arabic Male [redaction] complexion …”); noted where they drove (“Arab male driving [redaction] arrived at [redaction] he parked in the driveway …”); and in one instance, even followed people into emergency rooms (“Unknown Male #1 and Unknown Male #2 were observed in the Emergency Room waiting area, accompanied by a male child [redaction] observed filling out hospital paperwork.”)

They monitored our local gatherings, national Muslim conventions and our donations, and they recorded the most quotidian details about our lives. Our suspicions of what was going on paled in comparison with the reality of how intrusive and pervasive the FBI’s surveillance was. No one in our community was ever convicted of anything related to terrorism, and yet we were subject to this daily harassment for decades.

Minhaj was one of the first Muslim comedians who unapologetically talked about being the target of surveillance on a national platform. It was refreshing. There’s something very powerful that happens when you talk out loud about something that we usually only whisper about. And yet the damage done by his lies will be borne not by Minhaj alone, but by the 3.5 million Muslims in this country. It makes it harder for people to be believed, and for those of us trying to tell true stories about what our communities have endured.

For the past few years, I’ve gone beyond just documenting government surveillance and have ventured into co-creating an art initiative with my community and curating a collection of home videos and family photos from the neighborhood. The intent of the “Inverse Surveillance Project,” is to counter the government’s violent archive of being watched, with a community archive of being seen.

We created an art installation with a large-scale labyrinth using the thousands of pages of FBI documents, and used augmented reality to superimpose videos from the community archive onto the redacted spaces of the government’s surveillance record. In this way, the history of our community isn’t just something that the FBI gets to secretly record but is something we get to communally create. By telling our own stories, we get to have control over our narrative and how our community will be remembered.

Assia Boundaoui is an Algerian American filmmaker, a recipient of a 2022 United States Artists award and a fellow at the MIT Open Documentary Lab.