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Should Muslims oppose mass surveillance?

Some might have been surprised to see CAGE speaking at hacktivist conventions and international conferences on privacy and surveillance alongside Edward Snowden, Wikileaks and the Tor Project.

The link between mass surveillance and the War on Terror is obvious: governments around the world use the national security argument to justify systematic intrusions into people’s privacy, as well as circumvent the rule of law.

As an organisation guided by an Islamic ethos, CAGE was also inspired by fundamental teachings of Islam which staunchly oppose intrusive monitoring and champion the sanctity of privacy.


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Positive regard (husn al dhan) vs permanent suspicion

The underlying basis for mass surveillance is the assumption that all members of society are a potential threat. It necessitates to assume the worst in people, and is used to justify the need to subject the population to indiscriminate monitoring.

The “Big Brother” society is one of mistrust and antagonism, a mindset which is alien to the Islamic model. According to Qur’anic teachings, the starting point is positive regard (husn al dhan) for people, rather than speculating about any ill-intent.

Believers, avoid making too many assumptions– some assumptions are sinful– and do not spy on one another or speak ill of people behind their backs: would any of you like to eat the flesh of your dead brother? No, you would hate it. So be mindful of God: God is ever Relenting, most Merciful”. (Al Hujurat 49:12)

This principle of promoting trust is emphasised in numerous prophetic traditions (hadith).For example, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

“Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the falsest of speech. Do not eavesdrop; do not spy on one another; do not envy one another; do not forsake one another; do not hate one another. O slaves of Allah, be brothers.” (Bukhari and Muslim) [1].

Of course, this does not mean that reasonable and justified suspicion does not warrant proportionate and necessary inquiries. But this is vastly different from current global mass surveillance programs, where suspicion is the rule and aggressive data collection is indiscriminate.

It is interesting that this divine methodology was empirically deducted by a White House-appointed review group, which said that the NSA counterterrorism program “was not essential to preventing attacks” and that much of the evidence “could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional [court] orders.”


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Mass surveillance corrupts society

While the proponents of mass surveillance claim it is vital to protect people, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) informed us of a divine principle: Mass surveillance will in fact destabilise society.

In a pertinent hadith mentioned by Abu Dawud, it is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

“If you start prying into the secret affairs of the people, you will corrupt them, or at least drive them very near corruption.” The companion Abu Al-Darda’ said: “This is a statement Mu’awiyyah heard from the Prophet (peace be upon him) and Allah benefited him greatly by it”. [2]

In a similar narration the Prophet (PBUH) said: “If the amir seeks to pry and accuse people, he will corrupt them” [3]

Imam Al-Manaawi commenting on this statement said: “ When the amir seeks to pry and accuse people in order to expose them, he will corrupt them. If he does not give them respite and is public of his negative regard for them, he will lead them to commit that which he thought of them. The intention of the Hadith is to encourage the amir to overlook and not pursue the faults of people. It is through this that order is upheld and observed. Man is forever with fault, if he would take them to account for all they say and do, It will worsen their difficulties and their grievances will increase. He should rather conceal their faults, overlook, pardon and not spy upon them.” [4]

Mullah Ali Qari in his commentary of Mishkat Al-Masabih  explained: “He will corrupt their livelihoods and disrupt the order of their lives because man is rarely ever free from fault.” [5]

NSA, GCHQ and their major sins in Islam

As revealed by Edward Snowden, we now know that US and UK spy agencies in particular, have illegally accessed and collected telephone, internet and email records on a massive scale. In Britain, the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill (or “Snoopers’ Charter”) seeks to extend and legalise this practice.

From the perspective of Islamic doctrine, such intrusive behaviours are so abhorred that classical sources mention specific torments in the Hereafter for the culprits of spying and eavesdropping.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) clearly stated the prohibition of eavesdropping:

“If somebody listens to the talk of some people who do not like him (to listen) or they run away from him, then molten lead will be poured into his ears on the Day of Resurrection.” [6]

The sanctity of one’s privacy, his house especially, is probably best exemplified by the following hypothetical scenario put forward by the Prophet (peace be upon him):

“If a man were to look into your private affairs (i.e your house) without your permission, and you were to throw a pebble at him and put out his eye, there would be no sin on you.” [7]

In a narration by Abu Dawud, the companion Ibn Mas’ud said:

“We have been prohibited from spying and searching for faults. But we can take to task only if the sin is overt.” [8]

Privacy is an overriding principle in Islamic law. It must be cherished and preserved – this is what our Islamic heritage teaches us. Mass surveillance is unethical, unnecessary and even counterproductive.

This principle is echoed by the pronouncements of various rights organisations around the world who have called for privacy to be respected, as well as whistleblowers who warn of the dire consequences of surveillance.

As Muslims, we must vehemently defend the rights of all and confront the state’s efforts to allow mass surveillance.


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Published by CAGE

Notes:

[1] Sahih al-Bukhari, Narration 6724 and Sahih Muslim, Narration 2563.
[2] Sunan Abi Dawud, Narration 4888, Authenticated Al-Albani.
[3] Sunan Abi Dawud, Narration 4889, Authenticated by Al-Albani.
[4] Fayd Al-Qadir by Imam Al-Manaawi, Narration 1956.
[5] Mirqat Al-Mafatih Sharh Mishkat Al-Masabih by Mullah Ali Qari, Narration 3708.
[6] Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Narration 1167, Authenticated by Al-Albani.
[7] Sahih al-Bukhari, Narration 6887/8.
[8] Sunan Abi Dawud, Narration 4890.

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