by Andy Worthington
What a disgrace. On Thursday, Tarek Mehanna, a 29-year old pharmacist from Sudbury, Massachusetts, was sentenced to 17 and half years in prison, after being found guilty in December on seven charges, including “providing material support to terrorists,” conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and lying to law enforcement officers.
Perhaps that sounds appropriate, but as Nancy Murray of the ACLU explained in an article for the Boston Globe, the extent of his involvement in “terrorism” was that he had “emailed friends, downloaded videos, translated and posted documents on the web, and traveled to and from Yemen in 2004.”
She continued, “No evidence was presented in court directly linking him to a terrorist group. He never hatched a plot — indeed, he objected when a friend (who went on to become a government informer and has never been charged with anything) proposed plans to stage violent attacks within the United States. He never had a weapon.” Although Mehanna did lie to the FBI, there was no justification for prosecutor Aloke Chakravarty to stress the “gravity” of Mehanna’s offences, but it fitted — and fits — a pattern of demonizing Muslims, even when there are first amendment issues, involving free speech, even when there is evidence of dubious FBI activity, and even when it is undisputed that Tehanna never raised arms against anyone, and never believed that it was just or appropriate to attack any American on US soil.
According to Aloke Chakravarty, however, over ten years ago Tarek Mehanna “‘began to radicalize’” and to radicalize others to ‘visit violence’ on Americans,” The prosecutor also alleged that, although Mehanna “failed in his efforts to find a terrorist training camp when he visited Yemen in 2004, he found his niche … serving as the ‘media wing’ of al-Qaeda, translating documents, and sharing videos.”
In contrast, defense attorney Jay Carney pointed out that Mehanna was in fact being “punished for activity protected by the First Amendment, for translating documents freely available in Arabic on the Internet and for his refusal to be an informant.” Carney “asked the judge to focus on ‘what the defendant did and did not do’ — he went to Yemen for one week eight years ago. He refused to go to Iraq with the friend whom the government later enlisted as an informer. He was under close FBI scrutiny for more than eight years — if he was so dangerous, why did the FBI wait so long to arrest him?”
The answer, as Jay Carney noted, is that, firstly, the FBI wanted to turn Mehanna into an informant, and when that failed they decided to have him prosecuted as a terrorist. The contrast with the case of a David Stone and his anti-government militia — a nine-man, heavily armed Christian militia, who conducted “military-style training in preparation for a terrorist attack involving the bombing of a funeral for the police officer they had killed three days earlier” — could hardly be greater. While Mehanna received a 17-year sentence, Stone and his violent white friends were acquitted just two weeks ago by a federal judge in Michigan, who “said they were just venting and exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Unfortunately, in recent years, the post-9/11 distortions that led to the establishment of Guantánamo, an official torture program and the institutional demonization of Muslims has not been done away with, and, in fact, seems only to have become normalized and invigorated — partly through the cynical machinations of Republicans and the rightwing media, who have focused on creating a new wave of fearmongering in response to failed terrorist attacks like that of the inept would-be plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in December 2009. Nancy Murray, for example, pointed out that, in June 2004, a jury in Idaho “found that the web activity carried out by a Saudi graduate student, Sami Omar al-Hussayyen,” who “had been indicted in a blaze of publicity for setting up websites for Islamic organizations and posting inflammatory messages on the Internet,” was “protected by the First Amendment.” At his trial, the defense team’s only witness was “a former CIA operative who cast doubt on the government’s assertion that people become jihadists because of what they read online.”
Noting that, “as in the Sami al-Hussayen case, the prosecution in the Mehanna case made the material support statute a vehicle for the suppression of unpopular ideas that fall within the boundaries of the First Amendment — including watching ‘Jihadi’ videos with others, lending CDs to ‘create like-minded youth,’ [and] translating texts freely available on the internet,” Murray surmised that Mehanna’s case had turned out differently not just because of the fearmongering I outlined above, but also because of “the widespread acceptance of the notion of a ‘domestic radicalization process’ promoted through internet activity, which was first put forward by the New York Police Department in its 2007 report, ‘Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.” Ironically, she added, “This is the same NYPD which mapped its ethnic communities, carried out wholesale monitoring of Muslims, and in the years ahead, would screen the Islamophobic film “The Third Jihad” to nearly 1500 of its new recruits and officers.”
Murray continued, “For the prosecution, Tarek Mehanna serves as a poster boy for the radicalization thesis: a dangerous ‘violent extremist’ who ‘lived a double life’ and never ‘expressed any remorse for his crimes.’” She added, however, that the radicalization scenario used by the prosecution was anything but objective. As well as drawing on the NYPD view, “submissions forwarded by the US Attorney’s Office to Judge George O’Toole” also included “a May 2008 staff report from the Senate Homeland Security Committee, ‘Violent Islamic Extremism, The Internet and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat,’” which, as Murray notes, “reads like a primer on the government’s case against Mehanna.”
She added that those quoted in the report include Lawrence Sanchez, Assistant Commissioner of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, “who, thanks to an investigation by the Associated Press, we now know to be a CIA operative and the architect of the NYPD’s blanket monitoring of Muslims,” although another source quoted in the report, Dr. Marc Sageman, a former CIA Operations officer and counter-terrorism expert, actually “testified for the defense in the Mehanna trial,” and took “a similar line to the CIA operative who testified for Sami Omar al Hussayyen,” arguing that the videos which Mehanna downloaded and shared “were insignificant as recruiting tools.”
In conclusion, Murray noted that, although the prosecution “showed 9/11 videos to the jury and sprinkled its language during the trial and in its sentencing memorandum with repeated references to al-Qaeda,” the defense maintained that the government’s persistent attempts to portray Mehanna as “weaving some kind of spell over others to bring them into a terrorist cell” was “a fantasy of the government’s own making.” In her closing argument at the trial, defense attorney Janice Bassil had effectively debunked the government’s claims, stating that “the only idea that Tarek Mehanna had in common with al-Qaeda is that Muslims had the right and the obligation to defend themselves when they were attacked in their own lands. And we believe that. When the British came to reassert their hold over America — let’s face it, we were a colony — we fought back. We rebelled. We defended our land.” However, as Murray noted in her concluding comments, “The lesson of the Mehanna case is that where Muslims are concerned, sentiments like these could constitute ‘thought crime.’”
While this is an excellent summary of the supposed case against Tarek Mehanna and its horrendous distortions, the clearest defense of Tarek Mehanna’s actions came from Mehanna himself, in the following statement which he read during his sentencing, and which I hope you have the time to read in full, as it is a clear explanation of the principles of self-defence — from an American perspective, and then from the perspective of a Muslim American — which motivated Mehanna, and which he has refused to disown, even when trapped and betrayed by the FBI for the “crime” of refusing to become an informant. As he explained in a key passage:
“[T]his trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians. It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians, which is that Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders — Soviets, Americans, or Martians. This is what I believe. It’s what I’ve always believed, and what I will always believe. This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s the simple logic of self-defense.
Tarek Mehanna’s statement, read to Judge O’Toole during his sentencing, April 12, 2012
In the name of God the most gracious the most merciful,
Exactly four years ago this month I was finishing my work shift at a local hospital. As I was walking to my car I was approached by two federal agents. They said that I had a choice to make: I could do things the easy way, or I could do them the hard way. The “easy“ way, as they explained, was that I would become an informant for the government, and if I did so I would never see the inside of a courtroom or a prison cell. As for the hard way, this is it. Here I am, having spent the majority of the four years since then in a solitary cell the size of a small closet, in which I am locked down for 23 hours each day. The FBI and these prosecutors worked very hard — and the government spent millions of tax dollars — to put me in that cell, keep me there, put me on trial, and finally to have me stand here before you today to be sentenced to even more time in a cell.
In the weeks leading up to this moment, many people have offered suggestions as to what I should say to you. Some said I should plead for mercy in hopes of a light sentence, while others suggested I would be hit hard either way. But what I want to do is just talk about myself for a few minutes.
When I refused to become an informant, the government responded by charging me with the “crime” of supporting the mujahideen fighting the occupation of Muslim countries around the world. Or as they like to call them, “terrorists.” I wasn’t born in a Muslim country, though. I was born and raised right here in America and this angers many people: how is it that I can be an American and believe the things I believe, take the positions I take? Everything a man is exposed to in his environment becomes an ingredient that shapes his outlook, and I’m no different. So, in more ways than one, it’s because of America that I am who I am.
When I was six, I began putting together a massive collection of comic books. Batman implanted a concept in my mind, introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed. This resonated with me so much that throughout the rest of my childhood, I gravitated towards any book that reflected that paradigm — Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I even saw an ethical dimension to The Catcher in the Rye.
By the time I began high school and took a real history class, I was learning just how real that paradigm is in the world. I learned about the Native Americans and what befell them at the hands of European settlers. I learned about how the descendants of those European settlers were in turn oppressed under the tyranny of King George III. I read about Paul Revere, Tom Paine, and how Americans began an armed insurgency against British forces — an insurgency we now celebrate as the American revolutionary war. As a kid I even went on school field trips just blocks away from where we sit now. I learned about Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, and the fight against slavery in this country. I learned about Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and the struggles of the labor unions, working class, and poor. I learned about Anne Frank, the Nazis, and how they persecuted minorities and imprisoned dissidents. I learned about Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the civil rights struggle. I learned about Ho Chi Minh, and how the Vietnamese fought for decades to liberate themselves from one invader after another. I learned about Nelson Mandela and the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
Everything I learned in those years confirmed what I was beginning to learn when I was six: that throughout history, there has been a constant struggle between the oppressed and their oppressors. With each struggle I learned about, I found myself consistently siding with the oppressed, and consistently respecting those who stepped up to defend them — regardless of nationality, regardless of religion. And I never threw my class notes away. As I stand here speaking, they are in a neat pile in my bedroom closet at home.
From all the historical figures I learned about, one stood out above the rest. I was impressed by many things about Malcolm X, but above all, I was fascinated by the idea of transformation, his transformation. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie “X” by Spike Lee, it’s over three and a half hours long, and the Malcolm at the beginning is different from the Malcolm at the end. He starts off as an illiterate criminal, but ends up a husband, a father, a protective and eloquent leader for his people, a disciplined Muslim performing the Hajj in Makkah, and finally, a martyr.
Malcolm’s life taught me that Islam is not something inherited; it’s not a culture or ethnicity. It’s a way of life, a state of mind anyone can choose no matter where they come from or how they were raised. This led me to look deeper into Islam, and I was hooked. I was just a teenager, but Islam answered the question that the greatest scientific minds were clueless about, the question that drives the rich & famous to depression and suicide from being unable to answer: what is the purpose of life? Why do we exist in this Universe? But it also answered the question of how we’re supposed to exist. And since there’s no hierarchy or priesthood, I could directly and immediately begin digging into the texts of the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, to begin the journey of understanding what this was all about, the implications of Islam for me as a human being, as an individual, for the people around me, for the world; and the more I learned, the more I valued Islam like a piece of gold. This was when I was a teen, but even today, despite the pressures of the last few years, I stand here before you, and everyone else in this courtroom, as a very proud Muslim.
With that, my attention turned to what was happening to other Muslims in different parts of the world. And everywhere I looked, I saw the powers that be trying to destroy what I loved. I learned what the Soviets had done to the Muslims of Afghanistan. I learned what the Serbs had done to the Muslims of Bosnia. I learned what the Russians were doing to the Muslims of Chechnya. I learned what Israel had done in Lebanon — and what it continues to do in Palestine — with the full backing of the United States. And I learned what America itself was doing to Muslims.
I learned about the Gulf War, and the depleted uranium bombs that killed thousands and caused cancer rates to skyrocket across Iraq. I learned about the American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq, and how — according to the United Nations — over half a million children perished as a result. I remember a clip from a ‘60 Minutes’ interview of Madeline Albright where she expressed her view that these dead children were “worth it.” I watched on September 11th as a group of people felt driven to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings from their outrage at the deaths of these children. I watched as America then attacked and invaded Iraq directly. I saw the effects of ‘Shock & Awe’ in the opening day of the invasion — the children in hospital wards with shrapnel from American missiles sticking out of their foreheads (of course, none of this was shown on CNN). I learned about the town of Haditha, where 24 Muslims — including a 76-year old man in a wheelchair, women, and even toddlers — were shot up and blown up in their bedclothes as they slept by US Marines. I learned about Abeer al-Janabi, a fourteen-year old Iraqi girl gang-raped by five American soldiers, who then shot her and her family in the head, then set fire to their corpses.
I just want to point out, as you can see, Muslim women don’t even show their hair to unrelated men. So try to imagine this young girl from a conservative village with her dress torn off, being sexually assaulted by not one, not two, not three, not four, but five soldiers. Even today, as I sit in my jail cell, I read about the drone strikes which continue to kill Muslims daily in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Just last month, we all heard about the seventeen Afghan Muslims — mostly mothers and their kids — shot to death by an American soldier, who also set fire to their corpses. These are just the stories that make it to the headlines, but one of the first concepts I learned in Islam is that of loyalty, of brotherhood — that each Muslim woman is my sister, each man is my brother, and together, we are one large body who must protect each other. In other words, I couldn’t see these things beings done to my brothers & sisters — including by America — and remain neutral. My sympathy for the oppressed continued, but was now more personal, as was my respect for those defending them.
I mentioned Paul Revere — when he went on his midnight ride, it was for the purpose of warning the people that the British were marching to Lexington to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, then on to Concord to confiscate the weapons stored there by the Minuteman. By the time they got to Concord, they found the Minuteman waiting for them, weapons in hand. They fired at the British, fought them, and beat them. From that battle came the American Revolution. There’s an Arabic word to describe what those Minutemen did that day. That word is: JIHAD, and this is what my trial was about.
All those videos and translations and childish bickering over ‘Oh, he translated this paragraph’ and ‘Oh, he edited that sentence,’ and all those exhibits revolved around a single issue: Muslims who were defending themselves against American soldiers doing to them exactly what the British did to America. It was made crystal clear at trial that I never, ever plotted to “kill Americans” at shopping malls or whatever the story was. The government’s own witnesses contradicted this claim, and we put expert after expert up on that stand, who spent hours dissecting my every written word, who explained my beliefs. Further, when I was free, the government sent an undercover agent to prod me into one of their little “terror plots,” but I refused to participate. Mysteriously, however, the jury never heard this.
So, this trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians. It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians, which is that Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders — Soviets, Americans, or Martians. This is what I believe. It’s what I’ve always believed, and what I will always believe. This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s the simple logic of self-defense. It’s what the arrows on that seal above your head represent: defense of the homeland. So, I disagree with my lawyers when they say that you don’t have to agree with my beliefs — no. Anyone with common sense and humanity has no choice but to agree with me. If someone breaks into your home to rob you and harm your family, logic dictates that you do whatever it takes to expel that invader from your home. But when that home is a Muslim land, and that invader is the US military, for some reason the standards suddenly change. Common sense is renamed “terrorism” and the people defending themselves against those who come to kill them from across the ocean become “the terrorists” who are “killing Americans.”
The mentality that America was victimized with when British soldiers walked these streets 2 ½ centuries ago is the same mentality Muslims are victimized by as American soldiers walk their streets today. It’s the mentality of colonialism. When Sgt. Bales shot those Afghans to death last month, all of the focus in the media was on him — his life, his stress, his PTSD, the mortgage on his home — as if he was the victim. Very little sympathy was expressed for the people he actually killed, as if they’re not real, they’re not humans. Unfortunately, this mentality trickles down to everyone in society, whether or not they realize it. Even with my lawyers, it took nearly two years of discussing, explaining, and clarifying before they were finally able to think outside the box and at least ostensibly accept the logic in what I was saying. Two years! If it took that long for people so intelligent, whose job it is to defend me, to de-program themselves, then to throw me in front of a randomly selected jury under the premise that they’re my “impartial peers,” I mean, come on. I wasn’t tried before a jury of my peers because with the mentality gripping America today, I have no peers. Counting on this fact, the government prosecuted me — not because they needed to, but simply because they could.
I learned one more thing in history class: America has historically supported the most unjust policies against its minorities — practices that were even protected by the law — only to look back later and ask: ‘what were we thinking?’ Slavery, Jim Crow, the internment of the Japanese during World War II — each was widely accepted by American society, each was defended by the Supreme Court. But as time passed and America changed, both people and courts looked back and asked ‘What were we thinking?’ Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the South African government, and given a life sentence. But time passed, the world changed, they realized how oppressive their policies were, that it was not he who was the terrorist, and they released him from prison. He even became president. So, everything is subjective — even this whole business of “terrorism” and who is a “terrorist.” It all depends on the time and place and who the superpower happens to be at the moment.
In your eyes, I’m a terrorist, I’m the only one standing here in an orange jumpsuit and it’s perfectly reasonable that I be standing here in an orange jumpsuit. But one day, America will change and people will recognize this day for what it is. They will look at how hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed and maimed by the US military in foreign countries, yet somehow I’m the one going to prison for “conspiring to kill and maim” in those countries — because I support the Mujahidin defending those people. They will look back on how the government spent millions of dollars to imprison me as a “terrorist,” yet if we were to somehow bring Abeer al-Janabi back to life in the moment she was being gang-raped by your soldiers, to put her on that witness stand and ask her who the “terrorists” are, she sure wouldn’t be pointing at me.
The government says that I was obsessed with violence, obsessed with “killing Americans.” But, as a Muslim living in these times, I can think of a lie no more ironic.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon.