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I Was One of the Radicals at the Mosque

After the Boston Marathon bombing some media outlets have suggested that the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) was an incubator of radicalism because the Tsarnaev brothers occasionally worshipped there, and because they had permitted “radicals” who “defended terrorism suspects” to speak there. See, i.e. ( http://www.usatoday.com/)  I have spoken there and defended the rights of “terrorism suspects.” I was one of those radicals: I spoke at the ISBCC, along with several others, in September 2011 at an event called “Reclaiming Power and Defending Our Communities: How You Can Protect Yourself from Profiling and Preemptive Prosecution.” The event was sponsored by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF), a civil rights coalition composed of 20 Muslim and non-Muslim organizations, and was co-sponsored by many other groups, including the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) and the ACLU’s Massachusetts chapter.

I spoke about the preemptive prosecution of Muslims in FBI sting operations, and particularly about the case of my client Yassin Aref, a Kurdish Iraqi imam whom the government had confused with someone they believed was involved with Al Qaeda (who was later killed by a missile). Yassin was tricked by a criminal con artist FBI provocateur into witnessing a loan he believed was perfectly legal, but which the government claimed constituted material support to the terrorist organization the provocateur said he worked with. Despite Yassin’s repeated statements that he did not support any terrorist group anywhere, the post-9/11 climate of fear, coupled with the judge telling the jury that the FBI had “good and valid reasons” to target him, made the jury afraid to acquit him. This innocent man is serving a 15-year sentence.

There are all too many similar cases, including many where the FBI targeted young vulnerable Muslim men, sometimes with mental health issues, and convinced them to participate in a phony “attack.” NCPCF has compiled a database of Muslim “terrorism” cases based on the Department of Justice’s list of 386 cases prosecuted in federal court––and has found that 94% contain elements of preemptive prosecution, meaning those cases were either sting operations led by informants or involved targeting defendants who weren’t engaging in or planning any violent acts.  Journalist Trevor Aaronson’s recent book, The Terror Factory, emphasizes that if the FBI weren’t so caught up in manufacturing fake cases, it would be more focused on preventing real ones.

We speak about this anywhere that will have us. Often mosques won’t – out of fear that they will be attacked in the very way they were in the USA Today article. We try to educate people about terrorfactpreemptive prosecution, and how to avoid being entrapped in these fake plots.  Interestingly, the FBI was present at the mosque in Boston the day we were there, meeting with Muslim youth. We were concerned about that, because we know they are there to find informants and provocateurs, and to find out who they can target for a sting operation.

An excellent NYT op-ed by ISBCC imam Suhaib Webb and Scott Korb, called “No Room for Radicals”, pointed out that it is not the young men who receive their religious training in the mosques who become interested in violent attacks – instead it’s those who are alienated and ignorant about Islam, and who search out extremists on the internet. In all cultures young men who are forming their identities and exploring many different paths are in desperate need of older male mentors to help them channel their energy in positive directions. If mosques are intimidated into kicking out these young men in need of such counsel, they’ll become more alienated and will search for advice elsewhere––with potentially deadly results.

That’s why I don’t accept the word “radical” as a pejorative term. I have always thought of myself as a radical, in the sense that my beliefs are very different from those of the people in power. And the work “radical,” after all, means “root,” i.e. getting to the root of a problem, which seems anathema in this age of sound bites and fact-free attacks.

For example, what does it mean that opposition to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is seen as a dangerous sign? This has often been pointed to in the Boston case and others – the suspects were “angry about the wars.” Well, I am also extremely angry about these wars and the thousands of needless civilian deaths, and so are many other non-Muslims. But it is often not safe for Muslims to speak against these wars, even if (and maybe especially if) their families come from the countries under attack. If it is not safe to talk about this, then what happens?

Again, you have many angry young men who can’t go to their mosques and community centers and talk about how legitimately heartbroken and angry they are about the devastation wrought upon the lands of their birth. Wouldn’t it be better if they could voice their anguish openly, and could learn to see that if killing civilians is wrong in one place, it is wrong everywhere? In fact, Islam teaches that it is wrong to kill civilians, that suicide bombings are wrong, and that, similar to the Christian “just war” theory, war may only be fought defensively. They could then become involved in legitimate activism aimed at changing US policy. But the government would rather isolate them and target them in sting operations.

It is unfortunate that USA Today and other media outlets have encouraged shallow irresponsible comments about the mosque, and the Muslim community in Boston and falsely implied that they encouraged terrorism.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of false stereotypes we need more radicalsim – radical understanding, radical tolerance and radical peace – that is to say understanding, tolerance and peace that gets to the root of the problem, rather than inflaming it.

Kathy Manley is a criminal defense attorney and legal director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.

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