Terrorism or Thought Crimes?

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Originally published in the Harvard Crimson.

The latest chapter in the assault on American civil liberties has begun, and this time it is unfolding in a courthouse in downtown Boston. The trial of Tarek Mehanna , a young man from Sudbury, Massachusetts, has the potential to redefine the limits of free speech within draconian parameters that would essentially outlaw criticism of US foreign policy by American citizens. At the same time, it represents a general attack on Muslim-American communities, as it validates FBI tactics of spying in mosques, pressuring young Muslims into acting as informants, and the surveillance of American citizens under the flimsiest of pretexts.

The trial of Tarek Mehanna at Moakley Courthouse for conspiracy and “material support for terrorism” began on October 24. The date is significant; October 26, 2011 marked 10 years since the passage of the USA Patriot Act. This law has expanded the FBI’s ability to spy on American citizens with little or no oversight, legalizing secret searches of private property, private medical records, Internet usage, and anything else that leaves a record. The FBI does not even need to show that there is sufficient cause for suspicion; instead, as long as it claims the investigation is related to “terrorism,” it has writ large to search at will and use any evidence it finds in a court of law.

This case is occurring within the larger context of a wider crackdown on dissent against US foreign policy among Muslim communities in this country. Mehanna was an active member of his local mosque, and he was assertive and vocal in his criticisms of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Talking about resistance is not a crime, and discussing the right of Iraqis and Afghans to self-defense in a context of occupation, a right recognized in the Geneva Convention, is protected free speech. In an age of Islamophobic hysteria and fear at the prospect of “homegrown terror,” having the government pressure young men at mosques to turn in their friends for talking about being angry has become the new normal.

And for Tarek Mehanna, a doctor of pharmacy actively involved in Internet forums protesting the American invasion of Iraq, this is exactly what happened. After years of being pressured unsuccessfully by the FBI to inform on his friends at his local mosque, Mehanna was arrested for “lying to federal officials.” This lying, of course, had occurred during the process of trying to get the FBI to stop harassing him, and the FBI subsequently let him go, conscious that they lacked a coherent case. A year later, however, he was bundled away in the early morning hours, this time to be kept in 23-hour a day solitary confinement in a 10-foot by 15-foot cell at a maximum-security prison; he has been in those conditions for more than two years. The charges they added after his second arrest were more serious and focused on providing “material support for terrorism.”

These accusations, however, have been supported by shaky evidence at best. In order to support allegations that Mehanna provided this support, prosecutors have drawn upon the wealth of Islamic legal texts that Mehanna translated suggesting that Mehanna’s translations were used by “terrorists” to justify their actions. Mehanna is an avid scholar and translator of medieval Islamic legal thought; as a translator, he is not responsible for who reads his translations and what is done with them. Independent translation is not material support for terrorism by any stretch. In order to be considered material support under this law, Mehanna would have had to translate under the direct order of a designated foreign terrorist organization. He was once approached by Al-Qaeda to help translate a document, a fact about which that the prosecution is very vocal; what the prosecution fails to mention is that Mehanna never translated said document. If you do not translate something, Mehanna’s defense counsel argues, is that the same as if you did?

Why then is Mehanna being prosecuted? The FBI has been clear about this from the beginning. From 2005 to 2008, the FBI hounded Mehanna and pressured him to become an informant, a period during which they spied on him and his friends. They explained to Mehanna’s attorney in a 2008 telephone interview, “If your client does not collaborate with us, we will make his life a living hell.” When one of Mehanna’s friends buckled under FBI pressure in 2009 and became an informant, Mehanna was arrested again.

The trial has been underway now for about three weeks, during which the prosecution has repeatedly shown the court unrelated videos of the September 11th attacks and footage of American military convoys in Iraq being blown up. Their intent is clear: disagreeing with American policies and advocating for Muslims to fight against the US military’s violent occupation of Muslim countries is terrorism. This trial threatens to establish a chilling precedent for civil liberties within the Muslim community as well as within America at large. It is in the interest of our freedom that we must support Tarek Mehanna.