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Yasir Qadhi | The Lure of Radicalism and Extremism Amongst Muslim Youth

The Lure of Radicalism Amongst Muslim Youth
10/18/2010

Why is it that a few militant clerics are so popular among some American Muslims? I was asked by an academic at a recent luncheon.

After all, besides being so extreme in their message, don’t most of them lack the scholarly credentials of the many mainstream clerics who oppose their militancy?

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The questioner was a highly educated person, someone who had a deep understanding of Islamic theology. He also understood quite well the existence of significant variations in the interpretation and understanding of religious texts. He was one of those who had no problem looking past the right-wing Islamophobic rhetoric of Fox News and Robert Spencer et al., yet was still confused as to why second-generation American and British Muslims would find a message of extremism and militancy so appealing.

He correctly pointed out that the clerics espousing militancy were not only in the minority, but were also not as well-trained in the classical sciences as were clerics belonging to the opposing camp. Why then, were their voices so influential?

This academic at the luncheon was not the only one struggling with the question. A recent congressional hearing also tackled this same issue. And of course, this was not the first time that I, myself, had to confront this very question. It was especially driven home after someone with whom I had only briefly interacted Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the now infamous “underwear bomber” turned radical and tried to blow up innocent men, women and children.

Umar’s transformation provides an excellent case-study that can and should be studied further to shed light on the question of radicalism, and this short essay makes a first, humble attempt at doing just that.

I remember Umar as a shy introvert who attended an intensive retreat, the IlmSummit sponsored by Al-Maghrib Institute in Houston, TX, in the summer of 2008. I was among ten instructors at that retreat.

Umar was in fact so quiet and shy that I almost felt obliged to engage him in small talk, asking him mundane questions about where he lived and what he was studying. And that was about the extent of my interaction with him. Never once did he raise his hand in class to ask a question, or seek any advice, or share any concerns, or confront me on any subject.

It appears that the lack of communication or socializing was not limited to the two of us. Rather, it seems that other students at the retreat had the same experience; they didn’t remember anything significant about him except his nonchalant, quiet presence.

In fact, my encounter with him had been so brief and dull, that when I saw his pictures being paraded on every website and news magazine cover in December of 2009, I didn’t even recognize him until someone alerted me via email that this was the same Umar who had been at the AlMaghrib retreat. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that someone as shy and socially introverted as Umar would have attempted to blow up a plane by stuffing his underwear with explosives!

So, what happened?

From news accounts and our own documentation, we know that the AlMaghrib retreat was his last AlMaghrib course or seminar. We also know that he left England for a Middle Eastern country (where he remained for a few months), and eventually made his way to Yemen, where he interacted with an American-born cleric whose vision of Islam was completely at odds with our own. It was this cleric who apparently inspired him to open a new chapter in his life, and who brainwashed this 19-year old introvert into believing that murdering two hundred innocent people, including many women and children (some of them even fellow Muslims), would somehow bring him closer to his Lord and earn him reward on Judgment Day.

Why did Umar AbdulMutallab, a college-educated young man with a bright future ahead of him, reject the authority and guidance of authentic orthodox Islam, and allow himself to be lured into performing such a destructive and naïve act in the process destroying his own life and possibly that of many others? After all, hadn’t he interacted with us (instructors and students of knowledge) and lived with us for two full weeks? Hadn’t he observed our level of scholarship, our academic grasp of the religion, and our emphatic opposition to irrational and counterproductive militancy?

Umar might have been a social introvert, but he was clearly not unintelligent. What was it in the message of this Yemeni-American that had caused him to ignore the message and methodology of the many teachers that he interacted with at the AlMaghrib retreat?

Some of what you are about to read might not be ground-breaking, but other points that I mention will raise a few eyebrows and perhaps even anger some. That is to be expected, and I do not expect everyone to agree with everything that I write. The point of this article (as is typically my main intention when writing such pieces) is to jump-start the discussion, and to allow for frank dialogue among all parties.

Let’s get to the answer then. It is not rocket science, nor does it require expertise in human psychology. Rather, it is quite simple. There is an external factor, and an internal factor, and when these two factors are coupled together, the result is fertile breeding ground for extremist ideas.

The external factor is an almost total absence of voices from within mainstream Islam (of all varieties: Sufis, Salafis, Deobandis, etc.) that speak to and address the concerns and issues that resonate with the Muslims most prone to extremism. When the only voices that address issues of concern are the voices of radical militant jihadis, it is only natural that young and impressionable minds will gravitate to these voices. From the perspective of these disaffected youth, since the mainstream clerics aren’t discussing relevant issues, or involved in the discourses that concern them, how then can they be turned to for guidance?

The internal factor is a very warped understanding of Islamic texts and doctrines, and a romanticized view of Islamic history. It is only with such a skewed and idealistic vision that a Muslim can allow radical voices to bypass simple common sense and a pure Islamic heart, filtering all the way to his inner psyche.

Let us discuss both of these issues in more detail:

The External Factor

The issues and concerns that are fogging the minds of many Muslims (and all those who turn to radicalism) center around the present state of the Ummah, and in particular the political and social struggles that many Muslims around the world are facing. These struggles are significantly complicated (directly or indirectly) by policies put into place by our own American government (and, to a lesser extent, other Western countries). Before 9/11, most of the grievances were solely linked to the Palestinian question, and it was for this reason that radicalization and militant tendencies during that time-frame amongst Western Muslims were almost non-existent (it is not a coincidence that all those who planned and aided in the 9/11 attacks were foreigners).

Post 9/11, our government reacted in ways that has added infinitely more fuel to the fire of extremism (and hence, the rise in radicalism amongst our own Western youth). From the illegal invasion of Iraq to the foolish military endeavors in Afghanistan, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, from Aafia Siddiqui to Ali al-Timimi, from the ‘War on Terror‘ to the ‘Patriot Act’, it became easier to convince an impressionable mind into accepting the West versus Islam paradigm (as if these two entities can be surgically and neatly delineated, separated and defined).

And instead of such incidents abating with time, every few days a new headline in some newspaper conveys yet another story proving the false paradigm: an American drone missile strike kills a few dozen anonymous, faceless tribe-members in Pakistan, or ever-expanding Israeli settlements steal more land from Palestinians, or a new torture scandal involving Muslim prisoners is leaked, or another military scandal involving the killing of innocent Muslim civilians is exposed. These incidents are a direct or indirect result of either our own American military operations, or our tax-supported military aid, or our turning a blind eye to specific actions of our allies via the use of our veto power in the UN Security Council.

As if such misguided foreign action was not sufficient to enrage a proud young Muslim man, he must also face the constant media onslaught that seeks to portray him and his faith as inherently evil and dangerous. He hears of his friends and families or other Muslims being routinely harassed, humiliated and intimidated at airports and border-crossings, and “randomly” selected for additional screening and questioning. Of course, he too has his own first-hand discriminatory experiences.

His faith attacked on national airwaves, his religiosity treated with suspicion, his co-religionists around the world killed, and his activist brothers and sisters in Western lands jailed, it is no surprise that our young and impressionable Muslim teenager struggles to make sense of all of this.

He wants someone to defend his faith and speak up on behalf of the oppressed. He wishes to hear fiery and angry rhetoric, charging the “free and democratic”nations with hypocrisy, double standards, and the flouting of human rights. It is obvious to him that his government is primarily concerned with acquisition of oil and the control of natural resources, even if that results in the loss of Muslim blood. He clearly sees our politicians pandering more to the interests of corporate sponsors and special-interest donors than to the interests of their own fellow citizens. So, naturally, as a lay-Muslim, he looks to the scholars of his religion, seeking to find solace in angry tirades and verbal lashings against our politicians, leaders, media pundits, and law enforcement agencies who are, in his view, the root cause of all of this anger and terror in the first place.

Instead, all he hears at his local mosque, assuming he is fortunate enough to live in an area where the Imam speaks English, are khutbahs that have no political relevance whatsoever. Finding nothing of significance at a local level, he then looks to more influential scholars: famous national clerics and da`ees, staple invitees to any major Islamic conference. Alas, all he hears them do is to regularly criticize his side: the victims in his eyes. Those who stand up to defend the innocent and fight against the real terrorists “from his perspective” are described as “Muslim terrorists.” Instead of supporting the cause of the weak and oppressed, these clerics side with the oppressors, routinely dissociating themselves from their own, giving spectacle fatwas against violence even as they ignore state-sponsored terrorism and what he perceives as the “greater violence.”

Over time, as acts of violence and terror increase in Muslims lands, and as local scholars only increase in their denunciation of “Muslim extremism,” this young man becomes even more disillusioned with these clerics. In his eyes, these Western scholars, no matter how popular among the masses, are nothing more than sell-outs: government-appeasing servile acquiescing cowards who are more concerned about their own safety and popularity than the safety and comfort of their persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.

“Enough of criticizing us! Who speaks up to defend them?” he demands. “Where is the condemnation of our own Western nations, our own policies and our own governments, when they engage in acts of violence, drone bombings, mass-killings, torture, secret renditions and sham trials? Why is such activity not described as terroris, is it not also targeting the innocent? Or is ‘terrorism’ only when a Muslim commits such acts?”

Alas, the token condemnation against foreign policy that does occasionally come from the mouths of these ‘mainstream’ clerics is too shallow for his liking, too weak to satiate his own anger, too lost in the convoluted language and footnotes of their larger message. He is always reminded of the words of Malcolm X and the distinction that Malcolm drew between the ‘house Negro’ and the ‘field Negro’ and he cannot help but feel that these mainstream scholars are far too entrenched with the powers-that-be to stand up against them.

Not hearing anything from his local or national scholars in the physical world around him, he scours the virtual world instead, looking on the net for voices that will speak to his concerns and address his anger. And in this virtual world, he stumbles across chat-rooms and forums where, for the first time, he finds people who see the world his way. These people, aided by the anonymity of the internet and empowered by the false bravado that only a fake alias can give, finally make our young man feel home, and that he was right all along in his assessment.

It is on these forums that he finds people who list nothing but the political faults of the Western world. It is on these forums where little children pretend to be brave men who can take on the ‘big bad wolf.’ And it is on these forums that he is introduced to ‘clerics who speak the truth’ and ‘fear none amongst men’, of legendary giants that even America fears and will do anything to silence (even if that means sending squads of assassins to murder one of their own citizens without trial). Whereas previously he had trouble finding anyone who would voice his view of the world, here, all the voices on these forums seem to be echoing the same message, spoken from the mouths of militants and circulated online by their testosterone-filled teenage cheerleaders.

And in this worldview espoused by these militants, our young man finds great comfort and solace. According to the militants, every fault in the whole world emanates not from within, but from without. The Muslims are never to blame for anything. It is always the ‘West,’ and in particular ‘Amrika’.

Local persecution of scholars in Muslim lands? ‘Amrika,’ because they were the ones who propped up the kings, presidents and emirs in the Muslim world in the first place. Bombings that kill innocent Muslims in the streets of Baghdad, or the mosques of Karachi, or the shrines of Najaf? ‘Amrika,’ through the use of false-flag operations conducted by American agents, or as a result of the wider chaos originally caused by once again, ‘Amrik’. The awful state of the economy in Muslim lands? You guessed it, ‘Amrika’, via the use of loans that the American-controlled IMF gave out and the economic policies that America put in place.

It is a comforting vision, especially for a young teenager: a simple and self-serving view that reclaims the honor of his faith while laying blame on the feet of others. “It’s not our fault at all! We are always oppressed, always victimized, it’s all America’s fault,” he says to himself over and over again. And on the forums that he frequents, the constant interactions with twenty other kids from around the world, some writing secretly from their parent’s basement, some from their own ‘Star-Wars’ posters-lined bedrooms, this chatter begins to sound like the representative voice of the entire Muslim world.

This young ‘victim’ does not realize that the ‘victim-mentality’ is not a motif of the Quran, nor do we find it ever verbalized in the seerah of our beloved Prophet. It is not a dignified mentality, and even if there are elements of truth in some portions of it, such an attitude does not befit a believer who believes in an All-Mighty Being who Hears and Sees all. Our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) suffered more at the hands of his detractors than any Muslim in our time, yet he maintained a moral dignity and an internal courage that would put to shame the entire paradigm of victim-mentality that these radicals espouse.

The Internal Factors

With regards to the internal factors, it is not likely that a mind well-grounded in authentic texts and traditions will gravitate towards acts of terrorism. Thus, it is no coincidence that one will be hard-pressed to find senior clerics, of any theological persuasion, who justify flying planes into building or strapping bombs onto one’s body in order to blow up innocent civilians.

A radical’s mind could only have been exposed to cherry-picked religious texts along with their misinterpretations; typically verses from Surah al-Anfal and Surah al-Tawba (both of which were revealed in specific historic situations very different from our own). Such a mind is only versed in Prophetic traditions of a military nature, sheered of their context and shown in isolation from many other traditions that would help paint a more nuanced view.

However, these are not the only verses and ahadith (the Prophetic traditions) pertaining to the topic of jihad. Many other verses, especially those that seem to conflict with their warped understanding of Surah al-Anfal and Tawba, are simply dismissed as belonging to the ‘Makkan’ phase of revelation. Many Prophetic traditions which would show that military action is not the only way to fight for the truth are simply bypassed or ignored. For every evidence that they quote, there is an almost surreal attempt to isolate that one verse or hadith from the entire corpus of Islamic texts and law. For these militants, it is as if each verse they cherry-pick was actually revealed for their immediate benefit. For them, it is as if every hadith that they quote was stated by the Prophet directly to them and in support of their world-view. Only a mind completely bereft from the necessary hermeneutical tools of usul al-fiqh (the procedure of deriving laws) and maqasid al-Shariah (understanding the goals of Islamic Law) can be so shallow.

With regards to doctrines, a simplistic, black-and-white understanding of wala wa-l-bara is propagated by the extremists; one that the intellectually-challenged (of the ilk of George W. Bush) would have absolutely no difficulty understanding. “You’re either with us or against us”, both Bush and Awlaki pontificate.

Yet, the real world that we live in is not as black and white as these Manichean camps would like it to be. A clear and simple argument can be made that on each and every issue, we should stand with the truth, regardless of which side that truth is on. And it is not uncommon that this truth is not on one side, but somewhere in between.

In the context of the very verses that many militants use to justify their black-and-white understandings of wala wa-l-bara, one verse (8:72) specifically mentions that even if Muslims under attack ask for help, and reach out to you based on religious loyalties, you are not obliged to help them if that help will compromise your political alliances. Extrapolating from this, one can state that while American Muslims are with the Palestinians, Iraqis and Kashmiris in wanting freedom, safety and security for them, at the same time we cannot help them militarily if that help will compromise our own safety and the safety of our families and communities, or if such help would contradict our political alliances. We can still help our suffering brethren in many other ways, for example, by educating our fellow countrymen regarding the dismal plight of these people and how our own government has been, many times, complicit in perpetuating or even causing such predicaments.

The point that I am stressing here is that a more nuanced and pragmatic reading of the Quran can also just as easily be done “ but it takes more wisdom, foresight and moral courage than many of these testosterone-filled youth are willing to undertake (and for the record, I firmly believe that one of the best ways to de-radicalize these young men is to help them get married early and encourage them to have kids, and I mean this in all seriousness).

Muslims need to understand that anyone who approaches the Quran and Sunnah with preconceived notions, wishing to find justification for certain theological or legal opinions, can almost always do so. If one wishes to speak to the texts rather than allow the texts to speak to him, then only his imagination will be a limit to the opinion that he seeks to derive.

With regards to our Islamic history and heritage, our overzealous youngster is told of a few romanticized legends of how a woman cried out for the Caliph Mutasim to come rescue her from the clutches of the enemy, or how Umar b. al-Khattab could not rest even if only one Muslim was in trouble, or how Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi almost single-handedly raised up an army to liberate Jerusalem from the clutches of the evil Crusaders.

But this youngster never actually reads a book of Muslim history himself. If he did, he would find a very different story, a very human one. Yes, there is no doubt that there were times in our past when noble men achieved gallant feats and ordinary people faced almost impossible challenges, yet came out as heroes in the end. But, as with any human history, these examples are more the exceptions than the rule.

Politically speaking, the Muslims suffered from as much intrigue, internal backstabbing, civil wars, bureaucratic inefficiencies, secret dealings, internecine warfare, bribery and corruption as just about any other culture and civilization. Were this youngster to read further, he would discover the almost constant insurrections that the Umayyads had to face from various Muslim insurgents, the political intrigues and the civil wars fought multiple times within the Abbasids, the alliances that the Taifa Rulers of Andalus regularly formed with Christian princes against fellow Muslims in order to retain power, the rivalries and fratricide of the Ottoman Sultans, and many, many, many more such sordid facts facts that are not taught in Islamic Sunday school.

Most of the armies that were harnessed and prepared in our fourteen centuries of Islamic history were actually gathered to fight other Muslims for political or material gain, and not to fight the ‘inglorious infidel’.  Muslim societies of classical and medieval times struggled with many of the same issues that their modern counterparts do (albeit to different levels), of societal corruption and moral decay and religious indifference. If there were even prostitutes in the holy city of Madinah during the Prophetic era (as our source books clearly mention), does one believe that later societies would somehow be better than our ‘pious predecessors’?

What a thorough reading of our history shows us is that our societies and people were not angels, but simply humans. Yes, there was much good as well, and there is no denying that having a Caliphate that ruled according to Islamic law led to a society of greater Islamic accomplishments than what can be obtained in our times. But by the same token, because we live in an age devoid of a Caliphate, the good that does occur in our era is of a different type, and the endeavors and struggles of our times will inevitably form its own legends and heroes for future generations.

It is immature and dangerous to over-glorify our past. By painting an imaginary and overly-romanticized picture of an Islamic epoch, it is easier for misguided clerics to convince energetic but naïve youngsters to reclaim and resuscitate such a fantasy, no matter what the cost might be.

I have no doubt that Umar AbdulMutallab saw a level of academic excellence at AlMaghrib that he would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the Western world. I also have no doubt that he was highly impressed with the scholastic content of our seminars. However, in the end, what was important to him was not what he saw, but what he didn’t see. And what he didn’t see was an exposition and condemnation of the role our own countries play in spreading terror around the world. What he didn’t see were explicit solutions being offered in light of the current situation of the Ummah.

In other words, what he didn’t hear was a discourse regarding the current political and social ills that he felt so passionately about, and a frank dialogue about the Islamic method for correcting such ills.

And in that vacuüm, where neither AlMaghrib nor other mainstream voices had anything substantive to offer, the voices of radical extremism proved to be the only bait dangling in front of his eyes. For him, there never was a competition between Orthodox Islam and militancy; there never was an ‘either-or‘ choice to be made because these two visions of Islam (from his perspective) were completely independent of one another. Each one discussed different topics and each was active in a different arena. So convinced was he by that message of radicalism that he was willing to give up his life for it, not realizing that living one’s life for the sake of God is far more difficult than committing suicide for His sake (as if the latter can ever truly be for the sake of God!).

By allowing radicals to speak on behalf of the voiceless, we who remained silent simply lost the battle for the hearts and minds of people such as Umar.

If we truly wish to fight radical ideas amongst our youth; if we wish to persuade them away from rash measures drawn from raw emotions, and to persuade them to act upon wisdom and perform real acts of courage,then the first step that we will have to take is to become more vocal about the grievances that drive young men to acts of desperation. We will need to be frank about the role that our governments play in ruining the freedoms and happiness that specific societies around the world deserve. And after discussing these woes, we will need to educate our youth about the proper way forward in solving them: away from foolish and un-Islamic militancy, and towards education, political activism and other positive channels.

Those who choose to take on this task will have much to worry about for themselves. They will have to brave the attention and subsequent fury of a fear-mongering media empire that loves to demonize any who dares disagree with its own romantic notion of a lost American utopia. These individuals will have to put their trust in Allah as they fight legal and political battles against their own governments and law enforcement agencies, as they themselves are wiretapped, monitored, harassed, baited and perhaps even jailed merely because they state the obvious: that it is our own country’s domestic and foreign policies that are the greatest source of the anger and resentment fueling radicalism.

It is an awkward position to be in; for some, it appears to be a hopeless battle. How can one simultaneously fight against a powerful government, a pervasive and sensationalist-prone media, and a group of overzealous rash youth who are already predisposed to reject your message because they view you as being a part of the establishment (while, ironically, the ‘establishment’ never ceases to view you as part of the radicals)?

But there really is no other alternative. We need to protect our religion for our children after us, and we need to preserve what we can of the freedoms this country still offers us. And while I am skeptical that America will ever revert to its innocent pre-9/11 state of affairs; still, despite all that has occurred to change this country, America remains far better than any European equivalent, and we need to appreciate and cherish this fact even as we struggle to balance our loyalties between the requirements of our faith and those that are increasingly being imposed upon us by our country.

The journey ahead of us is long and difficult, and the task is well beyond simply acknowledging the root cause of anger. Real and tangible solutions must be offered, and we must assess the pros and cons of any step that we undertake. This is but one step, and many more arduous miles lie ahead. But even the journey of a thousand miles must begin with one step.

To be continued.

Image courtesy artcornwall.org

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Sh. Dr. Yasir Qadhi is someone that believes that one's life should be judged by more than just academic degrees and scholastic accomplishments. Friends and foe alike acknowledge that one of his main weaknesses is ice-cream, which he seems to enjoy with a rather sinister passion. The highlight of his day is twirling his little girl (a.k.a. "my little princess") round and round in the air and watching her squeal with joy. A few tid-bits from his mundane life: Sh. Yasir has a Bachelors in Hadith and a Masters in Theology from Islamic University of Madinah, and a PhD in Islamic Studies from Yale University. He is an instructor and Dean of Academic Affairs at AlMaghrib, and the Resident Scholar of the Memphis Islamic Center.

#Society

The Box He’s In

free ibrahim

One From the History Books

Sometimes you read a story (casually, not knowing what to expect), only to have that story haunt you. There’s something at the heart of it that won’t let you go. The story of Henry Brown was one of those for me.

It was in 1849, in Louisa County Virginia, that Brown did a series of incredible things. 

First, he used sulfuric acid to burn his hand, because it was the only way he could get some time off of work (he used too much, and burned all the way down to the bone). 

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He then climbed into a small box – three feet by two feet, by two and a half feet high – and had his shoemaker friend nail the top shut. And with only three small holes in the box for air, he sent Brown away by mail. Brown travelled 350 miles in that box, for 27 hours. When he finally reached the address in Philadelphia, a group of waiting friends pried the lid open, and Brown could finally escape, a free man.

You won’t be surprised to hear it, but this was a horrible way to travel. Even though Brown had clearly labeled the box, “this side up with care,” handlers tossed his box around, and he spent hours of his journey traveling on his head. At one point, the pressure had built up so much that Brown felt like the blood vessels in his head would burst, and his eyes would literally pop out of their sockets. He waited silently for the blood to gush out and flow over him. 

But as difficult and dangerous as all of this sounds, it was nothing compared to the agony Brown had endured as a slave. 

Compared to most slaves, Brown himself acknowledged that he had it “good” – a very relative term, of course. In his 33 years as a slave, he had been whipped just once. He had enough food to eat, enough clothes to cover him decently, and the work he was given was never too extreme. But nothing of his was really his own, not even his own person. As a young boy, his mother would take him on her knee, and with trembling voice and tears rolling down her cheeks, she would point at the forest trees and say, “my son, as yonder leaves are stripped from off the trees of the forest, so are the children of slaves swept away from them by the hands of cruel tyrants.”  

And when his first master died, Brown and his parents and siblings were divided as property between this master’s heirs. They were torn in separate directions, never to see each other again. 

Later, when Brown was a young man, he found solace in a fellow slave named Nancy. Brown fell in love with Nancy, and married her, and had three children with her. He did everything in his power to keep her nearby. But Nancy, like Brown, was not her own person. And one day without warning, Nancy and the kids were all sold off by their owner, and Brown could do nothing except watch as his loved ones were taken from him a second time.

And it was this agony – to have his wife and children stripped mercilessly away from him – that Brown could not endure. This was the agony that made him burn his hand, and climb into a wooden mailing box, and suffer in mute silence as he travelled, tumbling on his head, so he could be free. 

Threads of Injustice

I hesitate to draw parallels between this story of Henry “Box” Brown and the story I am about to tell of my own life. The history of slavery in the US is so dark, and so grim, I can think of few  things that compare to that horror. I guess by those accounts, you could say we’ve had it good. “Good” is a relative term, of course. 

But as I picture my husband sitting – trapped – in an ICE detention center in Aurora, Colorado, 1,200 miles away from where I am with our kids, I can’t help but wonder why our country seems so hell-bent on perpetuating those same threads of injustice, so that some form of slavery, some flavor of oppression, will always endure.

My husband, Ibrahim Mohammad, is a political prisoner. The US government will happily label him a terrorist, an accusation he is entirely innocent of. But by all accounts (whether you believe him to be innocent, or guilty of the “crime” on official records) he is meant to be a free man.

I’ve written about my husband before, at some length, in a story that is in a story that is now a decade long

After a fruitless FBI raid on our home in 2011 which turned up no evidence, after my husband then cooperated with the FBI in answering any and all questions on two occasions, after four years of radio silence from them – my husband was suddenly arrested in 2015.

Ibrahim was kept behind bars for almost two and half years after that, simply awaiting a trial that the prosecution kept pushing back.

Then in 2018, Ibrahim took a plea deal. 

It was an excruciating decision for him to make. He had spent countless hours preparing for his own case, sifting through pages and pages of discovery. Ibrahim was ready to go to trial and defend his innocence, when the prosecution (who had shown up in court before unprepared and unable to make a coherent argument) presented him with an offer that was almost impossible to turn down.

The prosecution’s offer was for a 5 year sentence for reduced charges – half of which he had already served – followed by deportation from the country. To go to trial, on the other hand, was to face a necessarily biased jury, and risk a potential life sentence. It was a no brainer. Ibrahim’s lawyer for the case called this deal, “The closest thing to surrender by the Government. The Government did not indict him on life sentence terrorism offenses to have him serve 21 months [after taking the deal].” 

And so my husband took the deal. He admitted to guilt on paper so he could one day walk the earth free again, reunited with the wife and children he was so mercilessly stripped away from.

Unfortunate Crossroads

On February 7th of this year, 2020, Ibrahim completed the remaining days of his sentence.

He was released into ICE custody as the transitional ground between the Colorado prison he was in, and the country he would be deported to (likely India, since my husband is an Indian national). His departure was needlessly delayed, and now, because of COVID-19 and the world crisis we all find ourselves in, he is trapped. Flights out of the country are cancelled or delayed, and India has closed its borders.

“I never should have taken that plea deal,” my husband said recently, and I try, as I have many times before, to console him. 

It’s a resurfacing of an internal struggle Ibrahim has had since the moment he took the deal, trying to reconcile his soul to the decision. He has spent long days worried that by “admitting” even to the lesser charges in the deal, he betrayed himself and his beliefs. He goes back in time often to reject that deal, trusting that God would clear his name. Trusting that the research he put in, and the dedicated lawyer he had, could have easily (easily) stood up to the weak evidence and mumbling prosecution. Maybe, he thinks, he should have risked everything to stand up for the truth, rather than make the slightest concession to tyranny.

But the reality is, Ibrahim never stood a chance at a fair trial, despite his glaring innocence. Terrorism cases of the past have taught us that. A racist President and a country that elected him gave us no reason to hope that this time would be different. 

If you still think it’s strange that my husband would admit to something he didn’t do, that he’d be willing to take on the implication of “terrorist” when he took his plea deal, I want to remind you again of Henry Brown. How he burnt his hand with sulfuric acid and travelled in a nailed wooden shipping crate, risking his life. A good and innocent man, when stripped of his family and freedom, will do desperate things to get them back. 

“If you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was,” wrote Brown, “You cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast.”  

A Looming Disaster

In the wake of COVID-19, my husband is now serving an indefinite sentence.  Everything about his situation is uncertain.

And while his prolonged stay in the ICE detention center may seem like just another inconvenience brought on suddenly by this pandemic – aren’t all of our lives on hold in so many ways? – my husband is in a dangerous situation. He sits in a box, with other men, while the whole world has been flipped on its head. While the rest of us are told to stay home, to stay safe, to keep a distance – my husband and other detainees are in cramped quarters where social distancing is impossible, where disinfectants and cleaners are inadequate, and where all it takes is for one inmate to get sick before the rest of them follow suit.

I shudder to think what could happen to Ibrahim and these other men. I shudder to think how an already overwhelmed medical system – short-staffed and lacking necessary gear and equipment – could even begin to handle this.

Already, in early April, a staff member at my husband’s detention center tested positive for COVID-19, and shortly afterwards, a fever and illness spread among the inmates. There’s no way to know what it was, and the detention center says they did their best to isolate the infected staff member. What if it wasn’t COVID-19? And what if COVID-19 is on its way to them? All it takes is for one person – one delivery driver, one staff member, one detainee– to be infected, and the rest of the center is the perfect breeding ground for this virus.

For Cook County Jail in Chicago, all of this is no longer a “what if.” At the time of writing this, more than 500 detainees and staff at that jail have been infected. Prisoners have started rioting, and more recently going on hunger strike. All across the nation, what has already happened in Cook County Jail will happen at other prisons, because our government is failing to act. The data paints a horrifying picture, and some activists expect that “tens of thousands of prisoners will needlessly die” in the wake of COVID-19. They have labelled this a time “when mass incarceration becomes mass murder.”  

And all of us are culpable if we fail to act

Friends on Either Side

In late March, activists on the ground worked to release a number of prisoners from the Aurora Contract Detention Facility where my husband is being held. A wave of men was released, like a breath of air, to alleviate a humanitarian crisis on the verge of happening.

Ibrahim was not one of those men.

The ICE detention center claims they “probably” cannot release him on house arrest based on his conviction, even though they have complete jurisdiction to do so. 

Despite being a non-violent prisoner, despite having no prior contact with the law before the trumped up charges were brought against him, despite having served his agreed upon sentence, my husband (like other Muslims caught in the crossfire of the US “War on Terror”) wears a scarlet letter in the shape of a “T,” branded onto him as if with a hot iron – without pity and without escape. 

When Henry Brown made his historic escape from slavery, he was aided on either side by friends and supporters. In Virginia, there was his shoemaker friend and another man who was himself a freed slave. And in Philadelphia, it was a group of abolitionists who knew the evils of slavery, and the imperative of helping out a fellow man in need. They took up his cause and fought for him before they ever met him. 

For my husband, he is awaited on the other side of his captivity by a loving, longing family. We have waited for him every day since his release date in February, and long before that in every moment since the moment of his traumatic arrest.

Ibrahim is also aided by loving friends and activists fighting to get him out as we speak. A few weeks ago we filed for an Emergency Humanitarian Parole Request, asking that my husband be released on house arrest until India opens up its borders and he can fulfill the second half of an unjust plea deal, in a case that was always a travesty of justice.

It was denied. ICE gave no reason, but merely wrote a few lines as if to offer some sort of appeasement. 

We now have to put up a fight in the higher courts and file what’s called a habeas corpus in the 10th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Colorado. A habeas corpus, simply put, challenges the court to show reason as to why an individual must remain in custody. In Ibrahim’s case, having served his time, further imprisonment or detention now warrants further review. It’s still a long shot, but worth it for the chance at freedom it gives my husband, and for the sake of not staying silent in the face of injustice.

We do need your help. 

We ask that people who have never met Ibrahim take up his cause and fight for him, because the US government’s misplaced “war on terror” and systems of “mass incarceration” are evils that need to be eradicated. Help Ibrahim (and other prisoners) out of a situation that could needlessly turn into one of mass murder. Help release Ibrahim from the indefinite sentence he is now serving after having completed the unfair sentence he was given. 

Please sign the petition to free my husband, and spread the word: https://bit.ly/FreeIbrahimNow

As we see so many people stepping up during this crisis, as we witness the earth heal and restore aspects of its physical form, it’s time for a moral transformation as well.

Help set a free man free. 

 Brown, Henry. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. Kindle ed., Dover Publications, 2015. 

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#Current Affairs

What We Should Know About The Slaying Of An Imam 10 Years Ago In Dearborn

informant jibril imam Luqman

October 28, 2019 marks 10 years since the tragic homicide of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah who was shot 20 times in Dearborn, Michigan by a special FBI tactical squad. The homicide of Imam Abdullah was the culmination of the FBI spending over a million dollars in a so-called counterterrorism investigation which included rental of a commercial warehouse and freight trucks, the purchase of expensive electronic items and payment to at least 3 confidential informants. The raid on that fateful day in which Abdullah was killed and some of his congregants were arrested had nothing to do with terrorism-related charges, yet the imam and by extension the Detroit Muslim community was smeared in the process.

The FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) claimed that agents were compelled to kill Abdullah because he purportedly shot a law enforcement canine during the arrest raid. CAIR-Michigan filed a lawsuit against the FBI for wrongful death and fraud in this matter because there was no forensic evidence that corroborated that Abdullah had a firearm much less shot an FBI dog, which the bureau considered a law enforcement officer. There were no proofs provided that any gunpowder was on Abdullah’s hand or fingertips which would have existed if he had fired a gun, and none of his DNA nor fingerprints were found on the alleged gun. In fact, there was not even a picture of a gun at the scene nor did the Dearborn Police see any gun. The FBI blocked the Dearborn Police from entering the scene of the homicide for over an hour after the shooting which allowed the FBI special tactical team to leave with the purported firearm. In other words, the shooters of Abdullah, who headed back to DC without even being questioned by the Dearborn Police, are the only source that he had a gun. We believe that the FBI used what is known as a throwaway gun in a coverup when they killed the imam.

To add insult to injury that tragic day when Abdullah was shot 20 times including in the back and groin, law enforcement used their helicopter to fly the injured FBI dog, which was most likely shot by friendly fire, to a veterinarian hospital instead of using it to fly the imam to a close-by hospital. When the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Michigan and the Acting US Attorney held a press conference about the incident, it was followed up later with special recognition for “Freddy” the FBI dog while the imam was painted as a type of extremist who wanted to establish sharia in the Westside of Detroit.

To add insult to injury that tragic day when Abdullah was shot 20 times including in the back and groin, law enforcement used their helicopter to fly the injured FBI dog, which was most likely shot by friendly fire, to a veterinarian hospital instead of using it to fly the imam to a close-by hospital.Click To Tweet
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The lawsuit which we filed against the FBI was dismissed not because of the merits of our arguments but due to the federal government during the Obama administration suppressing information. The FBI would not release the names of their shooting squad which forced us to name them as John Does. The DOJ countered that we did not have standing on behalf of the family because we did not name actual persons. When we refiled using the names of the Special Agent in Charge and the head of the tactical team, neither who were actual shooters, the DOJ argued that the statute of limitations ran out in our complaint. We submitted an appeal to the US Supreme Court regarding the coordinated suppression of evidence; however, our appeal was denied. We still hold to this day that the FBI wrongfully killed the imam which was followed up by a systematic coverup.

Since the homicide of Abdullah, we now know that government surveillance against the Muslim community and the suspected terrorist watchlists grew tremendously during the Obama years in comparison to the Bush era. Also, the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) which further targeted the community began under the Obama administration. Government spying and the broad usage of confidential informants, some who act as agent provocateurs, in our community are still concerns of ours. Where Americans pray or who we associate with that may have unpopular political views should not be predicates for FBI surveillance. In many cases, this has led to young American Muslims being criminalized. For Imam Abdullah, it led to his demise.

During the 10th anniversary of this tragedy, I ask us all to recommit ourselves to standing for the civil liberties of all Americans to not be mass surveilled and for none of us to aid and abet any governmental programs that facilitate of the violation of our 1st Amendment rights falsely in the name of public safety and national security. Click To Tweet

As my mentor, the late Ron Scott with the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality said when he stood with us in this case, “We are not anti-police; we are anti-law enforcement misconduct.” It is not our position that law enforcement be completely abolished. We are, however, against the unethical usage of informants which is part and parcel of the prolific history of the FBI in targeting prominent Americans such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, whose religious and political views were viewed as threatening by the status quo. During the 10th anniversary of this tragedy, I ask us all to recommit ourselves to standing for the civil liberties of all Americans to not be mass surveilled and for none of us to aid and abet any governmental programs that facilitate of the violation of our 1st Amendment rights falsely in the name of public safety and national security. We never want to see another homicide such as what took place to Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah due to overzealous actions predicated upon misguided FBI policy.

Photo: Luqman Abdullah, second from left. FBI informant “Jibril,” third from left. Credit: Intercept

21 Shots and the Pursuit of Justice: An Imam (Luqman Ameen Abdullah) Dies in Michigan

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#Current Affairs

Sri Lankan Muslims To Fast In Solidarity With Fellow Christians

On Sunday morning Sri Lankan Christians went to their local churches for Easter services, as they have done for centuries. Easter is a special occasion for Christian families in ethnically diverse Sri Lanka. A time for families to gather to worship in their churches, and then to enjoy their festivities. Many went to their local church on Sunday morning to be followed by a traditional family breakfast at home or a local restaurant.

It would have been like any other Easter Sunday for prominent mother-daughter television duo, Shanthaa Mayadunne and Nisanga Mayadunne. Except that it wasn’t.

Nisanga Mayadunne posted a family photograph on Facebook at 8.47 AM with the title “Easter breakfast with family” and had tagged the location, the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Little would she have known that hitting ‘post’ would be among the last things she would do in this earthly abode. Minutes later a bomb exploded at the Shangri-La, killing her and her mother.

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In more than a half a dozen coordinated bomb blasts on Sunday, 360 people have been confirmed dead, with the number expected to most likely rise. Among the dead are children who have lost parents and mothers & fathers whose families will never be together again.

Many could not get past the church service. A friend remembers the service is usually so long that the men sometimes go outside to get some fresh air, with women and children remaining inside – painting a vivid and harrowing picture of the children who may have been within the hall.

Perpetrators of these heinous crimes against their own faith, and against humanity have been identified as radicalised Muslim youth, claiming to be part of a hitherto little-known organisation. Community leaders claim with much pain of how authorities were alerted years ago to the criminal intent of these specific youth.

Mainstream Muslims have in fact been at the forefront not just locally, but also internationally in the fight against extremism within Muslim communities. This is why Sri Lankan Muslims are especially shaken by what has taken place when men who have stolen their identity commit acts of terror in their name. Sri Lankan Muslims and Catholics have not been in conflict in the past, adding to a palimpsest of reasons that make this attack all the more puzzling to experts. Many here are bewildered as to what strategic objective these terrorists sought to achieve.

Sri Lankan Muslims Take Lead

Sri Lankan Muslims, a numerical minority, though a well-integrated native community in Sri Lanka’s colourful social fabric, seek to take lead in helping to alleviate the suffering currently plaguing our nation.

Promoting love alone will not foster good sustainable communal relationships – unless it is accompanied by tangible systemic interventions that address communal trigger points that could contribute to ethnic or religious tensions. Terror in all its forms must be tackled in due measure by law enforcement authorities.

However, showing love, empathy and kindness is as good a starting point in a national crisis as any.

Sri Lankan Muslims have called to fast tomorrow (Thursday) in solidarity with their fellow Christian and non-Christian friends who have died or are undergoing unbearable pain, trauma, and suffering.  Terror at its heart seeks to divide, to create phases of grief that ferments to anger, and for this anger to unleash cycles of violence that usurps the lives of innocent men, women, and children. Instead of letting terror take its course, Sri Lankans are aspiring to come together, to not let terror have its way.

Together with my fellow Sri Lankan Muslims, I will be fasting tomorrow from dawn to dusk. I will be foregoing any food and drink during this period.

It occurs to many of us that it is unconscientious to have regular days on these painful days when we know of so many other Sri Lankans who have had their lives obliterated by the despicable atrocities committed by terrorists last Sunday. Fasting is a special act of worship done by Muslims, it is a time and state in which prayers are answered. It is a state in which it is incumbent upon us to be more charitable, with our time, warmth and whatever we could share.

I will be fasting and praying tomorrow, to ease the pain and suffering of those affected.

I will be praying for a peaceful Sri Lanka, where our children – all our children, of all faiths – can walk the streets without fear and have the freedom to worship in peace.

I will be fasting tomorrow for my Sri Lanka. I urge you to do the same.

Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ. Surah Maidah

Raashid Riza is a Sri Lankan Muslim, the Politics & Society Editor of The Platform. He blogs here and tweets on @aufidius.

 

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