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The last casualty of 9/11: Speaking up for Muslim political prisoners

For two decades, Muslims' will to seek justice for political prisoners has been muted.

Razor wire surrounds a prison. Image by Jody Davis/Pixabay/Creative Commons

(RNS) — In the era of pandemic isolation, religious leaders have had to be creative to minister in ways that gave their congregations some sense of normalcy and community — most famously over Zoom, but including outdoor shofar blasts, squirt-gun holy water blessings and other socially distanced rituals.

As an imam, I had already become used to these kinds of dislocations.

Earlier this year I was asked to perform the wedding of the son of Ghassan Elashi, a former leader of the Holy Land Foundation who is serving what amounts to a life sentence for the supposed crime of sending humanitarian aid to Palestinians

At one point, the wedding guests gathered in the family’s backyard heard Ghassan’s congratulations to his son in a recording interrupted every few seconds by another voice reminding us, “This call is from a federal prison.” Smiling faces turn to tears as we all were reminded of Ghassan’s painful absence and the family’s profound loss.


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It was the third wedding ceremony I’ve performed since the start of the pandemic for the family of a Muslim political prisoner in the government’s War on Terror.

Elashi is one of the “HLF 5,” who led what was the largest Muslim charity in the country when it shut down in 2001. All of the defendants, well-known members of the Muslim community here in Dallas, were convicted in 2008, after a first trial ended in a hung jury. 

William Neal, one of the jurors in the first trial, said: “They kept showing us blown-up buses and they kept showing us little kids in bomb belts reenacting Hamas leaders. It had nothing to do with the actual charges. It had nothing to do with the defendants.” 

But by then, the fate of the Holy Land Foundation had long since been sealed. Many Muslims had abstained from supporting the charity once President George W. Bush declared that the group was raising money for “Hamas to support schools and indoctrinate children to grow up into suicide bombers.”

The government has yet to show any evidence of that claim, but in an Islamophobic post-9/11 climate, Muslim organizations daring to take a stance, much less question the fairness of the trial, could land on the infamous “unindicted co-conspirators” list. The “guilt by association” tactic was deliberately meant to intimidate and hang a dark cloud over practically every Muslim organization in America, with no due process or a chance to refute the false allegations. 

Now 20 years removed from 9/11, yet still living in a post-9/11 reality, many young Muslims wonder why so many high-profile Muslim political prisoners haven’t gotten the full support of their community or human rights advocates.

The answer, in part, is that the War on Terror abroad perpetuated bigotry against Muslims domestically and locked down the Muslim community through law enforcement scrutiny. Muslim organizations were constantly fighting off smears of being “terrorist sympathizers” and were either unwilling or unable to risk the consequences of being affiliated with these prisoners. Those who got the shortest end of the stick were the prisoners who were targeted in malicious and politically motivated prosecutions.

That is just the case with the HLF 5. Supporting someone such as Aafia Siddiqui, who was maligned as “Lady al-Qaida,” didn’t mean that you believed she was innocent; it meant you were an al-Qaida sympathizer. So, despite former Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s description of her case as the worst case of individual injustice he had ever seen, many Muslims and rights groups that would typically fight for a fair trial succumbed to silence. 

Many of us are tired of the intimidation and selective targeting that has silenced organizations, harassed activists at airports and held prisoners without fair trials. People who believe in the rule of law should demand that defendants charged with even the worst of crimes be given the presumption of innocence.

That includes those who may have expressed support for organizations that engage in violence or otherwise. Thought crimes and First Amendment-protected activities shouldn’t land one in prison for life, no matter how terrible those expressed thoughts may be. There are plenty of people roaming the streets today who have openly expressed wanting to harm Muslim Americans — some of them in front of our mosques here in Dallas, while carrying AR-15s.

As despicable as their thinking may be, they don’t deserve to be imprisoned for life. (Some Islamophobes who have expressed such horrific views not only do not land in prison but end up holding political office.)

Recently, I found myself in the presence of another son of a political prisoner who is serving a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. A group of human rights organizations held a protest outside of the Tucson, Arizona, detention center where Imam Jamil Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown) is being held. Al-Amin, a former head of the Black Panthers, was a model for many American Muslims after his conversion to Islam in the 1970s.


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Shortly after 9/11, Al-Amin was falsely accused of the murder of a police officer despite numerous issues with the prosecution. Now civil rights groups and leaders, including Ambassador Andrew Young, are calling for his case to be reopened, since another man, Otis Jackson, has repeatedly confessed to that murder, on video and in writing.

Kairi Al-Amin, an attorney who has been fighting for his father’s freedom since he was 12 years old, was present at the demonstration. After he eloquently spoke of the injustice his family had suffered, my daughter, who is almost 12 now, asked him how he coped with such trauma at her age and what she could do to help. On the way home she told me, “Baba, I hope that never happens to anyone ever again,” and said she wanted to organize for Al-Amin.

I was proud of her but also saddened that for the past two decades so many Muslims have been unable to engage in such a basic moral duty as seeking justice out of fear of being portrayed as disloyal “terrorist sympathizers.” In that, the suffering and isolation of so many prisoners and their families is cruelly compounded.