25 May 2012

U.S. Muslim Imprisoned for Translating

Free Tarek Mehanna!

Just as the American capitalist rulers have declared the “war against terrorism” to be eternal, the limits to which they will go in eviscerating civil liberties under that pretext know no bounds. In a frontal attack on the rights of speech supposedly protected in the First Amendment, Tarek Mehanna was convicted in December on bogus “material support to terrorism” charges primarily for translating jihadist documents. The 29-year-old U.S. citizen was sentenced on April 12 to 17 1/2 years in prison. It is in the interest of the working class, all minorities, youth and opponents of imperialist war to denounce Mehanna’s conviction and demand his immediate release!

This was a chemically pure thought-crime prosecution. Mehanna committed no crime, carried out no act of “terrorism,” and even according to what has been the government’s expansive definition, did not provide any “material” support to terrorist activities. According to the indictment, evidence that Mehanna furthered a “criminal conspiracy” was that he “created and/or translated, accepted credit for authoring and distributed text, videos, and other media to inspire others to engage in violent jihad,” “watched jihadi videos,” “discussed efforts to create like-minded youth” and spoke of “admiration and love for Usama bin Laden.” As Yale professor Andrew March pointed out in a 21 April New York Times op-ed piece “A Dangerous Mind?”: “Those acts were not used by the government to demonstrate the intent or mental state behind some other crime.... They were the crime.” One prosecutor gave the game away when he declared about the case: “It’s not illegal to watch something on the television. It is illegal, however, to watch something in order to cultivate your desire, your ideology.”

The government’s case rested on two wobbly legs. The first was making a trip abroad. In 2004 at the age of 21, Mehanna and a friend spent one week in Yemen purportedly in an unsuccessful search for a jihadi training camp from which they would continue on to Iraq to wage war against the American occupiers. The other leg—the core of the prosecution—was translating Islamist documents he found online, centrally a 2003 text by a Saudi religious scholar titled “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad.” Georgetown University law professor David Cole wrote in the New York Review of Books’ NYRblog (19 April):

“Google ‘39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad’ and you’ll get over 590,000 hits. You’ll find full-text English language translations of this Arabic document on the Internet Archive, an Internet library; on 4Shared Desktop, a file-sharing site; and on numerous Islamic sites. You will find it cited and discussed in a US Senate Committee staff report and Congressional testimony. Feel free to read it. Just don’t try to make your own translation from the original.”

The proscription of what constitutes “material support” to terrorism, first promulgated in the Clinton administration’s 1996 “anti-terror” law and then extended in the Bush administration’s USA-Patriot Act, is so broad and vague as to allow the Feds to make it whatever they want it to be. In the 2010 Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the benign acts of advising the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Kurdistan Workers Party on their appeals to the UN, engaging in political advocacy on behalf of Tamils and Kurds and training LTTE members in lobbying for tsunami relief would constitute material support to terrorism. (See “Supreme Court Decision Shreds First Amendment Rights,” WV No. 961, 2 July 2010.)

In denying that such prohibitions would violate the First Amendment rights of the Humanitarian Law Project (HLP), the Court ludicrously “explained” that it was not prohibiting “independent advocacy,” i.e., HLP could say whatever it wanted on behalf of a group designated terrorist—just not in consultation with any of its members! Although Mehanna’s prosecution relied on the Holder precedent, he engaged in exactly the “independent advocacy” supposedly approved by that ruling. There were no consultations or communications with Al Qaeda or anyone else the government has deemed terrorists. If upheld on appeal, Mehanna’s conviction will cement a major precedent in the rollback of First Amendment rights, criminalizing just about any speech deemed offensive to this ruling class, the most rapacious in world history.

In his statement to the court before sentencing, Mehanna pointed out how earlier the government had unsuccessfully sought to entrap him into an FBI-initiated terrorist plot (a common ploy in the “war on terror” witchhunt of Muslims), then recruit him as an informant, only to reward his rejections with a terrorism prosecution. Mehanna described how his education as an American schoolchild led him to identify with the cause of the oppressed against their oppressors, citing anti-slavery fighters Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and John Brown as well as “Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle.”

Ultimately, Mehanna embraced a reactionary Islamic worldview. However, as he explained, he did not advocate the indiscriminate killing of Americans as retribution for the crimes of the imperialist rulers but rather the defense of those Muslims across the globe being crushed under the boots of the American marauders. Mehanna passionately recounted the devastation of the 1991 Gulf War, the UN starvation sanctions against Iraq, the “shock and awe” invasion of 2003 and brutal occupation that followed as well as the drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen today that routinely kill civilians. As he emphasized, “This trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians. It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians.... The government says that I was obsessed with violence, with ‘killing Americans.’ But, as a Muslim living in these times, I can think of a lie no more ironic.”

The post-September 11 “war against terrorism” may have been hatched by the Bush administration, but it has been Obama and his top cop Eric Holder who have fed it, cleaned its feathers and let it soar. More so than his predecessor, Obama has targeted leftists. Obama’s Justice Department quadrupled the sentence for 72-year-old leftist attorney Lynne Stewart, who was imprisoned for zealously defending her client, a blind Islamic cleric convicted for an alleged plot to blow up NYC landmarks in the early 1990s. The Obama government has also gone after the Freedom Road Socialist Organization on the basis of purported links to the secular-nationalist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Colombia’s FARC guerrillas. Last year, Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, sanctioning the indefinite military detention of any persons, including U.S. citizens, accused of supporting “terrorism.”

The “anti-terror” laws and well-publicized prosecutions like that of Mehanna serve a dual purpose: purveying the myth of “national unity” and enhancing the repressive machinery of the capitalist state. As the bourgeois rulers ratchet up the grinding exploitation of the proletariat and oversee the brutal oppression of ghettoized black and Latino masses, they portray these measures as necessary to protect the entire population. But there is no unity of interests between the exploited and their exploiters. When the contradictions of American capitalism ultimately propel the working class into struggle, dissolving the “national unity” glue, workers will be confronted with naked state repression bolstered by the “war on terror.” It is incumbent on working people to fight to defend democratic rights, the besieged Muslim population and all those caught up in the “anti-terror” witchhunt. We seek to build a revolutionary workers party, a tribune of all the people, dedicated to leading the working class in sweeping away capitalist class rule and replacing it with a workers government. 

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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1003, 25 May 2012)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.