The Jihadist as Civil Rights Hero

This is a cross-post by Sohrab Ahmari, from the Weekly Standard.

Tarek Mehanna Photo

In late March, as Boston emerged from winter, so did the city’s protest community. On the 24th of the month I watched as antiwar students joined forces with partisans of the Palestinian cause and Nation of Islam members in their immaculately pressed suits and distinctive bow ties, to gather in Dockser Hall at Northeastern University. The pretext was a community panel on prosecutorial misconduct at the Boston United States attorney’s office. The star of the show was disgraced Boston city councilor Chuck Turner, there to make his “last stand” before reporting to Hazelton federal prison, where he is serving a three-year sentence for public corruption. As outspoken as ever, the erstwhile civil rights hero claimed federal prosecutors in Boston had colluded with “the oligarchy” to frame him after he called for troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Turner had been tagged for accepting a $1,000 wad of cash from a cooperating witness in return for assisting a Roxbury nightclub obtain a liquor license.

Turner’s case comported nicely with the larger political theme of the evening—the unjust prosecution of free-thinking citizens by a racist American government. And so -Turner’s fate wasn’t the only cause celebrated that evening. There was also the curious case of Tarek Mehanna, a 28-year-old Ph.D. who was indicted in November 2009 by a federal grand jury returning a 10-count indictment against him, alleging, inter alia, that he had conspired to provide material support to terrorists. Like Turner, however, Mehanna sees himself as a victim.

So do his supporters. Laila Murad, a young organizer with the Tarek Mehanna Support Committee, stepped to the microphone to defend Mehanna as “a devout Muslim, an educator and mentor to the youth, a scholar, a good friend, a devoted and respectful son .  .  . a loved and esteemed member of our local Muslim community.” Murad’s voice quivered with palpable intensity as she described Mehanna’s bravery in speaking “out against U.S. foreign policy” and his advocacy on behalf of Muslim prisoners. Federal authorities, Murad claimed, had leveled false charges against him in retaliation for his taking a principled, unpopular stance. It was Mehanna’s activism, and his dogged refusal to inform on his own community, that had made him an ideal target for the “post-9/11 campaign of repression against Muslims.”

“My crime,” Mehanna declares in a defiant poem written not long after his arrest, “is my mind, uncolonized and free / and that I’m not the house slave they want us all to be.” In another poem, Mehanna pays tribute to his own spiritual resilience, and that of the other unjustly imprisoned faithful. Visitors to Mehanna’s website can access an extensive collection of his poems, essays, and illustrations. Stilted and artless though they may be, these efforts help Mehanna come across as a prisoner of conscience, facing a long sentence simply for defending his faith against an American government bent on subjugating Muslims at home and abroad. One drawing—looking very much like a rejected piece of conceptual art from the Matrix trilogy—depicts “Uncle Thomas Laboratories,” where a grotesque machine divests American Muslims of their mental autonomy. Here, a massive tube first sucks out a young Muslim’s brain. Next, robotic arms remove the layers surrounding the brain—“dignity,” “self-respect,” and “pride for the ummah”—while others inject it with an “inferiority complex,” and an “apologetic attitude.” The final product, a “colonized mind,” is neatly wrapped in a box marked “made in U.S.A.”

Mehanna’s supporters have launched a relatively sophisticated campaign portraying him as a misunderstood, moderate Muslim dissident. And yet the “Free Tarek” initiative reaches far beyond Boston’s Muslim community. A YouTube video on the “Free Tarek” website, for example, features the Rev. Jason Lydon, a Unitarian minister and LGBT rights advocate, telling local reporters that Mehanna “is a man who expresses love of his faith and a deep commitment to justice.” He is “a known moderate in his political views [who] consistently demonstrates his peaceful response to conflict.”

Moreover, by branding Mehanna as a rights crusader, his supporters also seek backing from Boston’s African-American community. At the Northeastern event speakers drew a straight line between the black community’s valiant struggles against American apartheid in the 1960s and Mehanna’s struggle against the U.S. government’s “anti-Muslim agenda” today.

Mehanna has embraced the role of the intrepid civil rights hero—his website’s banner carries Dr. King’s warning that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But the massive evidentiary arsenal that law enforcement agents have amassed against him paints an entirely different picture of Tarek Mehanna. It offers a fascinating psychological portrait of an Islamist undergoing an almost decade-long process of radicalization. And yet the real story here is not about the making of a homegrown Islamist militant. Rather, it’s about his supporters’ use of the well-worn lexicon of identity politics to turn a young man who is seething with hatred, sexually frustrated, and profoundly alienated from his own family into a standard-bearer for racial justice and a model American Muslim. He is neither.

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