Of small victories…
Few take up the burden of their own victory: most give up their dreams when they become impossible.
- Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage
Yesterday I attended a rally for Muslims prosecuted wrongfully. If you’re an old time blog reader, you know of the two men here who were lured by FBI agents and embroiled in an elaborate trap to convict them of terrorism. Yesterday a rally was organized by a non-Muslim group that is in solidarity with the Muslims. We all met in front of the main library in our town and heard a few speakers and marched with a plethora of signs all the way downtown to city hall. We yelled slogans like ‘hey hey, ho ho, entrapment must go’ and ‘who did the crime, fbi! who did the time, muslims!’
At city hall, a common council member was going to introduce a resolution asking the justice department to review all these cases targeting Muslims.
There were maybe a hundred supporters, including Muslims, non-Muslims, babies in carriages, little Muslim girls with hijabs and signs, every nationality and age and color, Muslims who wore hijab and didn’t, Muslims who looked like they were and looked like they weren’t. Many family members of Muslims prosecuted from various cases in other states and nearby came as well.
We all walked through the metal detectors, got wanded and went upstairs to the court hall. There, one by one different people went up to speak from their heart. Some tearfully, some passionately.
There was the lawyer on the case who talked about how in the first evidence given a document claimed a Muslim Imam was a “commander” but when they read the document they realized the FBI had mistranslated the word for “brother” as “commander” and totally had the wrong language even! The FBI admitted their mistake but all evidence after that was then made secret! Not even the defense lawyers who went through months of clearance were allowed to see the evidence. They were not able to challenge anything that could have been totally wrong like that. The judge at the beginning told the jury that there was “real evidence” why these men were targeted and completely prejudiced the jury. They were afraid to exonerate them even though they found them not guilty on all except one of the charges.
A little Albanian girl who was probably about 12 went up and spoke quite eloquently about how her father and his friends went to the Pochonos on vacation and went horseback-riding, played pool and then to a shooting range. Before they went to the shooting range they even asked the local cops if they could and were told it was fine. Long story short another person tricked and entangled, pro(per)secuted and convicted. She said she had two younger siblings who always ask about their father and she doesn’t know what to tell them and tries to comfort them. All from this little tiny girl! Hearts of stone would have melted.
A Palestinian mother went up and spoke about how her son was given life PLUS 30 years and he is only 21 years old over taking pictures at a reservoir. To see him in jail the family has to drive 19 hours and can only talk to him through glass in a highly secure CMU, a jail especially for Muslims. I thought about the pictures I took this summer at Lock 7.
A local Egyptian Muslim talked about how he came to the US 30 years ago because it was the land of opportunity, of fairness and justice. How Muslims want to be part of the society, to contribute and give back. And how he was appalled with what was happening in the U.S now.
A non-Muslim African-American mother went up and talked about how one day she looked at her Muslim son and realized that he was not well. After being tested they found out he had leukemia. The informant the FBI sent to him offered him money for treatment for his CANCER. And they later used this to convict him for terrorism.
An Indian Physics professor talked about how he came to the US so many years ago as an immigrant and hoped it would be a place of peace and prosperity. How these men, while they may have made mistakes, were not terrorists. How they were entrapped and prosecuted and taken from their families.
Case after case, community members, activists, peace advocates, civil rights supporters, family members, mothers, fathers, aunts, sisters, siblings, young sons and daughters, muslims, non-muslims, blonde, white, black, wearing jeans or jilbabs or suits went and spoke. I can’t even describe the beauty and eloquence and emotion of each speaker talking about things like injustice, anger, civil rights, love, family, faith and ideals.
I know for each activist, mother or child who spoke it was a cathartic experience. For the first time they were able to speak and be a witness to what had happened to them and what was happening around them.
Some council members cried as did we.
I was reminded of the story of the Christian king of Abyssinia. Who, when the enemies of Muslims came, asking him to hand over the Muslims taking refuge in his country, asked the Muslims about their case. The Muslims came forward and recited verses from the Chapter of Mary in the Quran. The king and his council members wept until their beards were wet and he said that the difference between Christianity and Islam was the difference between this line that he drew in the sand. He declared that he wouldn’t give the Muslims up for anything and would always give them protection.
Amazingly, a few council members got up and also talked. One with a heavy Russian accent talked about how even seeing the recent violent events in his country, he did not want the US to turn into the Soviet Union. He talked about the time his uncle was dragged away for nothing and put into a horrible gulag in Siberia. He talked about how his grandmother is still scared to even talk about anything political and about how people his parents knew just disappeared because of their political ideas.
Another talked about how the council now had a choice. What kind of America did they want to live in? The kind where secret evidence, illegal wiretaps, wrongful prosecution was OK or the kind where justice upheld. Did they want an America where people were arrested and jailed before they even committed a crime because of their beliefs?
One of the women council members talked at length about the tragedy of 9/11 and admitted how the US had gone too far in their treatment for Muslims and it was time to redress it now instead of 50 years from now like they did for the Japanese that were interred and all the other different groups that had been treated unfairly in the past.
Another council member said he thought that in being a representative here he’d just be working on things like parking and streets and building legislation. But he was so proud now to be part of something of great importance and wanted to represent the Muslims he knew in his own district that he saw everyday in their stores. He knew them and wanted to make sure they received the justice they deserved.
One of the council members objected to the wording of the resolution and they went into an unprecedented emergency mode to update it so that they could have more members support it.
One council member objected to ‘not having enough time’ to think over something so weighty. Another said he wanted to talk to his ‘elected officials’ to see what they thought before supporting something like this.
I wish someone had video recorded or taped it or I could somehow recall everything that had been said and convey it to you. I don’t think I will ever see an event like that again. It was unprecedented all around and just un-describable. I wish every person in the world could, like this council, witness and hear each individual Muslim like this. Just to see their face and hear them. What a difference it makes!
It had been a very long emotional meeting. People came in and out, some went to another courtroom to pray. The babies fell asleep and were taken home. Finally after everyone spoke passionately and all debate was over… the vote. At this time, the room went silent and everyone came in, sat in the floor and listened to hear the roll call. Yes, yes, yes, present (meaning no/abstain), yes, present…and on it went. Finally the tally… it was 10-4 We won!!
The resolution had passed. And for the first time, and in a very formal way a government body had made a very very very small concession. And sent a very very very small message to the justice department. Message: what they did might have been wrong and needed to be redressed.
A very small stone in a very huge pool of suffering. The men are still in jail. Their families are still torn apart. A resolution doesn’t change innocence or guilt, just asks them to review the “methods” used in prosecution. Still…
We all walked back in groups jubiantly through the night air the way we marched, to a little tiny pizza shop downtown that one of the wive’s of one of the Muslims in jail still ran after her husband had been taken away. Struggling, alone, with 6 children to support, she had prepared some food for all of us. There everyone took up every available booth and counter space. We passed around pizza and salad and biryani and ginger ale. Some council members came too! Everyone hung out and we ate and laughed and talked and celebrated. It was a little strange, a lot full of wonder, an amazing evening. For the first time in a long time we felt… happy.
I almost didn’t write about this event, because I kind of felt it was a special, private moment for those involved. But then I thought maybe someone out there could use a tiny bit of hope… Also I would like those who were not involved and who have never been involved, the Muslims sitting on their couch or the Americans who don’t care, to know of our little win of justice, of our happiness…of small victories. It is we who are blessed through this opportunity to help others, not the other way around. All praise and thanks be to God.
UPDATE! Our wish has been granted!! Video of everyone speaking appears in the link below at Project Salam!!
Photos taken by Dan Van Riper
A Call for Justice – Metroland