[13 July 2010]
Following thew events of September 11, 2001, the US government went to enormous lengths to prevent further attacks from taking place. Some actions were hardly controversial—increased security at airports, for example—while others raised disturbing issues. The unprecedented authority granted by the Patriot Act to detain citizens, including US citizens, indefinitely without legal counsel and without informing families as to the detainee’s whereabouts, is being challenged in courts to this day.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, many citizens were willing to forego what they saw as legal niceties in exchange for increased security, although it’s an open question as to whether Americans are any more secure. Inevitably, some groups were targeted more than others, most obviously Arab-Americans and immigrants, as well as Muslim communities nationwide, regardless of their national origins. An absence of evidence makes no difference to investigators, whose job is to find something, not to determine whether there is anything to find.
Stephan Salisbury argues in Mohamed’s Ghosts that the consequences of these investigations include shattered communities, sundered families, and shuttered mosques. Moreoever, he suggests that the tactics being used undermine the very American values they claim to protect.
Salisbury focuses on the story of the Ansaarullah mosque in Philadelphia, founded in 2002 by Mohamed Ghorab, an Egyptian immigrant who had come to America with great dreams. These dreams included getting married, having children, and attaining the position of imam, or leader, of a neighborhood mosque. Within a few years, the chatty and charismatic Ghorab had accomplished his goals, although the mosque he’d founded was housed in a former auto repair shop in a rundown Philly neighborhood, a few doors down from an adult video store.
Ghorab also managed to incur a visa violation, the kind of error that would have been shrugged off months earlier, but times had changed. Authorities swept down upon Ansaarullah, arresting its leader as he dropped off his daughter Eliza at school, in full view of other parents, children and teachers. (No one could explain why the arrest was made so publicly, instead of home at the mosque, where Ghorab quietly spent his days.) Subsequently he was deported.
Other members of the congregation were arrested or fled, while the mosque was raided and searched. Nothing incriminating was ever found, but the building closed in 2008, unable to meet operating costs. Ghorab’s wife Meriem continues to claim her husband’s innocence of any wrongdoing.
If this were just one episode, it might be possible to shrug it off as either a miscarriage of justice or a timely intervention by the government. Salisbury denies it is either appropriate or uncommon, documenting instance after instance of Muslim communities targeted in the US, notwithstanding an absence of any evidence against them. In Brooklyn, hundreds if not thousands of Pakistani immigrants have vanished into detention or deportation; in Lodi, California, the target was a Pakistani-American community; in Evansville, Illinois, seven Egyptians were arrested by FBI agents acting on a tip from an estranged wife. Supposedly the men were plotting to destroy the Sears tower—a ridiculous assertion, but one that received widespread media attention. After a week shackled in solitary confinement, the men were exonerated, but their businesses closed and their names remain on government watch lists.
“How did this happen?” Salisbury asks. “How did what amounts to a crank call from a vindictive spouse mutate into a potential capital case?” The answers he gets are disturbing, and there are many more examples.
A 2003 report by the office of Glenn A. Fine, the inspector general of the Justice Department, “described detainees housed in isolation units, subjected to round-the-clock lighting, constant shackling, incessant strip searches, indefinite periods of incarceration, and a host of other questionable practices. In several instances, detainees were not charged with any crimes.” Forget convictions—they weren’t even charged. Such events took place at holding facilities nationwide. These incidents, of course, don’t reflect the thousands of cases of individual hate crimes and humiliations carried out by citizens.
Immigration violations were the only substantiated infraction that Ghorab or any of his associates were found guilty of. While stopping short of suggesting amnesty for illegal immigrants, Salisbury describes how INS regulations are so complicated that INS agents themselves are often unclear about what constitutes a violation. While many immigrants are doubtless guilty of knowingly violating the conditions of their visa, this hardly constitutes terrorism.
Salisbury draws parallels between the ‘60s and the present day, delineating the culture of informants and infiltrators used by the government against such groups as Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen. He makes the disturbing point that tactics appropriate for investigating organized crime, such as informants, stakeouts and wiretaps, are now being used against entire communities of people who have never been accused of any wrongdoing. Being Muslim, these days, equals being suspect. The idea of innocence until guilt is proven, it seems, has vanished, at least for some people named Khalid or Usman or Khadija.
Such paranoia is reflected by Dick Cheney’s un-ironic statement that reverberates throughout this book like a haunting chorus: “We don’t know what we don’t know.” When such a mantra becomes entrenched, thinking changes: guilt is presupposed. Lack of evidence is not an indication of innocence, but a warning that one’s quarry is especially devious and must be pursued with special vigor. The similarities between this mindset and others that the US has long opposed—the Soviet Union and North Korea come to mind—is chilling.
As Salisbury’s book goes into detail about this and other points, a recurring theme emerges. Again and again, immigrants arrived in the US with dreams and hopes that were brutally smashed by law-enforcement apparatus. In the absence of uncovering any genuine terror plots, agents went after “the low-hanging fruit”, as one official puts it. Mohamed’s Ghosts is a singularly disturbing document about what it means to live in America these days. It is not always a desirable place to be. True patriots should pay attention.