The very same afternoon that the Tarek Mehanna verdict was announced, I was diligently working on a piece I was meant to submit to the ACLU. Upon hearing the verdict, I simply closed my word processer and sat in a state of shock wondering whether or not I should even continue working on my piece.
Mehanna was arrested for a second time in the early hours of the morning on 21 October, 2009 on charges of conspiracy and material support for terrorism. Those who know him testify that Mehanna was openly opposed US foreign policy. His activism included raising awareness of Americas Muslim prisoners of the war on terrorism.
Critics of the Mehanna case felt that he was wrongly prosecuted simply because of his beliefs. His convictions involved the possibility Mehanna had translated “jihadi” materials, which the defense insisted were merely political viewpoints, currently considered “unpopular” or “anti-American”, about American foreign policy.
“They are prosecuting you for your thoughts and your beliefs. As your defense lawyers aptly pointed out, the prosecution has not singled out a single action for which they are holding you accountable… it was all just ‘he said this,’ ‘he translated that,’ ‘he likes such and such,’ ‘he wants such and such,’ … It really shocked me how they are able to build a case against an individual based on nothing but what the individual’s beliefs and purported desires are.
“I don’t know how many times I heard the prosecution say ‘what he did is not important. What he thought/believed is important…’ yet ever so hypocritically, in the very next breath, he said ‘I champion and defend his rights to say and believe whatever he wants…’ I am in utter astonishment as to how he could contradict himself so directly and blatantly and the judge not notice it…” (emphasis original to source)
Simultaneously, just days before, on the other side of the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, Ahmad Faraz (in Regina v Faraz) was sentenced to 3 years in prison after having been convicted for publishing and distributing books deemed to be “terrorist” in nature under the Terrorism Act 2006 and section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 – both make possession of material considered to be “related to terrorism” a criminal offense.
According to my colleagues at Cageprioners, a disproportionate amount of time during the Faraz trial was used to analyse the ideology of Said Qutb who, in 1964, published “Milestones” from a prison cell in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule. The book was subsequently adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood as an intellectual and Islamic framework against the Nasser regime. The rapid rate by which Qutb’s ideas came to empitomise pious opposition to Nasser made Qutb a swift threat and he was hanged in 1966.
Today, “Milestones” has different meanings to different people. In Muslim circles, the book is often treated as a pious retort to western policies of military invasion and occupation of the Muslim world. In academic circles, “Milestones” is viewed as a historical document and is often the object of great study and debate. Given its groundbreaking nature to modern Egyptian history, Qutb’s “Milestones” is a quintessential component of any Middle Eastern studies course – certainly of Middle Eastern political and intellectual thought.
Resulting from the deliberations over Qutb’s political thought in the Regina v Faraz case, was that the particular interpretation of Islam that Qutb used to write his political philosophy was, according to the expert on Islam appointed to this trial, supposedly ideologically “incorrect”. Based on this supposed “misinterpretation”, Judge Calvert-Smith has deemed “Milestones” a “threat” to British national security – effectively criminalising the act of owning this book and thereby underhandedly banning the book and related political thought and engagement.
Furthermore, both Faraz and Mehanna were engaged in academic endeavours which constituted for the possession of particular materials, such as “Milestones”. This fact was entirely brushed off and disregarded by judges and jury in both cases.
The implications of these stunningly anti-democratic trials are mind blowing. In the United States, the Tarek Mehanna verdict has entirely undermined Mehanna’s 1st amendment rights, and has been described by the ACLU as a “threat to writers and journalists, academic researchers, translators, and even ordinary web surfers.” In the UK, the last time a book was regarded as a national security threat was in the 18th century.
How are the citizens of western “democracy” meant to keep up with the dizzying pace by which the goal posts are constantly shifting in the war on terror? The sheer speed by which one has to keep up with the fast changing environment by criminalising that which was once an arbitrary act, would make any well intentioned person schizophrenic.
Finally, the shocking silence in light of these latest verdicts clear contempt for democracy is breathtaking. Each trial has an inching effect on eroding western civil liberties more and more. I cannot figure out at what point peoples of the west will need to arrive at before they begin to scream bloody murder. With each of these two trials in their own right standing side by side by new statutes both in the United States and the United Kingdom that legalises and broadens the governments capability to perpetrate military violence of the worst kind on its own citizens, how on earth are the citizens of the “civilised”, “free”, and “democratic” west going about their days as if everything was normal?
For now, the surrounding calm is both deafening and depressing at worst.