Growing up in Chicago as a soccer-crazed teenager in the 1990s, I never gave the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development much thought. It was a respected Muslim-American charity known to me mostly for its heart-wrenching appeals sometimes accompanied by annoying music.
Fast-forward a decade: I’m on a stage in Dallas for a large rally in support of officials of the now-defunct foundation who were facing charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization. The nationally riveting case was about to go to trial, and I was joined by prominent American Muslims and civil rights activists hoping to educate the local Muslim community about the legal and public-relations battle ahead.
The past few years have brought a lot of changes, the sorts of changes that see a young Muslim consultant for a Fortune 500 company — yours truly — morph into a full-time civil rights activist, and that see a celebrated Muslim charity such as the Holy Land Foundation face trial as an enemy of the people. In that fateful way, and on that Dallas stage, our once divergent paths converged.
In my three years as the head of the Chicago branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim civil rights group, I have encountered a plethora of civil rights abuses leveled against American Muslims. But more than any other, the case against the foundation represented a decisive moment in this stormy episode of the Muslim immigrant community’s young history.
There was too much of the Muslim community invested in this case. The foundation had been the largest Muslim-American charity during its time of operation. The prosecution’s unindicted co-conspirator list of 306 groups and individuals read like a who’s who of Muslim-American leadership: groups such as the council I work for; the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim educational group; and the North American Islamic Trust, the largest Muslim holding company.
A guilty verdict threatened to engulf the Muslim-American establishment into a legal war of attrition spelling its slow demise. A not-guilty verdict held the promise of ending the nightmare that began six years ago and restoring the community’s trust in the system.
This was not only about demanding justice as an outcome, but more importantly, justice as a process. American Muslims increasingly worry that the word “terrorism,” even when uttered as an allegation, is sufficient to trump the “innocent until proven guilty” axiom that is a cornerstone of our justice system.
The case against the foundation was particularly worrisome because of its dubious legal arguments. While the government acknowledged that every penny the foundation raised went to peaceful charitable relief, it argued that by providing legitimate charity to needy Palestinians, the foundation was intentionally freeing up Hamas’ charitable funds for terrorist activity. The government’s evidence to substantiate this ludicrous argument ranged from mention of the word “Hamas” by the defendants to textbook guilt by association.
Not surprisingly, the jury did not return a single guilty verdict on any of the 197 counts, and the case ended in a mistrial on Monday.
Yet the question remains: Why does the Bush administration continue to prosecute such far-fetched cases? Why does it see threats where none exist?
Time and again, we watched as the Bush administration announced a major “terrorism” case to much fanfare, only for the case to end with a fizzle. The administration’s most hyped-up terrorism cases — those of Sami Al-Arian in Florida and Muhammad Salah here in Chicago — both ended in full acquittals on all terrorism-related charges.
The government’s numbers since Sept. 11 don’t look good: A 29 percent conviction rate on cases alleging terrorism, compared with a 92 percent conviction rate for felonies. Georgetown law professor David Cole and University of Pittsburgh law professor Jules Lobel rightly note in The Nation that, “This is an astounding statistic, because presumably federal juries are not predisposed to sympathize with Arab or Muslim defendants accused of terrorism. But when one prosecutes prematurely, failure is often the result.”
Since Sept. 11, and in the name of the war on terror, the administration has invested our resources in pursuing parties that have nothing to do with Al Qaeda and the threat of another Sept. 11. If, God forbid, another attack were to occur, this administration will have to answer for years of barking up the wrong trees, here and abroad.