On April 12th Tarek Mehanna was found guilty of conspiracy and of giving material support for terrorism. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison. The prosecution accused Mehanna of translating statements for Al Qaeda and of disseminating pro-jihadist material on the Internet. Mehanna maintains that he does not support the world view of Al Qaeda, though he is unapologetic for supporting the rights of Muslims to defend themselves against their oppressors, in this case US and British soldiers. The American Civil Liberties Union has said that the verdict against Tarek “undermines” free speech, while the prosecution holds that Tarek was “conspiring to support terrorists” and “conspiring to kill Americans overseas.”
However, if Tarek Mehanna is guilty, so am I. I too support the right of Muslims to defend themselves against US troops, even if that means they have to kill them, and I try to give the Iraqi resistance a voice through my website. I have done everything that Tarek Mehanna has done, and there are only two possibilities why I am not sitting in a cell with him: 1) The FBI is incompetent and hasn’t been able to smoke me out. 2) The US judicial system would never dream of violating my freedom of speech because I am white and I am a veteran of the Occupation of Iraq.
Indeed, Mehanna is being punished for his ideas, and the case against him stinks of a lynch mob mentality. The islamophobia that still grips the US has often resulted in a hysterical witch-hunt for “radical” Muslims, of which Tarek Mehanna is the most recent victim. Most Muslims in the US can get by as long as they proclaim their love for this country and keep their mouths shut about American foreign policy, but a Muslim who is vocally critical of US policy is still a very scary thing for many in the US. Mehanna’s ideas have been criminalized because they are critical of US policy and advocate for jihad, which, unfortunately, is pitifully misunderstood in the US. In the current political atmosphere critical ideas are too often equated with extremism, and jihad is equated with terrorism.
Jihad is not synonymous with terrorism, however; and most Americans would be shocked to learn that they share many values with Jihadists, like duty, the importance of self-improvement, and the right to self-defense. Jihad, which literally means “struggle” or “effort,” can describe an internal struggle to refrain from sin, an effort to promote Islamic values, or a duty to defend other Muslims when they are under attack. Jihad is not an aggressive war to convert others, nor does it condone terrorism. Yet jihad is popularly understood in America to be a call for terrorism against infidels.
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I found Tarek Mehanna’s sentencing statement eloquent and truthful. I agree with him that much of what the US military has done in Iraq and Afghanistan can be characterized as terrorism, and I support Afghans and Iraqis who fight back against us. What I helped do to the city of Fallujah was terrorism, and I lost two dear friends in that operation. But I cannot hate or begrudge the resistance in Fallujah for killing them. They were only doing what I would have done had a foreign army been laying siege to my hometown. We were the aggressors and the terrorists, and I can see that now, eight years too late.
I agree with Tarek Mehanna that when Iraqis and Afghans attack U.S. troops that have invaded and occupied their country, it is not an act of terrorism. It is simply warfare. Just as when George Washington’s army attacked British troops in 1776, it was not terrorism, but warfare. However, such a comparison assumes that there is an objective definition of “terrorism” that is used consistently by Americans. But as Tarek Mehanna pointed out in his sentencing statement, the term “terrorism” is subjective in American discourse, because the term is only acceptable when it is used to refer to what the official enemy does to us.
If there were an objective definition, than the same standards by which we condemn the terrorism of others could be used to condemn our acts of terrorism. We could then say that the Shock and Awe Bombing of Iraq killed more innocent civilians than the attacks of 9/11, and was also an act of terrorism. We could also say that what we did to Fallujah was an act of terrorism. But such statements are shocking and unthinkable to Americans.
I’m not afraid to profess my support for Tarek Mehanna, or to advocate for his ideas, because I know the law does not apply equally to all in America. My whiteness and my status as a veteran will protect me. But Tarek was brown and he never made the mistake of enlisting in the Marine Corps, as I did, so he will spend the next 17 years in a cell.