The case against Captain Yee is very unsettling for American Muslims, as it yet again taps into our massive collective insecurity about the public's ability to trust Muslims living in America. The case is obviously still not settled, and it is important to make sure that Yee is presumed innocent if and until proven guilty, as indeed all citizens in America are entitled to be.
James Yee is a 1990 West Point graduate. He served as the chaplain of the 29th Signal Battalion based at Fort Lewis, Washington. At Guantanamo, Yee had a great level of access to prisoners. It is important to recall that the overwhelming majority-perhaps all-of the prisoners being held at Guantanomo are Muslim. Some, no doubt, are al-Qaeda members. With equal certainty, however, one can also state that most were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the nervous days after September 11, 2001. They have not been processed as "prisoners of war," a situation that allows the Bush administration to hold them indefinitely, "until the War on Terrorism is over." (That, or when pigs fly, whichever comes first.)
My concern is less to argue for Yee's guilt or innocence, a decision that hopefully (insha'allah, as we Muslims say) will be determined through a just legal process in which all of Yee's constitutional rights will be respected. Rather, I want to explore, even expose, some of the ways this case has yet again exposed insights about the presuppositions of the media and government about American Muslims.
The story was first reported in the Washington Post. In this narrative, reporter Rowan Scarborough wrote that Yee left the army in the mid-1990s, "moved to Syria, and underwent further religious training in traditional Islamic beliefs." Underwent training? I think of underwent as a type of brainwashing. How about receiving? Furthermore, I fail to see how Yee's study in Syria is relevant to the charges being held against him. Is living in Syria a crime? How about studying in Syria? Damascus is and has been a highly respected center of Islamic learning for 1,200 years. Many graduate students, academics, and yes, American converts, go to Syria to learn Arabic as well as disciplines such as Islamic jurisprudence in a way that is not taught in the United States. Does that automatically render them suspect in the eyes of the U.S. government and members of the media?
The Post's report continues: "He [Yee] is said to be married to a Syrian woman." Is being married to a Syrian woman a crime? Does it make one more likely to sympathize with al-Qaeda members?
You could suggest that these nuggets of information are simply designed to convey biographical information about a figure newly thrust into the spotlight. I disagree. I think these statements function to reinforce deeply held prejudice against Muslims. Islamophobia operates at a level of suggestion and innuendo, rather that outright hate-filled statements, and it is these suggestions that must be exposed and confronted.
It is hard believe that sympathy to prisoners held in violation of international human rights--and some would say even U.S. constitutional rights--is enough of a crime to have someone arrested. After all, many civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have also condemned the indefinite holding of the prisoners, the U.S. government's refusal to charge them formally and allow due process, and even the conditions under which they are living. Are these organizations now to be detained as well?
The New York Times reported that a military official stated that the arrest was due to the army investigator's "fear and suspicion" that Yee might have been preparing to assist the prisoners in an unspecified way.
An unnamed military official reporting on "fear and suspicion" that someone "might" be acting in an "unspecified" way? Is this what the legal system of this country has come to? Show me the proof that Yee was planning to do something evil, and have that proof legally obtained and able to stand up to a court of law, and I will gladly consent that Yee deserves the legal decision.