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.
I want to be clear about this point: I am perfectly willing to concede that among the prisoners held at Guantanamo, there are al-Qaeda members who may have even participated in terrorist activities. However, that is a conclusion that one can arrive at only after a legal process, not before. Even Guantanamo prisoners are innocent until proven guilty. Perhaps a true test of democracy is if it is willing to say especially Guantanamo prisoners are innocent until proven guilty.
Yee had been prominently featured by the military as an example of how a peaceful interpretation of Islam is fully compatible with being American and a member of the military. In the days after September 11, Yee was quoted condemning the terrorist attacks--as did all major American Muslim organizations, by stating: "An act of terrorism, the taking of innocent civilian lives is prohibited by Islam, and whoever has done this needs to be brought to justice, whether he is Muslim or not." Another report came courtesy of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, an organization that describes its mission as "serving Muslims who are members of the United States Armed Forces and Veterans." In a report issued on October 2001, this organization quoted Yee: "the terrorist attacks and killing of civilians are strictly forbidden by Islamic law, separating the perpetrators from the body of Islam, not the other way around." Yee was also recorded on Voice of America radio in October 2001: "Islam comes from a word which means peace."
In fact, Guantanamo Bay's own website, published by the Navy, featured an essay by Yee in the "chaplain's corner" on Januay 31, 2003, titled "Islam: What is there to fear?" In this essay, Yee commented on diversity in America: "The strength of the nation we defend is our diversity, but not knowing each other only creates an obstacle keeping us from really coming together as one cohesive force."
Yet the same government now is holding Yee without all of his constitutionally guaranteed rights of due process he would be afforded as a civilian, since he is being held under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. As is the case with other aspects of military "justice," such as military tribunals, these military codes greatly expand the government's ability to infringe on people's rights. For example, military tribunals (which Yee might face) require a much lower burden of proof than do civilian courts.
"The main thing is that he has due process, and that all the facts come out, and that it not be conducted in secret, and that people know what really happened," said Ibrahim Hoooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "There are those in our society who love to question the patriotism of American Islamics [i.e. Muslims] and this unfortunately will give them ammunition to do that, no matter what the facts of the case are."
I often disagree with CAIR's conservative positioning, but on this point, I am forced to agree with them.
This story also has been used to perpetuate the view that Muslims in America are inherently not to be trusted by those who hold an anti-Muslim agenda. The story has quickly gotten a global audience: It was featured by Zionist websites such as Internet haganah, and also featured in the Hindustan Times of Delhi.
Can it really be true that when Muslims serve the government's purpose, we are given a podium--but when we are suspected, our rights are stripped away?