By Katherine Hughes Radio Essay

I believe it is incumbent upon citizens in a democracy to protect the rights of each other.

As a 14-year old, I watched a documentary of the Allies going into the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen at the end of the Second World War. Footage in the documentary showed bulldozers pushing heaps of skeletal bodies into pits and people who were walking cadavers. This left an indelible impression on me and spurred a lifelong search for understanding of how ordinary people could let something like this happen.

Despite reading hundreds of first hand accounts of what happened in Germany, I was unable to fully understand what might have taken place. This changed when my concern for the preservation of civil liberties led me to attended the trial of Syracuse, New York doctor, Rafil Dhafir.

Dr. Dhafir and his charity, Help the Needy, were targeted by the Bush administration that, following the events of September 11, 2001, raided and closed down six major and many smaller Muslim charities, accusing each of funding terrorism. In each case, alleged “guilt by association” meant that the charities’ assets were frozen and their principals arrested. Yet despite new investigative powers, government authorities have failed to produce evidence of terrorist financing by any of these Muslim charities.

An Iraqi-born American citizen of 30 years, Dr. Dhafir’s charity sent aid to starving Iraqi civilians during the US and UK sponsored UN embargo that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the 1990s. Like many Arabs and Muslims in the post 9/11 period, Dr. Dhafir was not afforded the protections the Bill of Rights guarantees to all. Held without bail for 31 months, denied access to his legal counsel and his own documents, he was presumed guilty long before his case came anywhere near a court of law–and of much more than indicated in the charges filed against him. Convicted of only white-collar crime, he is currently serving 22 years in a special prison unit that houses, almost exclusively, Arab and Muslim men.

After witnessing the 14-week trial, I took a year out from my studies to alert people to the threat to civil liberties I perceived. I put in many 60-hour weeks contacting; individuals, religious groups, local colleges, and media outlets, about the case, as well as keeping up a website. I believed that if I alerted people to what was happening, they would want to find out more. But this belief proved naïve; knowledge is a terrible thing, it throws you out of the Garden of Eden. People did not want to know.

We appear once again to have entered a dark time in which the civil liberties of a select group of people are being denied. The message being sent to Muslims across the country is that pillars of their community can be knocked down without any call for equal justice from the non-Muslim community. It is incumbent upon each of us to defend civil liberties for all, not least because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


[This piece was written as an assigment for a “Writing and Designing the Documentary” class at Syracuse University. The assignment is based on the NPR This I Belive media project that invites a public dialogue about belief. Submitted to NPR on 09/10/08]