By Jeanne Finley Albany Times Union 10/30/10

The U.S. government and part of our population continue to associate the murderers of 9/11 with American Muslims. Because the 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, the government assumes Muslims are predisposed to terrorism and targets them, while insisting they have the same freedoms as other Americans. This deliberately mixed message is responsible for both the surge of anti-Muslim bigotry and the public’s inability to distinguish real terrorists from fabricated ones.

What’s the difference, for example, between Faisal Shazad, the Times Square bomber, and the Newburgh 4, the desperately poor, marginally Muslim men convicted of plotting to shoot down military planes and bomb synagogues in the Bronx?

According to the government, no difference: all are terrorists in equal measure. But Shazad was an educated, middle-class jihadist, while the Newburgh men had neither means nor a militant ideology until an FBI snitch recruited them. After months of persuasion, they went along with the fake plot he dangled —- and only for money: $250,000 for one of the men; payment promised for cancer treatment for another man’s brother.

Shazad pleaded guilty in June to planting a car bomb in Times Square. The Newburgh men were entrapped in a fictional plot originated by the snitch and his FBI handlers. In hundreds of fabricated terrorism cases since 9/11, the government’s tool kit has included warrantless wiretapping, secret evidence in court, agents provocateur in mosques, declaring legitimate charities to be material support for terrorism, and media hype and disinformation. These prosecutions consume vast amounts of public resources, yet fail to spot true threats like Shazad, whose lethal intentions were only averted at the last minute by a street vendor (coincidentally, a Muslim) who spotted a smoking car on 45th Street.

Perhaps we’re unwilling to make a distinction between real and fabricated terrorists because we fear missing a wolf at the door. But Albany attorney Stephen Downs, founder of Project SALAM and author of “Victims of Preemptive Prosecution,” writes that although the American legal system is grounded in the presumption of innocence, not guilt, “Muslims are prosecuted for some contrived crime, based on their character or ‘ideology,’ to ‘preempt’ them from possibly becoming involved in terrorism in the future.” Pre-emptive prosecution only ensures that innocent people will be swept up in a dragnet, not that real terrorists like Shazad will be stopped.

There are hidden benefits for the government: de-emphasis of intelligence failures; justification of gigantic terrorism budgets; continual manufacture of fear; Muslims used as scapegoats while distracting us from a sinking economy, political gridlock and the erosion of the Constitution.

A growing body of literature is exposing this “Muslim exception” to the rule of law and the consequences of the war on terror. “The Jihad Next Door” by Dina Temple-Raston, FBI reporter for National Public Radio, focuses on the first “homegrown terror cell” in Lackawanna (near Buffalo) in 2002 and concludes there was no evidence that the Lackawanna Six were planning to attack anyone: “So they were on trial, in a sense, for what they might have done.”

In “Mohamed’s Ghosts,” Stephan Salisbury, senior cultural writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, narrates the vilification and deportation of a Philadelphia imam, Mohamed Ghorab, from 2003–05. He was never charged with terrorism, but his family, mosque and community were ruined. For Salisbury, “the corruption of civil society from the profound infusion of suspicion” is one of the most destructive aspects of the war on terror.

“Son of Mountains” by Yassin Aref and “Rounded Up” by Shamshad Ahmad detail Albany’s 2003–04 Aref-Hossain case, with the same provocateur as Newburgh’s. Aref, an Iraqi Kurd, writes: “I grew up in Iraq under a dictator’s rule as a second-class citizen…I understand what happens to life…when the government takes over the judicial system and controls the courtroom, especially when narrow minds and biased men are rulers.” Ahmad, president of the mosque where Aref was imam, provides an American Muslim’s perspective: “We are part of this society. We share its concerns, and we want to share in its success and prosperity.”

Pre-emptive prosecutions are the government crying wolf in the war on terror. How much safer are we? Or has America been harmed as much by what it has done to Muslims in these post-9/11 years as by what happened on that day?

Jeanne Finley, a writer and editor, is a member of Albany’s Muslim Solidarity Committee and Project SALAM.