Patriot, Soldier, Chaplain -- Spy?
James Yee, a Chinese-American West Point graduate and convert to Islam, served as chaplain to more than 600 "enemy combatants" detained at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay. His mandate was to serve the U.S. military mission as well as the religious needs of the prisoners. He says he found instead military leadership that encouraged suspicion of Muslims on either side of the prison wire, and soldiers who seemed eager to humiliate prisoners.
As Yee advocated for more humane treatment, suspicions against him mounted until he was arrested and detained. Held for 76 days in solitary confinement, Yee was falsely accused of mishandling classified information-and branded in the public's mind as a home-grown terrorist. Although the case against Yee eventually disintegrated, the military leadership refused to clear his name publicly, forcing Yee to surrender his dream of serving his country.
Released from a military gag order, Yee tells his story for the first time in his new book, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.
You were raised as a Lutheran. Were there aspects of the faith that you wanted to leave behind when you became Muslim?
No, I took pretty much all of it with me. I grew up believing in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ and his second coming, and that Jesus was a great teacher who taught his followers about God's oneness. Muslims believe in all of those things.
You spent five years studying Arabic and Islam in Syria, where you met and married your wife. Did you feel your experience as an American, and as an Asian-American, made you a different kind of Muslim?
No. When I went to Mecca and saw the vast diversity of Islam, I realized that Islam allows for people from different cultures. It doesn't apply to one particular ethnicity, or one way to dress. Being American didn't make me different. I was Muslim because I held the same belief in one God.
But often there is a gap between that ideal and the reality. Some Muslim Americans say that Muslims from other countries don't always accept their "American-ness."
I think it goes both ways. People have their own ethnocentric way of looking at things. I'm sure people from other cultures who come to America find that Americans want them to do things the way Americans do things. The beauty of Islam is that it accepts all cultures.
At Guantanamo, you witnessed acts that bothered you both as a Muslim and as an army officer -- unnecessary violence against detainees, and abuse of the Qur'an, among other things. You also had close contact with detainees. Did they ever do or say anything that offended you?
The prisoners are being held down there virtually without charge, indefinitely, without legal counsel or due process. They have a lot of anger, and some people are better than others in controlling that anger. So yes, prisoners expressed a lot of anger toward all military personnel, including myself.
How did you deal with anger directed against you?
As a Muslim, I work according to intention -- good intention. I helped meet some of the prisoners' religious needs, and I actually helped prevent a lot of abuses. I write in my book, for example, about female guards, who were allowed to search male prisoners, including their private areas, such as their buttocks. In prisons in the United States we don't allow what are called cross-gender searches. I showed the command that what we were doing in Guantanamo was not even in line with what we do in our own country and got that practice stopped.
Did the prisoners feel they were being detained because of their religion?
All of them believed they were locked up because they were Muslim. That's clear. And as I show in my book, my religion was a major contributing factor to my own imprisonment.
You spent 76 days in solitary confinement, and reading the Qur'an was one of the few things you were allowed to do. Did the text speak to you in new ways?
I was suffering tremendous turmoil. Here I was, locked in the harshest conditions -- solitary confinement, maximum security -- strip-searched daily, shackled at the feet, hands and waist any time that I was taken from my cell, my family not knowing where I was. The only things I was allowed to read in my cell for the majority of the time were the prison handbook and the Qur'an. The rules in the prison handbook didn't apply to me or the conditions I was being held under. In that situation, the only thing I could do to use my time productively was to remember God, rely on my faith, and read the Qur'an. What sustained me was knowing that, ultimately, God has a divine wisdom for all things.
Were there specific passages from the Qur'an that touched you?
I spent time comparing the biblical story and the Qur'anic account of Prophet Joseph, who was wrongfully accused and imprisoned. I also read about Prophet Noah -- how people called him crazy for his beliefs in one God, and how he prayed to overcome that oppression. Many verses in the Qur'an tell believers to rely on God in times of both prosperity and difficulty.
Was there any moment when your faith failed you?
Never. My faith only increased because of the conditions I was under. There is a famous verse in the Qur'an: "Perhaps you hate something, but in it is much good." Regardless of how much I hated being locked up in prison, accused as a terrorist spy and threatened with the death penalty, I knew that there was ultimately some good in all of it. Now that I've passed through that experience, the good is coming out in my book.
What good are you seeing?
I'm hoping that many people will be inspired by my struggle for justice, equality, tolerance, and religious freedom. These values are found not only in our own American society, but also in the international community, and in Islam, the Abrahamic faiths and other worlds religions. These are fundamental, universal values.
At Guantanamo, you gave presentations about Islam to fellow service members. You learned later that, ironically, these attempts to educate increased some officers' suspicions about you. Do you still believe you can change negative attitudes about Islam?
Those briefings I gave on Islam connected with many people. The number who became suspicious -- you could count them on one hand. It is disturbing that people within our military ranks harbor negative feelings toward people of diverse faiths. Experience has shown me that I can build bridges by educating others, because most people make better decisions when they are educated. Yes, there are those few you can't change. And the beauty of this country is they have the freedom to hold their own opinions. But we must fight to ensure that such people don't transgress the rights of others.
Did your Chinese-American ethnicity contribute to the false charges against you?
One of the initial allegations made against me was, 'Who does this Chinese Taliban think he is, telling us how to treat our prisoners?' The fact that someone specifically indicated my ethnicity tells me that, yes, my ethnicity was a contributing factor. That was also clear to the greater Asian-American community, who supported me and found that my situation mirrored that of Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese-American scientist. He was targeted because of his ethnicity, thrown in jail for nine months and accused of being a spy for China. Ultimately, the case against him collapsed like a house of matchsticks, just like mine did.
Your book ends on a dark note, as you decide that you can no longer serve as a chaplain because of lingering suspicion about you. Have you lost faith in the U.S. military?
Had the senior military leadership admitted their mistakes and taken responsibility for the gross miscarriage of justice, perhaps things would have been different. No one has rendered an apology, and that's part of the reason why negative attitudes about Islam continued even after I had won a complete legal victory.
It's disturbing to know we have people in the military ranks who hold un-American values, who deny the values of diversity and tolerance. The military is not doing anything to address these problems. Just last week, we saw [American] soldiers burning the bodies of Muslims [in Afghanistan]. Where is the military leadership in these instances? I hope our military leadership will open itself to dialogue with Muslim organizations and other groups that are ready and willing to provide solutions to these problems.
What hope can Muslim Americans, or anyone concerned with justice, find in your story?
I'm hoping they will be inspired to stand up for not only me, but also many others who have suffered injustices. Since 9/11, we have seen a threatening pattern of the erosion of civil liberties. I am a third-generation Chinese-American, a West Point graduate, from a family deeply rooted in the military, a former soldier that served in a declared combat zone in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. If this happened to me, it can happen to any American.