Meet the First American Labeled by the Feds as a 'Specially Designated Terrorist'
I was a special assignment reporter for a suburban Chicago newspaper, ambivalent about Israel and oblivious to its military occupation on the day I met Muhammad Salah in the early summer of 2000. As I learned the news of Muhammad’s death on Sunday, I reflected on our first meeting and the enormous impact he had on my life.
Muhammad, of Palestinian heritage, was the first and only American citizen listed as a “Specially Designated Terrorist.” The designation was created by President Bill Clinton, but fully implemented under the watch of George W. Bush after 9/11, when Attorney General John Ashcroft initiated the government’s persecution of Salah. (Read about Muhammad’s legal nightmare here, here and here.)
Back in the naÃ¯ve days before 9/11, the interview I’d landed with him and his lawyer Matthew Piers was the stuff careers were made of. In fact, as I left my newsroom amid congratulatory cheers and racist jokes about the inherent dangers of meeting with a Palestinian, I was the hero of my own story. Still too young to realize my talent did not necessarily match my ambition, my intention was to use the "story of a lifetime" to catapult myself into the big leagues of the national media scene. Little did I know as I headed out the door that I would not return intact; that my world would turn upside down and my life would be irrevocably changed.
As I stepped into the conference room of Piers' Chicago law office and laid eyes on the man so reviled by the media, I was paralyzed by what I saw. There was no monster there; only a simple man surrounded by what Muslims call nur, or the light of God. This light emanated from him and permeated our discussion throughout the afternoon. It shone in his gentleness, his humility, and most importantly, his patience at my questions, which were steeped in ignorance, informed only by what I had read in the media. I’ve often said it was this first encounter that softened my heart so it could later receive the message of Islam, though I was unaware of it at the time.
For hours, we discussed his case. We pored over court documents and read FBI files. We discussed the geopolitics of Israel and Palestine and what it meant to be a “blocked” person, where the government controlled every aspect of his life; that even getting utility services required federal permission.
After that meeting, I was no longer ambivalent about Israel. I came away with the sickening awareness that the government and media had been lying to us about Israel’s sanctity as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” I began to learn about how my tax dollars supported the world’s longest-lasting military occupation in modern history; how we were helping to pay for the continued dispossession of the Palestinian people. I met scores of Palestinian and listened to their stories of loss and betrayal as well as their stories of hope of returning to their homeland one day. I learned about Islam, too, and my conversion in July 2001 was a natural step on my personal faith journey.
I had the sense being Muslim would not be easy, so I kept it secret from family, friends and especially my colleagues until I could figure out how to leave my cultural background behind and navigate this new one. But several weeks later in the days following the September 11 attacks I told Muhammad when I ran into him at a rally at the Bridgeview, IL-based Mosque Foundation I was covering for my paper. The throngs of Muslim worshippers were intent on proving their Americanness in the face of public hostility so severe, local police had to protect the mosque from angry mobs. On his shoulders was his young son Ibrahim, waving a little American flag. Muhammad cried when I told him I’d made my shahada, pushing his glasses up to his forehead to wipe away his tears.
Though I’ve not known anyone who has suffered as much as Muhammad and though our struggles were not equal or the same, there is some symmetry between our experiences.
Loneliness is a convert’s constant companion. Even after nearly 15 years, I do not belong anywhere anymore. I still feel estranged from my family who could not love me enough to accept me for what I had become, but who nonetheless are still struggling to try. I also am not fully one with the Muslim community.
In those early years, I’d wander over to the Salah household after our holiday Eid prayers. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do. They’d also been abandoned by those who were afraid of being associated with him. In that first interview in Piers’ office, Muhammad told me he’d lost 90 percent of his friends, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. He struggled to tell me how difficult it had been to explain to his children, “why the phone doesn’t ring anymore or why they don’t get invited to others’ homes.” When I showed up on their doorstep, Muhammad and his wife Maryam generously invited me into their home, where their table was spread with fruits and sweets, waiting for Eid guests who never came.
Happily for Muhammad and his family, that changed. In 2007, Muhammad was acquitted of the most serious charges in his terrorism trial brought by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004, for which he was facing life in prison. The victory helped dispel the fear of recriminations that had kept people away, Muhammad’s defense lawyer Michael Deutsch wrote in the Electronic Intifada. The friends returned. In 2012, after serving nearly two years in a U.S. prison for a conviction on the lesser charge of providing a false answer on a “questionnaire that was part of a lawsuit backed by Zionist groups,” Muhammad sued the federal government, won, and was removed from the terrorist list.
The impact of being Muslim in a society that views Muslims with constant suspicion, reinforced by government programs like Countering Violent Extremism, informants and surveillance, takes a toll. For Muhammad, this was amplified exponentially because of the terrorist designation. After his death, dozens of people flooded Facebook, praising Muhammad for the grace and dignity with which he faced adversity.
I initially felt I was strong enough to handle the bigotry, family rejection and guilt-by-association canards. When I left my newspaper editor’s job in 2009 to work full-time for Palestinian rights, I had a thick skin. I had the energy and determination to try to make a difference around me. But the years of loneliness, Islamophobia, bigotry and suspicions have taken their toll. I am not as strong as I used to be. I am growing weary. After nearly 15 years, I feel lost. I am trying to find my way.
Muhammad and his family never lost hope. They did not waiver or complain. Years ago, as his American trial loomed and the possibility of prison lay on the horizon, Muhammad told me he was afraid he would lose his patience. In Islam, patience is everything because it is the result of total submission to God’s will. Muhammad had not lost patience with his hardship. He was merely afraid of that devastating possibility.
It is his example of resilience in the face of severe adversity that I hold onto. It is his faith and steadfastness, his kindness and hope that I hope will steer me through my own difficult days. For me, that is the point of being a Muslim: to live so that our light leaves the world a better place.