The following photo essay was written by Sharmin Sadequee for the digital media start-up, Ummah Wide. This article has been updated and published at ETE with her permission. A copy of her original article can be found here.
Since the inception of the US “war on terror,” the US government has collectively traumatized Muslim Americans by targeting them with terrorism-related charges, and uprooting many of their loved ones from their families and communities. Many of these political prisoners entrapped by the FBI, have been confined in torturous conditions in various federal prisons across the country. Left behind are the families of these prisoners, mostly women and children, who languish in communities and are often stigmatized for their relationship with someone accused of supporting “terrorism.” I’ve come to know these families of prisoners through my organizing work in relation to the rights violation of my own family member — my brother Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee. Through my ethnographic fieldwork, my advocacy work, and my conversations with these women, it became evident that all the women and families have undergone deeply agonizing experiences.
The state’s persecution of Muslims in America through the criminal justice system in the post-9/11 political climate is not a new tactic. Various marginalized communities of color have also endured and continue to suffer from such violence from the state, both at the hands of local police departments and through programs like the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. What is different in the context of the “war on terror,” is the persecution of a religious minority both at home and abroad, and the targeting of their religious and political views, in order to coercively assimilate this group into what both the government and mainstream society want the image of Muslims to be. Certain judicial practices have been put in place by which innocent Muslim men are being “processed” with the accusation of “terrorism” in the criminal justice system, thus facilitating a social and legal construction of the collective image of Muslims as “terrorists.”
These practices are influenced by the political conflation of Islam with “terrorism” by the state in the broader American culture and in government. The construction of homegrown terrorism and the politics of radicalization theories that are promoted by the media and government officials drive the justice system to treat American Muslims as different and “other” and to subject them to greater punishment through intrusive surveillance, informants in communities, and restriction of religious practices in prisons. Within the post-9/11 national security political regime, the government has used the criminal justice system to collectively punish the Muslim American community and target well over 500 Muslims. In these cases, criminal laws such as material support for terrorism and/or conspiracy are used as a pretext to criminalize speech and First Amendment-protected activities to instill the fear of Muslims in broader society. Federal authorities employ various tactics, such as the use of agent provocateurs, to instigate ideologies of violence and entrap innocent Muslim men in government-funded and -manufactured imaginary “plots.”
A legal analysis of the government’s prosecutions in the recent studies Inventing Terrorists and Illusion of Justice has identified various ways that the justice system has violated the human rights of Muslims through the federal courts and the prison system, from the start of the investigations to sentencing and post-conviction conditions of confinement. Some egregious practices mentioned in the reports include the use of material support charges to punish activities that have no intent of terrorism; introduction of prejudicial evidence; abusive conditions of confinement in special prisons made for Muslims, called Communication Management Units; prolonged solitary confinement and severe restrictions on communication with the outside world both pre-trial and post-conviction; restricted contact with families; and restrained observance of religious rituals.
While Muslim men are directly subjected to the violence of the state’s criminal justice system for non-violent activities, their families at home are also adversely affected. With the political incarceration of their loved ones, the lives of the women and their families change forever—confined by courts, law enforcement agents, lawyers, media, prison walls, and constant surveillance. These instruments of control place additional burden on women who are already tasked with the responsibility of maintaining their families. These tools of punishment also inflict fear and silence and prevent families from sharing the pain and suffering that they have been subjected to by our government.
From the time of arrest of their loved ones and throughout their experience with the criminal justice, court, and prison systems, the lives of these women and families are devastated. The families feel that their loved ones have been abruptly “snatched away” from them, ripping apart their deeply-rooted kinship and familial ties.
Each woman feels the pain of forced separation from her loved ones at the individual level, but the pain also comes from the attitude of community members who tend to “otherize” these families further, as a result of their own fear of coming under target for associating with families of the accused.
Being turned away by their own community whom the women have come to trust for support only adds to their sense of betrayal, suffering and isolation. The stigma and guilt by association connected with the criminal justice system worsens the situation for these Muslim families. The women relatives of prisoners are disenfranchised by their own Muslim communities as well as by dominant society, which limits their opportunities to improve their social and economic situation.
Khadija Hossain holds a picture of her family taken at the prison with her father, Mohammad Hossain. Her father was entrapped by the FBI when she was 9 years old.
“I was 9 years old when my father got entrapped. He owned a pizzeria and we’d all go there to help and worked together as a family. But after he was arrested, we couldn’t maintain it. I worry about my mother, though, she is very lonely. He was her companion.” Khadija is a Bangladeshi American college student and works part time to support her family which includes her 5 siblings and mother in Albany, NY. Khadija’s father, Mohammad Hossain, was taken in an FBI sting operation and is currently located in a Federal Prison in Alabama.
Samina Ahmed looks at photos of her son, Farooque Ahmed, who was entrapped by an FBI informant in Washington D.C.
“We moved to this country from Pakistan for a better life and education for my children. Now that my son is in prison, what can I do? What can a mother do? I have nothing left there and lost everything here. What can I say or do? My son is here, and my wish is to see him only for as long as I can breathe and have life in me. Other than that, I have nothing else to say.”
Samina is from Pakistan and is the mother of Farooque Ahmed. Her son was entrapped by an FBI informant and accused of plotting to attack DC subways and is currently held at the Communication Management Unit in Indiana. Farooque also has a wife and a son who miss him very much.
Majida Salem is a school teacher and activist in Dallas, TX. Her husband, Ghassan Elashi, is one of the founders of the Holy Land Foundation who is currently incarcerated in the Communication Management Unit in Marion, IL. The US government recently collected writ of garnishment from her salary to pay fees to the federal court, causing a severe financial burden on her to support her family.
Zurata Duka reading a letter from one of her three sons, Eljvir Duka, entrapped by the FBI
“After they arrested my 3 sons on an entrapment case, it was very hard for me because who is going to help me with five grandchildren? I stopped my youngest son, who was 16 at the time, from going to school and this has hurt me a lot, because I wanted to give him a good education. I wanted to send him to college. He is working like he is forty years old, supporting the kids and our family and helping his father.”
Zurata is an Albanian American and her 3 sons were entrapped and accused of attacking the Fort Dix Base in New Jersey. They are in federal prisons located in 3 different states far away from each other and from the family, exerting tremendous financial burden on the family when they visit them.
Shahina Parveen is going through post cards her son made for her in prison.
“When we saw my son got arrested on TV, my daughter, Saniya’s body froze in shock and she became bedridden and could not move for weeks. She was traumatized to see her brother that way. We didn’t know what was going on. It was the informant who enticed my son to say and do things. But people still look at us differently. The government snatched my son away from me. I breathe, eat, and sleep but my life feels empty. Dead. We don’t have any friends anymore. No one visits or calls us.”
Shahina Parveen is from Pakistan and her son, Shahawar Matin Siraj, was entrapped by an FBI NYPD informant and accused of talking about attacking the Harold Square Subway in New York. He is located at a federal prison in New York.
Marlene Jenkin with a photo of her son, Tarik, who was entrapped by an FBI informant and pled guilty so he could receive a reduced sentence
“My son is a professional cellist and played at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I worry about his children growing up without the presence of their father. He was the best father to them and my best friend as well. He used to help me out financially after my husband past away, but now I have to work sometimes.”
Marlene worked with Malcolm X and accepted Islam in the 1960s. She is in her 70’s and lives by herself in Albany, NY but often drives to Virginia federal prison to see her son, Tarik Shah.
Despite the measures taken to silence the families, as women relatives of political prisoners they remain resilient in the face of growing Islamophobia and domestic human rights abuses. Subjected to the abuses from government over-reach and egregious law-enforcement practices, they are, however, learning to use their victim-hood productively. They are organizing themselves for social justice actions to give voices to their absent loved ones and those oppressed in our society. By engaging with the cases of their loved ones, families are already leading campaigns to expose the rights violation in federal courts and prisons. Through their brave campaigning, they call for everyone’s right to justice while simultaneously navigating the cultural shame of being targeted and the stigma of prison in their day-to-day lives under the “war on terror.”
Finding limited or no support from their local communities, families have established their own support committees and organizations, like the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF), which was founded by the family of a political prisoner. They organize gatherings and conferences to support each other and to build the capacity for collective social justice action by mapping the legacy of trauma on their lives as immigrants, Muslims, and people of color in the context of political repression in the United States. These gatherings provide a collective space for the families to network, heal, and build power as families affected by government abuse of power so they can address the injustice of the criminal justice system and growing Islamophobia.
Reem Jayyousi at the families’ conference organized by NCPCF. Her father, Kifah Jayyousi, is in a federal prison in Wisconsin.
“I was this lost girl who lost all hope, faith in myself, the situation, and those around me…From the moment when I walked off the plane I felt like the weekend was going to change me and it was going to be a positive one, and I haven’t had a reason to smile for a while but that weekend I did. When I started getting to know other people I saw that I was not alone and I was no longer forgotten. I felt that others were in the same position as I was in. In a way, we all saved one another when we showed up. We all impacted each other in multiple ways. I felt like the broken family I had at home found its missing link.” — Reem Jayyousi shares her sentiments on the families’ conference organized by NCPCF
From left: Tameema Ahmed (sister of Haris Ahmed), Asma Elashi and Nida Baker (daughters of Ghassan Elashi and Shukri Abu Baker) are young leaders empowering families.
The gathering of families is a space for collective healing and support. As families of prisoners, they know that complete healing can happen only when their loved ones return. However, through individual and collective conversations, these women work to transform and build collective power to support each other.
Inas Shnewer, sister of Mohamad Shnewer, signing post cards for prisoners at the NCPCF Families Conference. Brianna Jackson (right)- her grandfather is also at the federal prison with Mohamad Shnewer at the Communication Management Unit in Marion, IL
Families learn to contextualize their complicated experiences with the criminal justice system through participatory, healing centered activities and learn to channel their layered experiences towards community empowerment.
Families paint what’s on their mind at the Art Therapy session at the Families Conference organized by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. Above- Ayat Shnewer and her cousin, Noran
Sonali Sadequee, a healing justice organizer and sister of Shifa Sadequee, leading discussions at the Families’ Conference
Mothers sharing pictures and memories of their sons with each other at the families of Muslim prisoners conference in DC organized by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms
In the midst of their struggles, these families have also organized campaigns to free their loved ones and raise public awareness of prison conditions and rights violations in the federal judicial system. These campaigns, often headed by women, are initiated in their own communities, often with the aid of community activists and civil rights groups. Campaigns such as Free Sami Al-Arian, Free Fahad, Justice for Shifa, Free Tarek Mehanna, Free Ziyad Yaghi, Freedom to Give, and No Separate Justice Campaign are examples of collective action that families of Muslim prisoners have begun and participated in across the country. Through these initiatives families speak about their loved ones who have been targeted by the FBI and buried alive in the federal prison system. By engaging in these public actions, families work to build a cross-cultural, interfaith, and intersectional justice movement. Collectively, the families have been working fiercely to break the silence and shed the truth about what is really happening to Muslims in America.
Little Fatima (on the right) is a 7 year old Palestinian-Albanian American. Her mother was pregnant with her when her father, Eljvir, and 2 uncles, Shane and Dritan Duka, were entrapped by an FBI informant and accused of attacking the Fort Dix Base in New Jersey. She is standing with her cousin Loujain (left) and holding a demonstration poster.
Laila Yaghi, mother of Ziyad Yaghi, incarcerated in a federal prison in Florida
A demonstration at the Department of Justice organized by the women and their families of Muslim prisoners with the help of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms to bring attention to the rights violations and injustice their loved ones endured and to stop the violence of the war on terror in their communities.
Hedaya is a Palestinian American and lives in Detroit, MI with 5 young adult children. After spending many years in the Communication Management Unit in Marion, IL, her husband, Kifah Jayyousi, is at a federal prison in Wisconsin. Hedaya is holding posters at a demonstration of families of prisoners at the US Department of Justice.
The No Separate Justice Campaign initiated by human rights activists and allies of families, Jeanne Theoharis and Sally Eberhardt, in New York City aims to shed light on and end a pattern of human rights and civil liberties abuses in “War on Terror” cases in the U.S. criminal justice system. A focal point of this campaign is monthly vigils held outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan, a federal prison where people accused of terrorism-related offenses have been held in solitary confinement for years, even before they have been tried.
Shahina Parveen and her daughter, Saniya Siraj, mother and sister of Shahawar Matin Siraj at the interfaith vigil organized by No Separate Justice
Rabbi Michael E. Feinberg, a prominent New York City interfaith leader at the No Separate Justice Vigil
The author of this story, Sharmin Sadequee, is an Anthropology student; her research concerns national security laws, subjectivity, and political repression, and how Muslim Americans address and challenge these laws and policies through collective actions and social movements. As an activist and artist, she incorporates visual art in her academic and organizing work. She is also the Director of Prisoners and Families Committee of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. This writing is influenced by the works of scholars Michel Foucault, Erving Goffman, Mahmud Mamdani, Veena Das and Megan Comfort.