If Capt. James J. Yee ends up going to jail, it won't be because of some grand scheme to undermine the U.S. government or send secret documents to foreign countries. It will be because of his identity as a Muslim. The same is true for Senior Airman Ahmad al-Habibi, and civilian translator Ahmed Mehalba.
The 'crime' that these men committed? Being Muslim in a hysterical environment of suspicion and prejudice that pervades not only the U.S. military, which arrested the three on alleged espionage charges, but which remains pervasive in the general American population.
The only thing these men are guilty of is having dinner alone together, and passing out baklava to captives of the Afghanistan war. (The military has dropped the specific charge against Airman al-Habibi of passing out the crusty sweets without permission.)
There was much hype when the men were arrested last fall. All had been working with captives from the Afghanistan war, held at Gauntanamo Bay. Yee, a native-born American of Chinese descent, was a Muslim chaplain, administering to the prisoners. Airman al-Habibi was an Air Force translator at the camp. And Mr. Mehalba was a civilian translator.
When the three were arrested, military leaders made a big public splash about how they had broken up a 'cell' of Muslim operatives trying to send classified military information to 'hostile' governments, most notably Syria. (Capt. Yee had studied Islam in Syria. Airman al-Habibi is of Syrian descent.)
But, as detailed in a recent New York Times article, the espionage cases against the men have crumbled under scrutiny, and it appears that the men are victims of anti-Muslim hysteria.
However, that isn't preventing an embarrassed military from continuing to press some kind of charges against the men. If convicted, Capt. Yee still faces up to 13 years in prison. But not for any exotic James Bond-like spy mystery. Instead, it turns out the man had an affair with a female officer, a fact uncovered during the investigation against him as an alleged spy. Now, without any substance to the initial cloak and dagger drama the military had originally fantasized about, Capt. Lee is being hung out to dry on adultery charges.
Oh, of course, there are still some espionage-related charges against Capt. Yee. Like 'wrongfully transporting classified material without the proper security container.' Call in the Marines!
Never mind that one of the reservists who first raised suspicions about Capt. Yee was also charged with the exact same 'crime' for supposedly mishandling papers. But the reservist was not arrested or detained, as was Capt. Yee. After all, that guy was a 'real American,' not a suspicious Muslim.
It's useful to look at how and why the cases against these three men materialized, and how they advanced as far as they did.
According to the Times, the reservists acting as counter-intelligence agents at the camp were green, and quite jittery about the possibility of 'missing' anything. And senior officers there were suspicious of anyone who was Muslim or Arab-American being involved in helping with the foreign prisoners.
That suspicion—I call it prejudice—was so high, that the simple act of socializing privately sometimes by dining alone, the Muslims were automatically considered shady.
But what's really shady is how these men's lives are being ruined, it appears, simply because they are Muslims.
If this was happening because of any other characteristic that can be called part of one's identity—such as being Black, or being Jewish or being gay—there would be a national outcry and outrage.
But we live in a time and a country where everyone Muslim is easily believed to be a terrorist and an enemy, where civil rights concerns are handily pushed aside in the name of 'national security,' and where voicing dissent to the violations and prejudices makes you 'un-American.'
It wasn't too long ago that we as GLBT people were considered to be threats to 'national security' simply because of who we are. At a gay party recently, I was regaled with the stories of a lesbian activist who recalled how, in the 1970s, her phone was tapped and the FBI shadowed her because of her activities as a lesbian political agitator. Even holding meetings with other gays and lesbians in the privacy of their homes was potentially enough to get them arrested. Being gay or lesbian was considered 'a threat.' Until just recently, in many places here in the United States it was still considered criminal. And even now, we are still prone to being the victims of 'gay hysteria.'
Yet, as a group, many of us continue to be blind to the strikingly similar and alarming violations and prejudices in this country toward Muslims.
The naysayers will say that it's worth sacrificing Capt. Lee and the other men in the interest of stopping terrorism. But the truth is that putting these three men behind bars doesn't make anyone safer. In fact, such actions pose a real threat and danger to all of us.
e-mail at MubarakDah@aol.com