Islamophobia in the Trial of Adnan Syed
Rabia Chaudry on America's Anti-Muslim industry
Islam began as something strange,
and it will return to being something strange,
so give glad tidings to the strangers.
–Prophet Muhammad, Sahih Muslim
As of the spring of 2014, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d been left breathless by this case: when Adnan was arrested, when he was convicted, when he was sentenced, when he lost the post-conviction appeal, and when I read this cultural research memo. I scanned a paragraph, scanned another, deciding one portion was definitely the worst and then thinking, no, no, this other part is much, much worse. It was all so bad, just so very awful.
Sarah sat across the desk, looking at me expectantly, blinking every so often as I involuntarily made sounds, shook my head, uttered expletives. She looked a bit nervous.
I felt Dana Chivvis, a producer from This American Life, hovering somewhere in the room and I knew there was a microphone in the small space, pointed at me. But all I could see was that stupid, sick memo.
“Who the fuck wrote this?!”
Sarah and Dana exchanged looks. They had redacted the information at the top of the document; big thick black lines crossed out the name and address of whatever entity had produced it. That enraged me further.
“The woman who wrote it, she was scared, she didn’t want anyone to know she wrote it, so I promised her I would keep her information confidential.”
I wasn’t pleased.
“Scared of what?”
Sarah hesitatingly admitted the writer was scared of retribution by the Muslim community.
On the inside all I could think was, “Are you serious? Have you seen our community? A bunch of aunties and uncles who couldn’t do shit about Adnan or Gutierrez or any of this, who are too scared to challenge the police or the state, who told their kids to stay away from it all? Have you actually met our community, Sarah?”
I may have said some of this out loud, but I can’t remember. I do remember wondering in amazement, does Sarah actually think this woman legitimately has something to fear?
Fear or no fear, I swore internally, I’d figure out who wrote this tripe. Then I got back to the more important business at hand—that this memo was part of the official case file.
“You’re telling me this was in the police files? That this memo was part of the official file of the police and prosecution?”
Sarah nodded, not seeming to understand my incredulity.
The memo, dated August 24, 1999, began with the subject line, “Report on Islamic thought and culture with an emphasis on Pakistan. A comparative study relevant to the upcoming trial of Adnan Syed.” It was addressed to Detectives Ritz and MacGillivary. It consisted of seven confusing and confused pages of random, and often irrelevant and unrelated, facts, conjecture, and purely invented kookery positioned as serious analysis. It covered, among other things, the following:
- “The Salafa”—that is, the generation of Muslims who lived at the time of the Prophet Muhammad
- The role of death in Islam
- A brief summary of the Shia-Sunni difference and divide
- Pakistan’s political and legal systems, religious laws, ethnic groups, demographics, suffrage, agriculture (why, just why?), statistics on the condition of women in Pakistan (birth, education, crime)
- Shariah—specifically, religiously regulated criminal punishments
- Gender norms, veiling, women’s roles, clothing
- “Sexual Attitudes,” which included such reprehensible lies as stating that a reasonable option for a strict Muslim family, if one of its men engaged in pre-marital relations with a non-Muslim woman, would be arranging for her death.
I had no doubt that the writer was a complete bigot and quack-job posing as an Islam expert; I had come to know such people well through my work, which was spent trying to counter their damage. And this “expert,” 15 years ago, had provided the police with “research” to tie Adnan’s religion and ethnicity to the crime.
I read another portion of the ridiculous document out loud, feeling my face heat up:
Clearly Mr. Syed faced almost insurmountable odds to meet with this “infidel or devil” in secret. Ownership is not outside of his cultural belief system. After giving her a veil, literally covering her so that only he could have her, he set her apart from all others and for him alone. For all intents and purpose he marked his territory by giving her a gift of great value within his culture and in doing so he sealed her fate with his.
I looked up at Sarah, my eyes bulging. “What is this about?”
Sarah replied cautiously, “Well, apparently Adnan bought Hae a scarf from an Islamic conference he attended with this father.”
It took a few seconds for me to make the connection. Sarah continued.
“I mean . . . is it true?”
“Is what true?” I shot back, not wanting to accept that she had asked what I thought she had just asked.
“Is it true that when a Muslim man gives a woman a scarf, he owns her or it’s like some kind of ownership?”
I don’t know if I was jumping up and down in rage at that point, but at a minimum I must have been rocking back and forth, given my difficulty at hiding my temper. I remember getting up, still furiously flipping pages, glaring at her and Dana.
“You’re kidding me, right? You’re not actually asking me if that’s true?” Sarah stayed quiet.
“Oh my God, it’s not true. You know that, right?” She didn’t look like she knew it.
At that point I had to balance my anger at the memo itself with my angry disbelief that someone as bright, educated, and sophisticated as Sarah could even entertain the thought that anything in that toxic, bigoted memo could be true. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised; I had, after all, spent the last decade fighting these very lies about Islam and Muslims that have become the normative narrative in the United States.
If the cops and prosecutors thought the memo was accurate, there was no reason Sarah wouldn’t.
Since that terrible September morning in New York and DC, when 19 Muslim hijackers slammed commercial planes into the crowded Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing thousands, Muslims in America have felt besieged.
It is not by accident that half of the states in this country have either introduced or passed “anti-Shariah” legislation, a fact that may come as a surprise to those who still think the First Amendment applies to everyone. It is also no accident that neither conservative nor liberal parties welcome Muslims into their ranks. And it is completely by design that public bashing, humiliation, and outright reviling of Islam and Muslims is par for the course in the media and among our political leadership. Islamophobia is a bigotry everyone is comfortable with.
And there’s a reason for this. A dedicated, well-funded, dynamic cottage industry of “Islamophobes” and anti-Muslim bigots has been operating for years under the guise of research, academia and policy-making. In 2011 the DC think tank Center for American Progress published a landmark report called Fear, Inc. It traces, in painstaking detail, the millions of dollars that annually support the very strategic creation and dissemination of misinformation about Islam and Muslims to policy makers and media and the grassroots and state-level legislative organizing against Muslims.
The impact of the work of this industry is no joking matter. Their influence has led to numerous Congressional hearings on the “radicalization” of American Muslims and a veritable witch hunt of any American Muslim engaged in policy or government work. In 2009 a group of US legislators called for an inquiry into Muslim high school and college interns on the Hill, accusing them of infiltrating Congress and demanding that the Department of Justice open an investigation. A poll taken of Republican primary voters in 2015 showed that 72 percent felt a Muslim should not be allowed to be president and 40 percent felt that Islam should be outlawed writ large in the nation. A March 2016 poll showed that in all states where presidential candidate Donald Trump was the GOP frontrunner, nearly 65 percent of Republicans polled felt Muslims should be banned from the United States.
Well known and widely followed “liberals” like Bill Maher have persistently attacked Islam and Muslims; while Maher dislikes religion in general, he holds a special place of contempt in his heart for Islam, calling it the “mother lode of bad ideas.”
A study by the firm Hattaway Communications found an interesting divide when it came to conservatives and liberals on the issue of Muslims and Islam: both groups generally tend to mistrust or dislike our faith group, but for different reasons. Conservatives consider Muslims a security threat, conflate Muslims with being foreign (a reason much anti-Muslim organizing is closely tied to anti-immigrant organizing), and question their loyalty and patriotism. Liberals, on the other hand, mistrust Muslims for their perceived treatment of women, religious minorities, and the LGBT community.
Either way you slice it, a lot of people don’t like us. And it shows.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking the anti-Muslim industry and its impact for a number of years now. In a July 2011 piece they noted:
The American public psyche has undergone a subtle but profound metamorphosis since 2001, moving from initial rage at the 9/11 mass murder to fear of another devastating attack by Muslim extremists to, most recently, a more generalized fear of Islam itself. That evolution from specific concerns to general stereotyping is the customary track of racism and xenophobia—and in Muslims, those inclined to bigotry may have found their perfect bogeyman.
But it would be a mistake to think everything was just fine for Muslims in the United States before 9/11.
It absolutely was not.
In the early 1990s, I was sitting on the Boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, with my best friend and siblings in tow. I was sixteen, Saad was ten. We were enjoying the last bit of summer and chowing down on Burger King as the sun went down. My dad and my best friend’s dad, who also happened to be close childhood friends, had given us some cash and wandered off. The first thing I did was make a beeline to get my beloved BK chicken sandwich.
I actually saw the group of grizzled, tatted biker-looking men coming from about a hundred feet away. I assumed they would just walk by our little gaggle of brown faces. But they headed straight for us and I remember feeling slight panic as they got closer, instinctively protective of my brother and sister.
There were three of them, wearing black leather vests and sunglasses that blacked out their eyes. They stopped right in front of us and I looked up, frozen with a mouth full of my sandwich.
“Go home you fucking sand niggers, back to aye-rack.”
I felt the contempt in every word—he may as well have spat at us—and my face filled up with blood and humiliation. Not the least because I wanted to say, “You asshole, we are from Pakistan, not Iraq.”
They were well out of earshot when I broke out of my frozen terror, stood up trembling, and yelled something like “go to hell!” I knew they couldn’t hear me, but I couldn’t let my siblings think I just let that happen without a response.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the words “sand nigger” in my life. Once, while in middle school, as I stood in the front yard of our little home in Hagerstown, Maryland, a van pulled up and the door slid open. A group of white teenagers leered out yelling “fuck you sand niggers!” and zoomed off.
That was my introduction to the idea that some people didn’t like Muslims. The first Gulf War deepened that sense when one of my teachers jokingly asked if Saddam Hussein was my uncle.
The early 90s brought us the highly popular film Not Without My Daughter, which came to define Muslim family dynamics for the West. To this day, over two decades later, I’m still asked by kindly old grandmothers at churches and synagogues where I guest lecture to address the implications of this movie.
“I know how Muslim men treat their women. I saw that movie, Not Without My Daughter.”
“Why are Islamic countries so oppressive to women, like in that movie?”
“I feel terrible for you honey, the things you have to go through as a Muslim woman.”
Thanks, Sally Field.
Today 80 percent of all media stories about Muslims in the United States are terrorism related.
Journalist and author of the Fear, Inc. report Wajahat Ali sums it up like this:
Culture is a powerful force that influences our perceptions, our mindsets and even our domestic and foreign policies. The rich, messy complexity of 1,400 years of Islamic civilization and 1.6 billion Muslims has been reduced to token stereotypes. We are either avatars of destruction or the good Muslim who helps the national security narrative. But the overwhelming majority of us live in the giant middle—the grey zone—where impressions exist in more colors than just black and white.
I knew all about anti-Muslim fear and stereotypes in the United States already, but it still didn’t prepare me for this memo, which turned out to be written by Mandy Johnson of the Enehey Group, the same person brought in by Hae’s uncle to help investigate her disappearance in January of 1999. This memo was written almost nine months later, long after Adnan had already been arrested. It wasn’t written for the police investigation, it was written for the State’s prosecution.
Some revelations are a long time coming. This was one of them.
The Enehey memo finally brought clarity as to why the police focused so strongly on Adnan, even from before it was known that Hae was murdered, and why prosecutors kept bringing up his religion throughout the case.
The narrative of the angry Muslim man worked for detectives; it fit neatly with their existing biases. During her investigation Sarah would end up speaking to a few of the jurors who confirmed our fear—that Adnan’s religion and ethnicity were indeed factors considered by the jury.
One juror, remembering back to the deliberations, told Sarah, “I don’t feel religion was why he did what he did. It may have been culture, but I don’t think it was religion. I’m not sure how the cultures over there, how they treat their women, he just wanted control and she wouldn’t give it to him.” Another juror told Sarah that when the jury was deliberating, they discussed that in Arab culture it was the men who ruled, not women. It seems Gutierrez’s long, impassioned soliloquy on Adnan’s Pakistani roots did not clarify for the jury that he was not Arab. Adnan’s faith was actual evidence against him. The State had made sure of it.
From ADNAN’S STORY by Rabia Chaudry. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.