Sacramento Meet Discusses Terrorism Aftermath

A Pakistan Link Report

 

L to R: Edina Lekovic, Stephen Magagnini and Captain James Yee

In a quest for answers or possibly to just come up with a game plan to face the reality of pos- 9/11 America, a number of Muslim/Islamic organizations in the Sacramento, California area organized a panel discussion on the topic of “After the Aftermath: How Terrorism Affects Our Lives” at the local SALAM Community Center on March 17.
And to address the issues confronting the community were three speakers experienced in journalism, youth activism and first-hand targeted suspicion. Stephen Magagnini, Senior Reporter at the Sacramento Bee; MPAC Spokesperson Edina Lekovic and last but not least Captain James Yee (of Guantanamo fame) addressed what turned out to be a standing room only gathering.
Before getting into the panel itself, it would be useful to mention that the diverse Sacramento Muslim community represented here by the Council of the Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations (COSVIO), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Sacramento Valley, Sacramento Muslim American Society (MAS) and the Muslim Students Association (MAS) at Sacramento State etc. became involved in community outreach programs since 9/11/2001. This gathering was a continuation of their efforts and a part of the collective and constructive Islamic response to the understandable backlash to 9/11 across the United States.
After the recitation from the Holy Qur’an and its translation by past and current MSA members, Stephen (Steve) Magagnini was introduced. Steve has had considerable experience in reporting on the local Muslim community after the World Trade Center and other targets were attacked in America in 2001. “Giving a voice to the voiceless,” Steve has maintained a balanced approach in reporting on many issues that have confronted our community since 1999, the latest being the Lodi terror probe in which two Americans of Pakistani origin are currently being tried.

Recitation from the Holy Quran

Steve is a Brooklyn, New York native who has transplanted himself to Sacramento and explained how he first came into contact with Middle Eastern and Muslim culture by buying fresh Pita bread on Atlantic Avenue there. “In Sacramento and Davis, we are blessed with great Muslim leadership,” he said. He recalled when he first came into contact with the local Muslim community and attended his first interfaith breaking of the fast during Ramadan at SALAM. “I believe in the power of prayer,” he said and added that just last year when he had potentially life-threatening surgery, he asked his Muslim friends to pray for him and that he was glad that their prayers worked. Steve also said that he supported the Sacramento Bee decision not to publish the “cartoons” that had caused so much grief recently. He did add that it was hard for many Americans to accept that it was not acceptable to publish such items and it was also hard for them to accept the anger and violence that it generated. Steve also said that the Bee did not have a set editorial policy on covering Muslims and terrorism but that 9/11 did happen and he knew that the Muslim community felt very anguished about it. He also looked back at some positive outcomes since then like a class of Jewish 7th Graders visiting SALAM Sunday School and learning that Muslims were not what they had earlier thought they were. He said that the topic of “Why do they hate us?” should be addressed. He added that he was happy that there was a great deal of mutual education going on and that he wished that he had the answers to Islamic extremism. He said that the media is not bringing its own agenda to the table in covering Muslims.
The next speaker Edina Lekovic is a Communications Director at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in Los Angeles. She also personifies the new young Muslim woman activist, one that has taken on both established internal traditions and external forces. And her strengths are not just in her powerful speaking skills alone, but the content that she had to share also appeared to be well-researched. Her family was from former Yugoslavia and she herself chose to follow Islam in spite of the non-practicing environment she grew up in.
Edina spoke about the common and mutual misunderstanding present in the relationship between Muslims non-Muslims in America and the problematic perceptions that some Muslims have developed about themselves. She shared the results of a recent national poll in the United States which showed that Islam is perceived in a worst light now than even after 9/11 in this country. One out of three Americans now think that Islam encourages violence and that 46% hold a negative view about Muslims. “We should not fool ourselves that we have gotten ahead,” she said. She said that 9/11 had put American Muslims in both the national and international spotlight. “We were not prepared to deal with the acts of a few,” she said. “The good name of Islam was hijacked,” she added. In an interesting twist she said that it is as if the ownership of Islam has now left the hands of Muslims in this country. “Many people think that reform needs to take place within Islam,” she said. “Democracy and Islam go hand in hand,” she added, giving the example of the time of the birth of the religion.

A section of the audience

On the current crisis she had a great deal to say. “What do we do as mainstream moderate Muslims when Osama releases a tape?” She said that people who are defining Islam now are not Muslims themselves. Within our community what has been lost is the right of Muslims to define ourselves. She also added that the American Muslim community appears to be on a constant Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca) due to the diversity of its followers, just like those that gather at the annual event in Saudi Arabia. Edina said that any sense of victimization amongst Muslims is counter-productive and often overcomes our integration into mainstream America. She stressed that we should see ourselves as American “Survivors of 9/11.” There is “no distinction between a devout Muslim and being a patriotic American,” she added. She concluded her speech by stressing the role of young Muslim Americans in defining the future identity of the community and quoted the late Martin Luther King on bringing change through a peaceful struggle.
The last speaker needs little introduction. Former US Army Captain James Yee used to best represent the mainstream Muslims in America. A Chaplain in the United States Army, graduate of the prestigious West Point Academy, Yee a third generation Chinese American, converted to Islam in 1991. He comes from a family that has chosen to join the professional Military in the United States and one which should not have raised little suspicion. But then again this is post-9/11 America and anything can happen. And in the case of Captain Yee, it did: the product of his experience being the book “For God and Country -- Faith and Patriotism Under Fire” by James Yee, former US Army Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo Bay.
Yee started his speech invoking the name of the Allah and ended on the same note. In between, he shared an experience that would have made any former Soviet ‘Gulag” Stalinist proud. He said that he became one of the newest Muslim Chaplains to enter the United States Army after 9/11. He said that he became a “Poster Boy” of sorts in the military and was called to advise many soldiers on Islam, some of whom went to Afghanistan or Iraq. He was sent to the Guantanamo Bay facility in 2003 to help with prisoners mostly held without charges and without the benefit of due process. He said that when he went there he did not know what his role was going to be, but he became an advisor to the Camp Commander and as a Chaplain had authorized access to the prisoners. “A good Chaplain is a good listener,” said Yee and he had ample opportunity to listen to the detainees. He said that there were two operations at Guantanamo, one that dealt with detention the other with intelligence gathering. He was assigned to the Detention Operation.
“The prisoners were abused,” he said. He described “Gitmo’s Secret Weapon” as the use of religion against the prisoners in an effort to break them. Yee went into the details of some of the interrogation that cannot be reported here. “I myself was outraged,” he said. But in spite of everything, he did his job as well as he could and was commended for his efforts just days before he was arrested for being a spy and aiding the enemy and spent 76 days in prison, sometimes in solitary confinement including intervals of sensory depravation. “I was at least relieved that I was still alive,” he said.
He said that since there was no substance to the charges, they were dropped and instead he was at one time charged with misusing classified documents. Captain Yee was finally freed and all charges against him were dropped. During the time he said that his patriotism was under fire, his ethnicity was brought up. “What happened to me should never happen to anyone else,” he said. He received an honorable voluntary discharge from the military but added that he was still waiting for an apology.
The event ended with a Question and Answer session which reflected many concerns from both within and outside the local Muslim community.

 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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