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In Chicago, Muslim man gets his life back from the government

Muhammad Salah talking with a Chicago teacher. Photo: AFSC/Shirien Damra / AFSC

On a warm November day at the Mosque Foundation in Chicago, Muhammad Salah, surrounded by his friends and supporters, presented his wife with a single flower. What might seem the simple act of a loving husband symbolized new freedom for Muhammad and his family.

Up until that day, Muhammad could not buy flowers for his wife or food for his children. All of his assets had been frozen and his basic freedoms severely limited for the 17 years that the United States listed him as a “specially designated terrorist.”

His name was quietly removed on Nov. 6, 2012, following his lawsuit against the federal government, which the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee joined as co-plaintiffs in September to challenge the federal government’s restriction of their First Amendment right to advocate for Mr. Salah. While AFSC’s suit against the federal government was never taken to court, the case has galvanized a community to speak out against limitations to free speech.

Twenty years of opaque terrorism accusations

Muhammad’s case began in 1993, several months after Israel expelled over 400 Palestinians accused of being part of Hamas from their homes. Muhammad was arrested by Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint between the Gaza Strip and Israel while bringing humanitarian aid to Palestinians affected by the displacement.

His captors accused him of being the world commander of the Hamas military wing. He signed a confession, but later explained it was extracted under torture. He was held in an Israeli prison for five years.

During that time, the United States declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control labeled Muhammad, by extension, a terrorist. He was never given an explanation for the designation, and his lawyers believe he was the only U.S. citizen so designated.

Upon his return to his home in Bridgeview, Ill. in 1997, Muhammad continued to face persecution. He was accused of involvement in a drive-by shooting, allegedly carried out by Hamas, which occurred while he was imprisoned in Israel. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, accusations against him were heightened, with formal charges of funding terrorism levied against him in 2004.

Seeing a lack of evidence to connect him to Hamas, in 2007 a jury acquitted him of all terrorism charges, though he was found guilty of one charge of obstruction of justice. Yet he remained on the government’s terrorist list.

Gathering community support

During the criminal trial in 2006 staff members from AFSC’s Chicago-area Middle East program got involved in the case, providing a safe space for his lawyers to meet and inviting community members of every faith to gather in solidarity for the Salah family.

AFSC was already well-known in Chicago’s Palestinian community for its dedication to a just Middle East peace. While unable to coordinate directly with Mr. Salah due to the terrorist designation, AFSC helped mobilize Chicago’s network of human rights and peace advocates to show support.

For Muslims, the public showing of support was encouraging. It contrasted with the message sent by the government’s charges and media coverage of Mr. Salah’s case: Stay silent about family struggling for civil rights in Palestine, or risk being labeled a terrorist. AFSC’s office became a respite from this hostility.

On the final day of the trial, when the verdict was announced, there were so many supporters present that the court had to open an extra room to accommodate them. “For Muslims to come out at that time was a pretty heroic act,” recalls Michael McConnell, regional director for AFSC’s Midwest region. “But they saw that there was wide support.”

Celebrating free speech together

This year on Nov. 10, when AFSC staff and the local Muslim community gathered to celebrate Muhammad’s removal from the terrorist list, the network reflected on what they had overcome. They shared stories of support—of hot meals left on the Salahs’ porch and a friend giving money in order for the family to keep their home.

Muhammad and his family were a beacon of strength and clarity throughout the trial, said Michael in his remarks at the celebration. “I am thankful for the Salah family, who has taught us as individuals and as an organization how to reach down into the depths of our souls and be better human beings,” he said.