The Rights of a Muslim Accused of Terrorism

Muslims who are accused of terrorism by governmental agencies are still Muslims. Even Muslims convicted of terrorism are still Muslims though they have committed an egregious crime. I am deeply disturbed by the way some within our community react to tragic events such as the recent San Bernardino shooting, which resulted in the death of 14 people as well as the 2 alleged Muslim shooters.

We have to be a principled community, not a reactionary one, not a politically sycophantic one. We cannot jettison our principles whenever we feel political pressure. The good news is, being principled in the case of Muslims accused of terrorism does not mean that we are uncooperative with authorities or that we don’t accept that Muslims can and sometimes do commit acts of terror. As Allah says in the Quran, “O you who believe! be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives.”

The fact of the matter is, even Muslims accused of terrorism have rights over us. And if we violate those rights, we will be held accountable for that. We may not have control over how federal authorities investigate and handle terrorism cases such as the San Bernardino shooting, but we do have control over our hearts and what we believe.

And thankfully, in the US, the law by and large respects our right to disagree and object. So nothing that I am saying here is illegal, though certainly some will consider it politically subversive. And that’s ok too, because, if we are to believe the hype, America is all about protest and free speech. Even politically incorrect ideas, especially politically incorrect ideas, should be expressed in a vibrant democracy. That’s what we have been told, at least. Point being that, in these cases, being principled in the Islamic sense happens to align seamlessly with key American values, and in fact may be entirely in the spirit of American free-thinking and political objection.

So, what are these principles and rights?

First and foremost, we owe people, Muslim and non-Muslim, the benefit of the doubt. In Islamic law, the burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused. This is, again, concordant with western principles of justice. Everyone deserves a day in court, even if posthumously. If society at large conveniently forgets this principle in cases of terrorism where the accused are Muslims, that doesn’t mean we have to as well. And though we may face immense amounts of political pressure to go with the status quo and reflexively accept what the government claims, our principles are not so cheaply discarded.

This doesn’t mean that we should stubbornly reject the conclusions of investigators, but it also doesn’t mean we quickly accept whatever claims government officials make in the heat of an ongoing investigation. As we saw with the San Bernardino case, many of the initial claims made by the FBI about Farook and Malik regarding their association with terror groups, their possession of pipe bombs, their conflict with coworkers, etc., turned out to be completely baseless. We can attribute all that to the FBI and the media’s incompetence, but that is all the more reason we should insist on a full and open investigation being completed before we come to any conclusions about the accused. And even if we don’t publicly insist on that, we should at least not let our hearts settle on conclusions before all the facts have come to light.

Now, some might object that in the case of San Bernardino, it is crystal clear that the accused couple are guilty. I remain unconvinced due to all the irregularities and ambiguities in the investigation so far, as I have spelled out in detail in other places. There are still numerous scenarios that have not been conclusively ruled out. For example, we know that the FBI has had a long and dirty history of entrapping psychologically vulnerable Muslims who otherwise had no intent and no means to commit terrorism. This by itself should make us wonder whether something similar was going on with Farook and Malik. If so, then the couple would still be guilty, but the FBI should also be held accountable for the role it played in the deaths of all those people. But since the FBI has a monopoly on the investigation and they are not accountable to any oversight committee, we can’t expect them to implicate themselves. All in all, the sixth ayah of Surat al-Hujurat comes to mind.

Other important rights for Muslims accused of terrorism. We cannot say that they are not Muslims in our haste to disassociate our religion from acts of terror. For people who understand that Islam as a religion of 1.6 billion followers does not advocate mass murder, they understand that some Muslims can commit terrible crimes and that not implicate the entire religion. For people who don’t understand this, they are not going to be convinced either way, so why risk making takfir for the sake of incorrigible bigots?

The other important right is the right to burial and the funeral prayer. This is a collective obligation (fard kifaya), so if no one from the community does this, everyone accrues sin. The accused husband and wife were washed, buried, and prayed over on Tuesday, so this obligation has been lifted for us in this case.

Overall, there is much at stake in these cases. We have souls that we have to protect. We also have our community’s larger interests to protect. And there are other lives at stake too, because if we don’t understand the full details of the San Bernardino investigation, how can we as a community make informed decisions to prevent this from happening again? All of these factors far outweigh the knee jerk reaction of wanting to be politically correct, but as just an everyday member of this community, I am disappointed by the calculation we have made. We can do better.

WaAllahu `alam.