The Imam of an Albany mosque, Yassin Aref finds himself at the center of an elaborate FBI sting. In a plea bargain, a convicted felon, Malik, is sent undercover by the FBI to frame the young Imam. FBI’s strategy: trick Yassin into becoming a witness for a convoluted money laundering scheme, and then tenuously connect this scheme to a fake terror plot. Mission accomplished: the FBI manufactures a terrorist and then solves its own “crime.”
Witness touches on a host of contemporary issues, ranging from the War on Terror to the balance between civil liberties and security. Most importantly, it examines the idea of due process. In pursuit of security, the American legal system is turned upside down. In cases involving terrorism, there is an almost automatic presumption of guilt based on fear, which is then exploited by prosecutors, who portray ordinary people as dangerous threats to safety and security. Thus, the jury system becomes an extension of law enforcement. Juries feel obligated to convict heavily bearded Muslim men with exotic, unpronounceable names because of their implicit faith in law enforcement and the FBI, and because of their fear that by acquitting, they might let a real terrorist go free.
Witness also grapples with the idea of preemptive prosecutions, used against hundreds of Muslims. Orwellian in its conceit, preemptive prosecutions target those deemed dangerous by engaging them in a variety of fictional plots and stress-testing their ideology in the quest to “prevent the next one.” Thus American law enforcement uses fear once again, this time to undermine long-standing, cherished legal principles. Ultimately Witness asks the question: How far are we willing to go to create the illusion of safety for ourselves?
Witness also examines the role of media in becoming an arm of the government’s disinformation campaign. Even though the print media acquitted itself well in the coverage of this case, asking critical questions that often earned the wrath of the prosecution, local television news reporters bought the government’s contrived story hook, line, and sinker. These reporters parroted the government’s often-dubious claims as fact, thus becoming a tool for manipulating public sentiment. The day the story broke, several reporters were told by FBI agents that the initial sheet of charges would outline the men’s involvement with terrorist organizations, yet in the actual court documents there was no mention of such connections––leaving some reporters to wonder on air what had happened to these nefarious ties.
In 2003, Yassin Aref, the Imam of a local mosque, and Mohammed Hossain, a Bangladeshi pizzeria owner, lived quiet lives devoted to family and faith in the immigrant enclave of downtown Albany, New York. After the events of 9/11, the two men came under FBI scrutiny, primarily because of their religious affiliation with the mosque.
In the summer of 2003, an FBI informant, Shaheed Hussain, code named Malik, deliberately walked into Hossain’s pizzeria. The flashy, fast-talking, Mercedes-driving Pakistani businessman ingratiated himself with the Hossain family. He flattered Hossain for his piety and asked Hossain to teach him about Islam. Impressed by the imposing, handsome man, Hossain agreed to be Malik’s religious mentor.
As the relationship deepened, Malik revealed his radical Islamist ideology and his desire to help oppressed Muslims. He also told Hossain that he was a weapons dealer and showed him a surface-to-air missile (SAM) that he claimed he imported from China and sold to “Mujahedeen” brothers for a profit of $50,000. When a stunned Hossain asked if the importation of SAMs was legal, Malik dodged the question.
Five months into the relationship, Hossain’s struggling rental business required an urgent cash infusion, and Malik offered to loan him the money without interest. The two came up with an arrangement whereby Malik would lend Hossain money in increments, and Hossain would pay Malik back in monthly checks. Yassin––who had been the primary target all along––was recruited to witness the loan, a standard request for an imam in the Muslim community. During one of the loan transactions at Yassin’s house, Malik warned of a coming missile attack on the Pakistani consulate in Manhattan. Incensed by this talk, Yassin showed Malik the door.
But on the night of August 4th, 2004, the FBI arrested Yassin and Hossain and charged them with money laundering and material support for terrorism. The two men were denied bail because the FBI claimed it had evidence against Yassin from a U.S. military raid on a supposed terror camp in Iraq. The s evidence turned out to be a mistranslation that referred to Yassin as “Commander” instead of the common Kurdish honorific of “brother.” Based on this translation error, the judge finally granted the two men bail. Yassin’s freedom lasted only a year. Once his diaries were translated and the presiding judge was shown secret evidence by the prosecution, Yassin’s bail was revoked.
The subsequent trial turned American jurisprudence on its head. The accused had to prove their innocence, while the accusers were given every benefit of the doubt.
Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial is an allegory about totalitarianism, and its lasting insight is that in a world of concentrated power, individual identity is malleable, at the mercy of the state’s whims. One ordinary morning, the hapless Joseph K awakes to find himself in an extraordinary predicament. He can no longer count on the facts of his life to define who he is; instead, the all-powerful state and its serpentine apparatus reconfigures him as a criminal, forcing him to defend himself against charges that are never defined.
On September 11th, 2001, many American Muslims could empathize with Joseph K’s plight. The ground beneath their feet had shifted. Extremists hijacked not only airplanes but Islam, and as a result the American public became suspicious and hostile to Muslims. As antipathy against them mounted, surveillance and entrapment of Muslims became a standard law enforcement practice. Terrorism became a hot button political issue, and the arrest of alleged terrorists became law enforcement trophies and a ladder to high-profile careers. As an immigrant from Pakistan who has spent most of his life here in America, I view this war of shadows and lies through a unique lens of personal history and cultural memory. Although the story contained in Witness did not happen to me, its implications remain deeply personal.
Many of the films connected to 9/11 focus on the grief or heroism in the aftermath of the tragedy. Much less attention is paid to the disturbing, endless War on Terror. Domestically, this war targets the most vulnerable segment of our society: its newest immigrants, especially those who, by their appearance, race, or religion are easy targets for law enforcement agencies. In fact, we are all vulnerable against these unchecked institutional powers: anyone can be designated a terrorist, an enemy combatant, or person of interest by the government’s will. American citizens can be executed by an executive order based solely on secret evidence. In a system of checks and balances, where is the check on this power?
Witness is about perhaps the most excluded people in contemporary America–– Muslims. They face an inordinate amount of public hostility and officially sanctioned profiling. This is especially true of devout Muslims, who stand out because of their dress and clothing. It becomes exceedingly difficult for Muslim-Americans such as myself to make films about the Muslim experience that challenge conventional narratives about Muslims. Our dealing with law enforcement is always seen through the lens of security, rarely through the lens of common humanity. Muslim artists in America have lost the power to shape our narratives. A story about a Muslim fighting for justice is about taking control of these narratives.
Thus my connection to this story is not just cultural; it is also visceral. I could easily be Yassin Aref or Mohammed Hossain. I’m separated from them only by a few degrees, insulated perhaps by the fact that I speak English fluently or I have more formal education and a better understanding of American law enforcement (for example, I would certainly not speak to the FBI without a lawyer). My connection with these Muslim men comes into stark relief every time I am singled out for a pat down at the airport, or when I am escorted into a dingy airport office for questioning upon my return from abroad. In those moments I am Yassin Aref, I am Muhammad Hossain, I am Joseph K. I shudder to think what detail of my life could be found arbitrarily objectionable and could lead me down a path where I have to explain my every action and thought––perhaps to no avail.
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