Wednesday, October 3, 2012

ONLY IN AMERICA: A CIVIL DEBATE WITH MY MUSLIM FRIEND


Last week, Randy Hamud, the attorney, author and civil rights activist who represented several of the friends of the three 9/11 hijackers who lived in San Diego, wrote an op-ed piece for the U-T San Diego newspaper in which he addressed whether the now-infamous 14-minute video ridiculing the Muslim Prophet Muhammad was an exercise of free speech, or an incitement to violence that should not be granted First Amendment protection.

Hamud, who in 2005 wrote Osama bin Laden: America's Enemy in his Own Words, in which he showed just why bin Laden was the most serious threat in the contemporary world, believes the video, which most reasonable people agree is offensive, should not be protected under the First Amendment. 

“Free speech is no pass to perpetrate hate crimes which interfere with another person’s exercise of his or her constitutional rights, including the practice of one’s religion," he wrote. "And in most countries of the world, including Western Europe, the law prohibits the denigration of one’s ethnicity or religion.”


I respectfully disagree with Hamud. I believe that in a free society we must retain the right to satirize and criticize all belief systems, even if these criticisms are deeply offensive to some. But this isn't the first time I've disagreed with Hamud, a Muslim-American who has a deep love for this country and with whom I have developed a genuine friendship since I began covering the 9/11 terrorist attack for Newsweek a decade ago.

In a Newsweek article I was writing about 9/11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, I interviewed Hamud, who was the American attorney for Moussaoui’s family. In the piece, and in other articles I had written about Hamud, I referred to him as a “controversial" Muslim attorney. 

He took issue with my description of him as “controversial.” This sparked a lengthy, impassioned but civil email conversation, the likes of which I suspect too few American non-Muslims are having with American Muslims. 


I’ve never made this conversation public, but with Hamud's consent, I've decided to publish it now because it seems more timely than ever given what is happening around the world. I should note that Hamud and I were both right, and wrong, on several issues raised in this post-9/11 discussion (and Moussaoui wasn't given the death penalty after all). 

Here’s an excerpt from our lively debate:

RANDY HAMUD: Jamie, I think you may perceive me to be more "controversial" than I am imagined elsewhere. Don’t you think that President Bush's revelation regarding the Los Angeles terrorism "plot" takes a lot of wind from the sails of the Moussaoui prosecution, since the President himself admitted that at worst, Moussaoui was being held back for a second-wave attack the planning of which never got off the ground?

JAMIE RENO: Randy, as always, you state your case eloquently. But it’s kind of hard to overstate your "controversialness," isn't it? You yourself admit to being the target of numerous death threats, and you've represented numerous friends of the 9/11 hijackers as well as the mother of another who has pledged his loyalties to Al Qaeda. That is reality, not my "perception." As for the Moussaoui prosecution, you make a valid point. On the other hand, there are some who say that someone who was involved in any way in a terrorist attack against this country and who has admitted to being a member of Al Qaeda, even if the specific planning of said attack never got off the ground, should be jailed for life at the very least. 

HAMUD: Frankly, Moussaoui has talked himself into a pretty long prison term, but the issue is the death chamber, isn't it? It's just too much of a conspiracy stretch to hang him for 9/11; pretty soon, they'll even have Kevin (six degrees of separation) Bacon in the doc.

RENO: Well, as I said, there are a good number of folks who believe that any person who's admitted to what Moussaoui has admitted to deserves the death penalty. I know you're not one of them.

HAMUD: What's he admitted to? Membership in Al Qaeda? After all, many of the members were trained by the CIA and fought the Russians back in '88 and '89. What I am worrying about is whether free speech and free association have come to an end here. Why should it be illegal for anyone, Imam or otherwise, to advocate fighting the Russians in Chechnya or the Hindus in Kashmir or on behalf of even the Maoists in Nepal? Is advocacy now a crime, much like supporting communism in the 1950s? What about the new British law about "glorifying" terrorism? What the Hell does that mean? After all, based on the videotapes from Basra a couple days ago, the Brits are the terrorists; just ask the locals. The world is askew, and the Constitution if crumbling, I fear.

RENO: No, it is aiding and abetting terrorism against America of which I'm speaking, not support of freedom fighting against Russians in Chechnya or Hindus in Kashmir. No way are you going to convince me that that Moussaoui's avowed hatred for America and his advocacy for terrorism against this country is his Constitutoinal right, or that being against him and not letting him spew this venom or plan his future attack is some sort of new Mccarthyism. So your'e essentially saying that free speech is a vital issue with a man who admits he wants to attack America as a terrorist, but not for a cartoonist, for example, who simply draws a satiric cartoon about a specific religion? You lose credibility when you bring up the freedom of speech argument and suggest that a person in a free society can’t draw a satiric cartoon about a religious figure. Freedom of speech, including cartoons that you and many other Muslims may deem very offensive, is and always should be protected under our Constitution, but being actively involved in an organization that is hell-bent on attacking and destroying America should not.

HAMUD: Tsk! Tsk! Go see "Good Luck & Good Night." You're forgetting your history. It used to be against the law to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence even when there was no imminent danger of doing so. The USSC corrected that "oversight." Now, we are back to that crap. Are you trying to say that nobody has a right to express sympathy for Al Qaeda – and I'm not doing that, not by a long shot - or anti-US policies without deserving criminal punishment? You are getting a bit ahead of yourself and the Constitution, Jamie. And as far as the supposed "freedom of speech" arguments pertaining to the cartoons, the arguments ring rather hollow when a man can go to jail in Europe for Holocaust denial but not for blashpheming the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and thereby unleashing violence and the denigration of the world's fastest growing religion. The hypocrisy in Europe is not lost in the Islamic world in this Information Age.

RENO: With respect, Randy, there is implicit sympathy for Al Qaeda in virtually everything you say and do. And again with respect, Muhammad is your Prophet, not mine, and not everyone's. Fastest-growing religion or not, in a free society, you have no right to impose your religion or its tenets and beliefs on me and I have every right to criticize yours. It is a belief system, and in a free society a belief system is not a law. Also, as I've said, a satirical cartoon is quite different than an open call for terrorist acts against America. That is certainly not and should not be protected by the Constitution. Show me where it says that in the Bill or Rights or anywhere else. Trust me on this one, the founding fathers would hang Moussaoui from the highest tree, and you can put your John Hancock on that one.

HAMUD: It seems you have lost your objectivity and credibility as a journalist. I have never supported Al Qaeda and have even written a book advocating the dispatching of Bin Laden. And the Prophet (PBUH) you have denigrated by referring to him as "not mine." Islam is eclectic; it includes your Prophets as well, and Jesus (PBUH) is second only to God. What you fail to see is that bin Laden's positions mirror the opinions across the Islamic world re: Israel-Palestine, Western support for autocratic Middle East regimes, exploitation of the oil resources (the real reason why we are in Iraq; and no shrines were bombed on Saddam Hussein's watch; how could we allow that on our watch?!), etc., etc. Read your history; the Brits wanted to hang Tom Paine for his words well before they translated into deeds. And communism was akin to terrorism in the 1950s and anybody who was an avowed communist was committing a crime even by espousing the doctrine. And take a close look at Moussaoui; he is not being charged with advocating support for Al Qaeda, per se', as a crime, but rather with receiving money from it and giving it material support. And the case law has yet to be written on the constitutionality of statutes prohibiting "material support" and "expert advice," and the 9th Circuit has recently struck them down as they related to the Humanitarian Law Project which was trying to lend assistance to the peaceful arm of the Tamili rebels. Be objective, Jamie

RENO: I am objective. But I am also an American. You are the one who is evidently unable to be objective because of your religious beliefs. I believe in a creator but I am not Christian. Nor am I a Jew. So stop making assumptions about "my Prophet" and misstating the facts. I am actually one of the few truly objective people I know because I am not bound by any specific religion. I have issues with all three of the major religions, practitioners of which are capable at any moment of self-righteousness and intolerance. Religion has many beautiful attributes, but it will be the world's downfall, that much is certain. With respect, my friend, you are indeed thrusting your belief system onto me, and this mentality is why there is violence and hatred in the world. I like and respect you, but it's a frail argument to compare the communists of the 50s to Al Qaeda terrorists now. It's a different world and the motivations of the two are worlds apart. Protests and anti-government commentary is of course protected in a free society, as it always should be, but being an avowed member of an organization that wants to kill innocent American women and children is another matter. I never heard this type of rhetoric from even the most strident American communists in the 50s. And as far as I know, while they were disenchanted with our government, which was their right, they had no plans to fly airplanes into our buildings. It's ironic, this conversation, because I don't know of one country in the Islamic world where true freedoms to criticize the government really exist. And the Muslims who are raging about these cartoons publicly denigrate Judaism and Christianity regularly, but I guess it's OK for them to denigrate other religions, just not vice versa.

HAMUD: Look Jamie, I couldn't care less whether you were Muslim, or whatever, and I am not a member or sympathizer with Al Qaeda. If I were in charge of the globar war on terrorism, we'd win! And by the way, all of those innocuous communists from the 1950s were, for the most part, commie spies, including the Rosenbergs, Gus Hall, etc. Read The Haunted Woods and get the real scoop. And Soviets were killing Americans in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

RENO: I didn't say the communists in the 50s were innocuous, I simply said that they weren't plotting terrorist attacks against innocents, at least as far as I know. That's the distinction. We humans are just a bunch of clueless protoplasms running around that, for better and worse, have self-awareness and know that we are going to die. This has caused us to create all kinds of comforting but fictional scenarios that appease our intense fears of our own mortality. There is no empirical evidence that heaven, hell, or an afterlife exist, but most humans believe in all of the above. I suspect there is a creator of some kind, but that’s as far as I can go. I agree that science does not answer all questions and that some sort of creator perhaps exists, but for the most part religion and even the notion of God are man-made concepts that are a way for us to simply feel as if our lives have meaning. I believe in love and compassion and goodness and the beauty in this world, and I love life and greatly appreciate the fact that I exist. In other words, as long as I'm sitting in this row boat in the middle of this vast lake, I'm gonna start rowing. It beats just sitting there. The bottom line is, if there is one lesson the world SHOULD have learned from 9/11, but obviously didn't, it is that religion is not the cure for our ills, it is the cause of them. Muslims, Christians, Jews, you name it. So many of the bad things in this world have been done in the name of God and religion and this will never change because, sadly, people are so afraid. After 9/11, most everyone retreated to their God of choice instead of realized that no one knows if God even exists and if so, what or which God he/she/it is. Be kind to each other but don't judge, that is the only religion worth subscribing to. That's the only thing that will save this planet.



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