In Dewsbury, in the north of England, a small hall is lined with stalls selling glittering cupcakes and charity T-shirts. This is an awareness and fund raising event for the initiative Hhugs – Helping Households Under Great Stress. The charity which assists the families of men in prison charged under ‘terror’ or immigration legislation.
If the words above have set an indignant fury nagging at you.
If I didn’t live, work and pray, amongst British Muslims I’d be indignant about such an event too – perhaps.
Maybe I’d be suspicious as well, of ‘that lot with their Shariah law and covered up women’.
On paper – let’s say tabloid paper – this event would be headlined:
“Tea for Terrorists” or ‘Jam sponge for Jihadi wives.’ It would be written – and read – as a sinister gathering of women in ‘long flowing robes’ (tabloid shorthand meaning; ‘They look foreign and could hide bombs under that lot’)
I understand the instinct towards indignancy. After all, money being raised for ‘terror families’ whatever next, right?
On the news, we Muslims feature only as extreme and dangerous people. On the streets, we have to live with the fear this generates. Men in white vans cut us up on the school run, yelling abuse. People at bus stops (any group in numbers) offer angry stares as we carry our shopping home. Non Muslim, city centers are No Go areas after 6pm. Unless you enjoy being sneered at by drunken ‘liberated’ young women or spat at by blokes on a night out.
Sitting next to me on the panel at the event are sisters whose fathers or brothers are serving long jail sentences. Hhugs gives emotional and practical support to those left behind. Mums and children for whom the police are regular night visitors. Whose doors are bashed in, rooms overturned, toddlers terrorized, cameras and fear installed in the home.
Several of the women I meet are driven by Hhugs volunteers to visit loved ones in prison, hundreds of miles away. Others need absolute basics such as rent and food, as creatively vindictive new laws see innocent relatives turned into social and legal pariahs.
A sister whose testimony I read out ‘umm Ilyas’ (link below) has had her husband removed from home and returned numerous times in the past decade and they still don’t understand what for. I remember visiting Morocco, where wives of prisoners are separated entirely from society by the harassment tactics of the authorities. They are kept in abject poverty because whoever tries to help them is then added to an intelligence ‘list’ and will subsequently be dragged in for interrogation at any time.
When I went to Casablance in 2011, I had no idea quite how similar life is becoming here with Intelligence Service lists, lists, lists…threats, dark warnings and lists..
Munir Farooqi’s daughter, speaks movingly of her father’s incarceration. Right now their family home is under threat of removal, in a land mark case. As are their legally bought and owned rental properties. Properties whose income the women in the family, now fatherless, rely on to live.
Arriving home, I receive an email from a Muslim sister in Texas. In it she describes the suffering of the families of Holy Land Foundation members; men now serving up to 65 year sentences for ‘funding terror group Hamas.’
Ah, there it is again, that fear in your mind. That quiet whisper in your mind, urging you to feel only that these people deserve what they get. The problem for activists like me, who research beyond the press hysteria and become acquainted with the people of the headlines; is the gulf between fact and reality.
The Holy Land Foundation was founded in 1989 in California, relocating to a Dallas suburb in 1991. The HLF provided relief to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Jordan. Assisting through orphan and family sponsorship programs, back-to-school funding, hospital building and home reconstruction.
The Foundation also aided the needy in Bosnia, Albania, Chechnya and Turkey. And, groundbreaking for the time, was a major Muslim charity committed to assisting US victims of floods and tornadoes at home as well.
By 2001, the charity’s annual budget had reached some $14 million. Making it the largest Muslim charity in the U.S.
The US government spent tens of millions of dollars seeking to prove that donations raised by the Holy Land Foundation, went not to the needy in Palestine, but instead to fund Hamas in Gaza. Years of multi-agency evidence gathering produced no proof that that a single cent had been delivered to anyone except the needy. Despite the bullishness of the government prosecutor’s office, the jury could not agree a verdict and the men were all acquitted. However George Dubya’s government insisted on a second trial. That time round, despite again, no evidence of funds being misspent – all the defendants were found guilty of providing ‘material support’ to a terror organisation. Today Abdulrahman Odeh, Mufid Abdulqader, Mohammed El-Mezain, Shukri Abu Baker and Ghassan Elashi are in Guantanamo-like secret prison across the US. They are treated worse than the most heinous criminals.
There is no doubt that the convictions were political in nature and are a grave miscarriage of justice.
Such misuse of the legal system now affects thousands of Muslim families in America and the United Kingdom.
Month after month, new laws crop up that heap misery on the wholly innocent families of prisoners. The email I receive relates to a ‘communal property’ law, in Texas. This allows the US government to garnish the wages of the spouse of an incarcerated man, to pay off fines and fees accrued during trials.
Majida Salem, wife of Ghassan Elashi (sentence 65 years), is the sole breadwinner of the family as a result of his conviction. A mother of 6 her income, as an Islamic studies teacher in a local school, cannot cover the last payment the government is now, years after her husbands conviction, demanding from her.
Is this justice?
I think back to the Hhugs event. To the English tea and cakes that were served. To the children who ate way too much chocolate and played amongst their mum’s legs. To the wives of prisoners, taking photos and chatting – as we all like to.
Not an ‘extremist’ in sight.
I wonder what lies ahead for Moazzem Begg and his family. A fine man, a charity worker and outspoken critic of the war on terror.
I wonder how angry the public will be when they realize their emotions have been used for political ends.
To find out more about the cases mentioned in this article, or if your family need related advice, please follow the links below:
Holy Land Foundation; http://freedomtogive.com/the-holy-land-foundation/
Muslim Legal Fund of America: http://www.mlfa.org/
Farooqi Family Campaign: https://www.facebook.com/savethefamilyhome