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Punishing Violent Thoughts: Islamic Dissent and Thoreauvian Disobedience in Post-9/11 America


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American Muslims increasingly negotiate their relation to a government that is suspicious of Islam, yet which recognizes them as rights-bearing citizens, within a culture they claim as their own. To better understand how the post-9/11 state is reshaping American Islam, I examine the case of Muslim American dissident Tarek Mehanna, sentenced to seventeen years in prison in 2012 for providing material support for terrorism. I read Mehanna's verbal and visual depictions of his persecution in relation to the American dissidents Mehanna claims as intellectual predecessors, above all Henry David Thoreau and John Brown, while situating this dissent within a long history of American activism
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Punishing Violent Thoughts:
Islamic Dissent and Thoreauvian
Disobedience in Post-/ America
American Muslims increasingly negotiate their relation to a government that is suspicious of
Islam, yet which recognizes them as rights-bearing citizens, within a culture they claim as
their own. To better understand how the post-/ state is reshaping American Islam, I
examine the case of Muslim American dissident Tarek Mehanna, sentenced to seventeen
years in prison in  for providing material support for terrorism. I read Mehannas verbal
and visual depictions of his persecution in relation to the American dissidents Mehanna
claims as intellectual predecessors, above all Henry David Thoreau and John Brown, while situ-
ating this dissent within a long history of American activism
Under a government which imprisons anyone unjustly, the true place for a just man is
also a prison.
Henry David Thoreau, Resistance
to Civil Government
Well over three million Muslims live in the United States.
Islam is the third-
largest US religion, following Christianity and Judaism.
American Islam is
more than a demographic phenomenon; scholarship is gradually revealing a
rich literary Muslim American tradition, in many languages, and comprising
many cultures, including slave narratives in Arabic that date back to the earliest
days of the American republic.
Yet for many within, as well as outside, the
United States, the phrase American Islamstill sounds like a contradiction
College of Arts & Law, University of Birmingham. Email:
Besheer Mohamad, A new estimate of the U.S. Muslim population,Pew Research, Jan.
John Esposito, Muslims in America or American Muslims?, in Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad
and John L. Esposito, eds., Muslims on the Americanization Path? (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, ), ,.
See, for example, Muhammad al-Ahari, ed., Five Classic Muslim Slave Narratives: Selim Aga,
Job Ben Sulaiman, Nicholas Said, Omar ibn Said, Abu Bakr Sadiq (Chicago: Magribine
Press, ).
Journal of American Studies, Page of 
©Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 
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in terms. President Trumps Muslim ban is only the latest in a long series of
attempts to represent Islam as inherently alien to American culture. The reli-
gious, ethnic, and even linguistic implications of American Islam defy ingrained
stereotypes. Americans who complicate the monochromatic image of America
frequently evoke surprise while traveling abroad when they diverge from these
The false perception of a monochrome America retains its hold
on the popular imagination, within the United States and globally.
Yet America has been multi-confessional and multiethnic since its beginnings.
While Americas diversity results in part from historical factors, including its
precolonial indigenous populations and slavery, this diversity has more recently
been aected by a substantial number of migrants from South Asia, Afghanistan,
and the Arab world, many of whom, although not all, are Muslim. First-gener-
ation Muslim Americans increasingly link the non-American aspects of their
history, be it Pakistani, Egyptian, Iraqi, or Afghan, to their American selves.
These hybrid identities are redening the content of American Islam, and this
redenition calls for rigorous scrutiny and critical theorization.
This essay tracks the transnational trajectory of one such hybrid identity,
formed in the context of a post-/ US-led war on terror: the American-
born Muslim Tarek Mehanna (b. ), from Sudbury, Massachusetts, of
Egyptian descent. Mehanna was convicted of providing material support
to foreign terrorists in  and is currently serving a seventeen-year prison
Political theorists and legal scholars have written eloquently and
persuasively about the dangerous legal precedent set by Mehannas case.
They have focussed on how this precedent empowers the US government to
criminalize protected speech, and to prosecute thought as dangerous in
itself, apart from its actual consequences.
While informed by such legal analyses, this essay takes a dierent turn.
Through an analysis of his sentencing statement, delivered in , and the
visual sketches that preceded it, I explore the intellectual origins of
Mehannas mode of dissent, and analyze his location within the American
tradition of civil disobedience.
I focus on how Mehannas appropriation of
The experience of African Americans abroad has been extensively documented in this
regard. See Gary Totten, African American Travel Narratives from Abroad:Mobility and
Cultural Work in the Age of Jim Crow (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, ).
The Supreme Court ruling around which the prosecution built their case against Mehanna
is Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (), atpdf/
See Andrew March, A Dangerous Mind?,New York Times, April ,SR; Amna
Akbar, How Tarek Mehanna Went to Prison for a Thought Crime,The Nation,
Dec. ,
A more recent source for Mehannas thinking which was not formally taken into consid-
eration while working on this article are the posts on a Facebook page curated by his
Rebecca Ruth Gould
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Thoreau ts into a longer history of American dissidence. While recognizing
that Mehannas failure thus far to critically interrogate the violent premises of
some of his Islamist texts is a signicant weakness in his thinking to date, my
interest lies more in his adaptation of core elements in American intellectual
history to a Salast Muslim identity.
Alongside its status as a litmus test of the
limits of the American justice system, Mehannas case marks a new, yet famil-
iar, moment in the history of American civil disobedience.
In bringing this complex legal precedent to bear on the study of Muslim
American intellectual history, I want to suggest how, due to its progressive
transnationalization and its changing internal demographics, American
studies has entered a new phase. Mehannas case matters, and not just for
what it tells us about the changing ethos of the US justice system and its
increasing reliance on innuendo and associationin a post-/ age.
Equally, it is important for what it teaches us about Americas changing intel-
lectual landscape. While Mehannas Muslim identity made him a target for
prosecution, his familiarity with the classics of American literature and
iconic moments in American history conditioned his ethics of dissent.
Mehannas program for political action, including its problematic association
with violence, belongs to an evolving indigenous tradition of American Islam,
of which Mehannas is but one of many versions. While Mehanna, who
aliates with Salasm, a form of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia
which is linked to the conservative Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence,
does not speak for all or even most Muslims, his thinking overall oers
insight into the dialectics of American and Muslim identity today. In order
to understand as well as resist the appeal of violence domestically and globally,
we must come to terms with its original context, including its American
On  April , Tarek Mehanna received a seventeen-year prison sentence
for providing material supportfor al Qaeda. As legal scholar Amna Akbar
brother, and regularly updated with reports from prison:
TarekMehanna. This page has over , followers as of this writing.
The main Islamist text that Mehanna translated and disseminated on the Internet and
which was a focus of his conviction is Muhammad bin Ahmad as-Salim (Isa al-Awshin),
 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, at-Tibyan(pdf at Internet Archive,
ia Although the prosecution could not demonstrate any use of this
work by al Qaeda, Mehannas promotion of this text was nonetheless regarded as material
supportfor this terrorist group. See Wadie E. Said, Crimes of Terror: The Legal and
Political Implications of Federal Terrorism Prosecutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
), .
This phrase is taken from Akbar.
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notes, the government provided no evidence that Mehanna acted at the
groups request, or even that he ever met or communicated with anyone
from Al Qaeda.
It was not necessary for the government to prove collusion
with any terrorist organizations in order to secure a conviction. It was enough
to demonstrate that Mehanna created and/or translated, accepted credit for
authoring, and distributed text, videos, and other media, to inspire others to
engage in violent jihad.
The ruling against Mehanna, and his extreme punishment, have been
criticized by scholars of the First Amendment as not properly founded in
First Amendment law or statutory interpretation.
Critics note that in
Mehannas case material supportamounted to nothing more than posting
on an online forum, maintaining a blog, and translating into English Arabic
material supportive of jihad.
There were related charges, including a trip
to Yemen that the prosecution claimed was motivated by the intention to
join a terrorist training camp, but these charges were never proven and did
not constitute the basis of the case against Mehanna. As matters currently
stand, Mehanna will pass the years  in solitary connement in a super-
max prison, as a result of his controversial beliefs.
Mehannas conviction typies the legal culture of post-/ America. Already
in , it was possible to point to twelve hundred Muslim and Arab menwho
were detained by US authorities in late  and to the subsequent interroga-
tion of eight thousand more.
Yet with regard to the crime with which he was
charged, Mehannas conviction marks a new stage in the US war on terror. It
indicates that the government need not provide evidence of the intention to per-
petrate a terrorist act in order to secure a felony conviction. According to one
legal scholar, Mehannas conviction may have succeeded in pushing the doctri-
nal envelope,eectively changing the meaning of material supportwithin US
Another specialist in the First Amendment notes that the case of
Mehanna, like that of Julian Assange, illustrates the complexities associated
with the exercise of First Amendment liberties in an emerging global theatre.
Quoted from United States of America v. Tarek Mehanna and Ahmad Abusamra, archived at.pdf.
Nikolas Abel, Note U.S. v. Mehanna, the First Amendment, and Material Support in the
War on Terror,Boston College Law Review, (), ,.
On the material supportaccusation see George D. Brown, Notes on a Terrorism Trial:
Preventive Prosecution, Material Supportand the Role of the Judge after United States
v. Mehanna,Boston College Law School Faculty Papers, , Paper .
Paul M. Barrett, Muslims in America: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion (New York:
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, ), .
Brown, .
Timothy Zick, The Cosmopolitan First Amendment (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, ), .
Rebecca Ruth Gould
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In his capacity as a representative of the US government, the prosecuting
attorney in Mehannas case oered his own view of legal boundaries and
norms. He told the jury that while it is not illegal to watch something on
the television,it is illegal to watch something in order to cultivate your
desire, your ideology, your plots to kill American soldiers, or to help those,
as in this case, who were.
Relying on charged, emotional language, and in
eect calling on the jury to disregard the First Amendment in assessing
Mehannas guilt, the prosecutor created a precedent for treating the cultiva-
tion of an unpopular ideology as a crime, and suggested that reading a
public document may be subject to legal sanction, depending on ones motiv-
ation (and, by implication, on ones ideology and religion). The prosecutors
assertion implies that, while it is permissible for people of certain beliefs (law
enforcement ocials, or, for example, non-Muslims) to read dangerous mate-
rials, the same material is forbidden to those with dierent beliefs.
As the prosecutor acknowledges, Mehanna was not accused of violent acts, or
even of intending to commit such acts. The prosecutions strategy went beyond
criminalizing intent. To the extent that it is illegal to watch something in order
to cultivate your desire [or] your ideology,criminality resides in the motives
that accompany reading and watching, not in the acts themselves. Given that
motives spring inseparably from beliefs, the prosecutor proposed to criminalize
thought. Such (mis)readings of the law directly result from a post-/ legal
culture, which treats terrorism as a crime that must be preemptively addressed.
As Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez stated in ,we simply cannot and
will not wait for these particular crimes to occur before taking action.
documents demonstrate that the security agenda of the post-/ state is in
tension with the free exercise of religion and the right to freedom of belief.
In addition to heralding a new phase in the legal interpretation and appli-
cation of the First Amendment, Mehannas ideological situation is distinctive
in itself. As his sentencing statement (discussed in the next section) shows,
Mehanna forges a chain of solidarity across racial and religious borders.
When he addressed the judge and jury in a Boston courtroom following the
announcement of his seventeen-year sentence, Mehanna also addressed a
diverse cross-section of the American public, and situating himself within
the American dissident tradition. His statement drew extensively on
American ideologies, both violent and nonviolent, to justify his intellectual
United States v. Mehanna, No. GAO (D. Mass. ), day ,.
Alberto Gonzales, Remarks at the World Aairs Council of Pittsburgh on Stopping
Terrorists before They Strike: The Justice Departments Power of Prevention,at www./ag_speech_.html. Gonzalezs statement is discussed in
Robert Chesney, Beyond Conspiracy? Anticipatory Prosecution and the Challenge of
Unaliated Terrorism,Southern California Law Review,,(), .
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trajectory. This American dissident trajectory, Mehanna argued, had brought
him into conict with US government. The relation that Mehanna triangu-
lated, between US dissidence, government surveillance, and Muslim piety,
calls on us to rethink the parameters of civil disobedience in post-/
America. In bringing liberal conceptions of freedom and agency into
conict and dialogue with religious conviction, Mehanna departs from
societys mainstream secular liberalism and returns us to faith-based action.
On  April , when his sentence was announced, Mehanna read a pre-
pared statement that is suused with a rhetoric suggesting an awareness of
its own posterity. By virtue of its historical signicance, as well as the range
of its examples and the scope of its arguments, this document is a key text
in the canon of American dissent, and an important primary source for
American Islam in the post-/ period. The testimony begins by explaining
Mehannas refusal to cooperate with the FBI agents who oered him the
chance to become a collaborator in exchange for avoiding prosecution. His
opening sets the tone for the narrative that follows:
Exactly four years ago this month I was nishing my work shift at a local hospital. As I was
walking to my car I was approached by two federal agents. They said that I had a choice to
make: I could do things the easy way, or I coulddo them the hard way. The easyway, as
they explained, was that I would become an informant forthe government, and if I didso
I would never see the inside of a courtroom or a prison cell. As forthe hard way, this is it.
Here I am, having spent the majority of the four years since then in a solitary cell the size
of a small closet, in which I am locked down for  hours each day.
Dramatically setting forth the events leading up to his arrest, Mehanna details
the conict with the state that ultimately resulted in his long-term incarcer-
ation. In presenting his version of the case, Mehanna persuasively argues
that he was punished for his principled refusal to become an informant and
to cooperate with the authorities.
Mehannas claim is reinforced by the facts of the case: the most damning evi-
dence against him was provided by a felon-turned-informant, who nanced
Mehannas trip to Yemen (claimed by the government to have been in search
of an al Qaeda training camp), and who later admitted to planning a terrorist
attack in a US shopping mall.
In exchange for immunity from prosecution,
Kareem Abuzahra was a co-collaborator who was granted immunity in order to testify in the
case against Mehanna and was a key witness for the prosecution. However, as noted by
several commentators, his testimony was compromised by his admission that he was
willing to lie. See Brown, .
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this individual agreed to testify against Mehanna. Due to this agreement, a man
who plotted a terrorist attack against the United States remains unprosecuted
(and indeed protected from prosecution) while Mehanna, who was never
charged with planning such attacks, was punished with a seventeen-year
prison sentence. After presenting himself as a scapegoat who refused to cooper-
ate with the FBI, Mehanna dwells on his dual identity as a Muslim American.
I wasnt born in a Muslim country I was born and raised right here in America and
this angers many people: how is it that I can be an American and believe the things I
believe, take the positions I take? Everything a man is exposed to in his environment
becomes an ingredient that shapes his outlook, and Imnodierent. So, in more ways
than one, its because of America that I am who I am [emphasis added].
After arming his American identity, Mehanna recounts coming of age as
an Egyptian American learning about the world through the historical narra-
tives he read in American public schools. Mehanna recounts how the Batman
comic book series opened his eyes to the fact that there are oppressors, there
are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed.
As Mehanna grew older he found this paradigm conrmed in every narrative
he encountered. I gravitated towards any book that reected that paradigm,
Mehanna explains, Uncle Toms Cabin,The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and
I even saw an ethical dimension to The Catcher in the Rye.Mehannas
account of American political history is structured by a tripartite ethical frame-
work: the oppressed, such as enslaved African Americans; the oppressor; and
those who, like radical abolitionist John Brown, defend the oppressed.
Mehanna invokes Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and John Brown for their
ght against slavery; Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs for their advocacy of
struggles of the labor unions, working class, and poor; the German-born Jew
Anne Frank, persecuted and killed by the Nazis; Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and
Martin Luther King Jr. for organizing the civil rights struggle; the commun-
ist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, who helped the Vietnamese liberate them-
selves from one invader after another; and, nally, Nelson Mandela, who
fought South African apartheid.
Ranging across the globe, these are key
gures in progressive US middle-school curricula.
More debatable in terms of historical accuracy, but revealing of his invest-
ment in American history, is Mehannas take on Paul Reveres midnight ride.
Tareks Sentencing Statement,Appendix to Glenn Greenwald, The Real Criminals in
the Tarek Mehanna Case,Salon, April ,///the_real_-
criminals_in_the_tarek_mehanna_case. All future references are to the unpaginated text at
this link. Mehannas statement is available on numerous websites, including the dedicated
website for Mehannas case at
See, for example, the lesson plans in Joy Hakim, Johns Hopkins University Teaching Guide
and Resource Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ).
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Arguing that it was conducted in order to warn the people that the British were
marching to Lexington to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock then on to
Concord to conscate the weapons stored there by the Minutemen,
Mehanna treats Paul Reveres ride as an example of jihad. Theres an Arabic
word to describe what those Minutemen did that day,he states. It was a
word repeated many times in this courtroom. That word is jihad.Mehanna
here positions himself within the history of American dissidence, presenting
it also as a history of violence. He also reclaims the term jihadwhile linking
it to a progressive agenda, as many prominent Muslim Americans have done
in recent years, partly in order to clarify the nonviolent aspects of its meaning.
Mehannas lineage of abolitionism, the labor movement, anti-Nazi mobiliza-
tion, Jim Crow laws in the American South, and South African apartheid is at
once cosmopolitan and conventional. This list of milestones could have been
lifted from many US textbooks on world history. The major dierence
between his version of American history and the state-sponsored one is
Mehannas presentation of the American Revolution as a form of jihad
against British imperialists. Mehanna may have been introduced to the gures
he mentions while attending Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, yet he
adds to a familiar rendering of American history an incipient SalaIslamist
activism that introduces a new struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors.
Perhaps due to the United Stateshistorical status as a primary military target
for Islamic radicalism, the scope for reading Islamic dissent sympathetically in
relation to the other Third World liberation movements has historically been
minimized in US contexts. Against a dominant American version of world
history that tends towards either indierence or hostility towards Muslim lib-
eration movements, Mehannas sentencing statement extends the range of
American nonviolence by integrating Islamist dissent into its ethical core.
Mehannas outrage at US-perpetrated injustice in Iraq, Afghanistan, and else-
where in the Muslim world is familiar to any regular reader of the news, but his
endeavor to link his own radicalism with dissident strands in American history
strikes a more unusual note. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Gandhi, many acti-
vists critical of US politics prior to Mehanna have grounded their programs for
political action in genealogies of American dissent. But transpiring as it does in
apost-/ world that constructs Muslims and Americans as antagonists,
Mehannas combination of American dissidence and Muslim activism demands
close attention. Mehannas critique of American imperialism lays a narrative foun-
dation for his status as an American dissident and complicates a US liberalism that
has engaged in only limited ways thus far with Muslim points of view.
For one such use of jihadsee Amina Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad: Womens Reform in
Islam (Oxford: Oneworld, ), as well as below, n. .
Rebecca Ruth Gould
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My discussion of Mehannas case has three goals. First, I bring together the
words and images through which Mehanna engaged with Henry David
Thoreau. Second, I trace the implications of Mehannas merger of Sala
Islamism with this American political thinker for our understanding of
American intellectual history. Third, I consider how the controversies
stirred by Mehannas views and persecution make Thoreauvian modes of
dissent meaningful within a post-/ world. Whereas, read on his own
terms, Thoreaus early writing can be seen to support a withdrawal from pol-
itics, many subsequent engagements with Thoreaus writings have activated
other latent possibilities within his political thinking. In registering the disson-
ance between what Thoreau likely intended and the meaning his words have
since acquired, I clarify their ongoing relevance, as well as their relation to
I will now turn to Mehannas verbal and visual commentaries on his impris-
onment, composed prior to his conviction in , while he was awaiting trial.
Like nearly all prison literature, these texts traverse the threshold of public and
private writing, making a general statement while bearing witness to an inner
struggle. From the prison cell where he was held under solitary connement
from  to , Mehanna gave visual form to his incarceration.
Whereas Mehannas visual work explicitly signals his debt to Thoreau, his sen-
tencing statement only alludes to Thoreau indirectly, through the persona of
abolitionist John Brown (). I will therefore rst discuss Mehannas
handling of Thoreaus early essay on civil disobedience in his art before con-
sidering how Thoreau mediated Mehannas encounter with John Brown in
the sentencing statement.
At the top of Mehannas sketch of life in prison is an inscription consisting
of an extended citation from ThoreausResistance to Civil Government
(), a text which later came to be known to Gandhi, Hannah Arendt,
Martin Luther King Jr., and the many others who have drawn sustenance
from it by the title On Civil Disobedience.
Resistance to Civil
Governmentwas composed in Concord, a mere eighteen miles away from
Sudbury, the town where Mehanna grew up, and only four times further
Resistance to Civil Government,was based on a lecture originally entitled The Rights
and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government(). The essay was rst
called Civil Disobediencein the posthumous edition of Thoreaus writings: A Yankee
in Canada, with Anti-slavery and Reform Papers (). See Nancy Rosenblum,
Introduction,in Henry David Thoreau, Political Writings, ed. Rosenblum (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, ), viixxxi, xii.
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away from Springeld, the town where John Brown launched his abolition
In an early sketch prior to his trial, Mehanna portrayed a tableau consisting
of rows of bricks towering over a prisoner. Grati selectively adorns the
brickssurface. The upper half of one wall is covered with a quotation from
Thoreau, and the manner of inscription evokes Mehannas connement.
Thoreaus words read as follows: I could not help being struck with the fool-
ishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere esh and blood
and bones.
If there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen,
Thoreau continues, there was a still more dicult one to climb or break
through before they could get to be as free as I was.Thoreau had good
reason to minimize his connement, and to stress its limited impact on his
psyche, given that he was only imprisoned for one evening in the local
Concord jail. Mehanna was incarcerated under dierent circumstances, yet
he incorporated Thoreaus words into his grati: I did not for a moment
feel conned, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar
(RCG,). Although he faced a much longer incarceration, Mehannas
kinship with Thoreau is obvious. Their shared tendency to privilege the spir-
itual over the material reects how both thinkers ground their political
thought in religious conviction. The state never intentionally confronts a
mans sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body,Thoreau continues in
Mehannas citation. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with
superior physical strength.The passage famously concludes with a mixture
of deance and a promise of peace: I was not born to be forced. I will
breathe after my own fashion(RCG,). Thoreaus insistence on the sov-
ereignty of his conscience over the materiality of the state was to become a
central platform of Mehannas political theory.
Turning from the words to the image: sticks marking the passage of time
cover the bottom four rows of bricks. A ower blooms above the bricks,
inscribed with the words FREE AAFIA.Mehanna here aligns himself
with Aaa Siddiqui, a Pakistani neurologist currently serving a sentence of
eighty-six years in solitary connement in a Texas prison. The same year
that he was sentenced, Mehanna wrote a short essay in which he recollected
meeting Siddiqui in person. She was a frail, limp, exhausted woman who
could barely hold her own head up straight in a pale blue wheelchair.
The harshness of Siddiquis sentence is due to what her sentencing judge
Henry David Thoreau, Resistance to Civil Government,in Thoreau, Political Writings,
,. Future references to this text are given parenthetically in the text, with the abbre-
viation RCG.
Tarek Mehanna, The Aaa Siddiqui I Saw,in Dr. Aaa Siddiqui: Other Voices (Silver
Springs, MD: Peace Thru Justice Foundation, ), .
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called enhancementsfor, among other things, terrorism. Siddiqui was con-
victed of attempting to kill her US interrogators when she was detained for
questioning in Afghanistan.
Taken from her Pakistan residence and arrested
in , Siddiqui was convicted in .
While media coverage has focussed
on alleged ties to al Qaeda, the attempted murder for which Siddiqui was con-
victed is unrelated to such allegations. Aaa has acquired iconic statusin
some parts of the Muslim world as an exemplar of the hypocrisies of the
US-led war on terror.
Her case has received considerable media attention
in Pakistan especially, and continues to strain USPakistan relations. In
incorporating Aaas story into his tableau of prison life, Mehanna aliates
himself with a transnational network of Islamist political prisoners who are
incarcerated for their thoughts, publications, translations, and comments on
internet forums.
To return to Mehannas image: completing the visualization of arbitrary
justice, Aaas name is topped with the Arabic letters (la ilaha ila l-
Lah), meaning There is no God but God,the Islamic confession of faith.
To the right of these words is a poster, partially obscured by the frame, which
YOUR HUMANITY.Beneath this sign, as if to negate the directive above
it, block letters spell the word NEVER. These words develop the Thoreauvian
insistence on the sovereignty of the individual conscience over any nations
law. In a passage which Mehanna no doubt applied to his own situation,
Thoreau called on the state to recognize the individual as a higher and independ-
ent power from which all its own power and authorityare derived(RCG,).
When he insists on the absolute prerogative of the individual over the state,
Mehanna is inuenced as much by Thoreaus articulation of this prerogative
as by the Muslim sources he cites at length in his social-media posts.
Two rows below the quotation from Thoreau, a pair of outstretched hands
reach towards a Quran. The sacred text is labeled as such in Arabic and
English. To the left of these images are six prison bars (Figure ). When
viewed together, the bars and the image at the bottom of three columns of
stars and a white blotch trace, in purple and white lines, the US ag. The
image of the ag captures the paradox Mehanna seeks to expose: the
American Republic, created to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of
A chronology is given in Middle East Journal,,(),  and ,(), .
For a collection of accounts of what is known about Siddiquis case see the articles listed by
the New York Times at
Declan Walsh, The Mystery of Dr Aaa Siddiqui,The Guardian, Nov. ,atwww./nov//aaa-siddiqui-al-qaida.
See the ocial Facebook page at
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Figure . Mehannas prison sketch ().
 Rebecca Ruth Gould
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happiness, is now actively undermining these commitments by persecuting the
free speech of its Muslim citizens.
Mehannas verbal solidarity with Aaa is reinforced by a second sketch,
entitled Tribute to Aaa(Figure ). The male and female believers are
allies [awliya] of one another(al-Tawbah :), reads the inscription
along the top. Although the rst citation alludes to a suggestion of gender
equality, the Quranic citation beneath those words reinforces patriarchal
dierence: Men are the protectors and maintainers of women(al-Nisa
:). Both citations are given in Arabic, followed by English translation.
The rst quotation participates in a growing trend within American Islam
to bring transnational feminism into conversation with Muslim learning,
while the second reinstates a patriarchal hierarchy.
Like the ag that adorns the bottom right corner of the sketch, representing
the persecution of Muslim Americans, Mehannas citations serve a dual
purpose: they protest injustice while appropriating a history of American
dissent. In her exegesis of Thoreaus political theory, political theorist Leigh
Jenco documents how, carried to its logical conclusion, Thoreaus political
theory could be seen to underwrite a withdrawal from the political realm.
While for Thoreau physical coercion is both necessary and sucient for
the enforcement of political obligations,writes Jenco, the states reversion
to force is at odds with the holistically perceived higher law that grounds
Thoreaus moral duty.
When Mehanna uses Thoreau to advocate a civil
disobedience that privileges the individual over the masses as the locus of pol-
itical protest, he adapts this form of dissent to a Muslim American reality,
through a process that transforms both elements in this compound identity.
This individualist orientation brings Mehanna even closer to Thoreaus con-
ception of civil resistance than the more collectively focussed forms of civil dis-
obedience articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. In the passage
cited by Mehanna, Thoreau argues that no coercion from the state can over-
ride the individuals ethical prerogative. Unlike Thoreau, King regards the
resistant body as a primary locus of political resistance. By contrast, Thoreau
and Mehanna focus on the work of the individual conscience in critiquing
the state. Their shared rejection of the states claims to legitimacy aligns
Mehanna to Thoreau and contrasts with the collectivism of King and other
civil rights activists.
See, for example, Asma Barlas, Believing Womenin Islam: Unreading Patriarchal
Interpretations of the Quran (Austin: University of Texas Press, ).
Leigh Kathryn Jenco, Thoreaus Critique of Democracy,Review of Politics,,(),
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Thoreau memorably wrote in the essay quoted by Mehanna, law never
made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the
well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice(RCG,). Thoreaus
insistence on the ethical limits of the law nds its way directly into
Figure . Mehanna, Tribute to Aaa.
 Rebecca Ruth Gould
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Mehannas political thought, which converges and stands in tension with
older currents within Islamic thought that similarly validate a higher law,
shariʿa. Although classically shariʿadenoted a form of law that incorporated
all aspects of human existence, for most modern Muslims shariʿasignies pri-
marily a spiritual resource, a connection with God, and a way to discipline the
inner self.
Mehanna is troubled by what Hallaq refers to as the eviscer-
ationof shariʿain modernity, wherein it has come to reference a primarily
private realm. Like many Salas, and Islamic modernists generally, he wishes
to situate shariʿamore publicly, such that it can ground political decisions
and thinking. Yet, as Hallaq also recognizes, any attempt to modernize
shariʿain this way is fraught with contradiction, because Islamic law originally
developed in a world that thought dierently about the relation between
public and private spheres.
Whereas in classical Islamic thought the individ-
ual conscience lacks sovereignty, it plays a more decisive role within
Thoreauvian political theory, and in most strands of American political
thought that have developed from this beginning.
Mehannas dialogue
between Salasm and Thoreauvian political theory transpires within this
this maze of contradictions.
Against this analogy between American transcendentalism and Mehannas
Salamodernism, it might be objected that Thoreau did not directly endorse
violence (although he did endorse a perpetrator of violence, John Brown). On
these grounds, Mehannas use of Thoreau to elaborate his version of justice
might be seen as a selective interpretation. It is true that Resistance to
Civil Governmentpresents a largely negative account of political action,
and dwells more concretely on the dangers of acting wrongly than on the
means and strategies for acting rightly. Additionally, and arguably in contradis-
tinction to Mehanna, Thoreau defends the legitimacy of avoiding politics tout
court. Thoreau states,
It is not a mans duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any,
even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage
him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought
longer, not to give it practically his support. (RCG,)
Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernitys Moral Predicament
(New York: Columbia University Press, ), x.
See Talal Asad, Thinking about Secularism and Law in Egypt (Leiden: International
Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, ).
I do not intend to suggest that classical Islamic thought has nothing to say about the indi-
vidual conscience, just that there is a dierence in emphasis, and that Thoreau, rather than
Islam, is closest to Mehanna in terms of his approach. For a discussion of the individual con-
science in Islam grounded in classical sources see M. Mujeeb, The Status of Individual
Conscience in Islam,Studies in Islam,,(), .
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While not an explicit rejection of violence or of direct political action, this
passage can be read as a justication for withdrawal from the political realm.
However, Thoreaus vision of the appropriate grounds for political action
should inform our understanding of the circumstances under which this
essay was composed, including the night Thoreau spent in jail for his civil dis-
obedience. Thoreau acted without drawing attention to his dissidence. It is
legitimate to avoid politics, Thoreau believed, so long as this avoidance does
not increase anotherssuering. Paying a poll tax to support an unjust war,
in this case the MexicanAmerican War (), as the US government
required him to do, was for Thoreau unconscionable.
The ideology underlying Mehannas controversial views on violence also
echoes the actions of another crusader against US-perpetrated injustice
whom Thoreau, more than any other American writer, memorialized: the abo-
litionist John Brown. More than  years after his death, Brown remains a
controversial hero. His ethics of bloodshed, like Mehannas, leave little
room for mercy. Browns legacy closely parallels that of Mehanna, not least
because of the links between his Christian fundamentalism and Mehannas
Salasm. Brown famously led a violent slave uprising at Harpers Ferry in
, and was soon afterwards publicly hung. Like Mehanna, Brown endorsed
violence as a means of resisting extreme injustice. Prior to leading the slave
rebellion in Harpers Ferry, Brown oversaw the killing of ve white settlers
in the slave-owning settlement of Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas.
it was for his organization of the uprising, rather than for these murders,
that Brown was hung; the former was considered action against the state
and therefore subject to capital punishment.) Mehanna stands accused of no
such violent crime. Both activists, however, share a concern with social
justice, and believe that attaining social justice may require violence,
whether exercised by them or by others. Mehannas explicit identication
with Thoreau in his sketch and with Brown in his sentencing statement
further links the two gures.
On  October , one day before the jurys sentence of death by hanging
for Brown, Thoreau mounted the platform of the town hall in Concord,
For further on Thoreaus support of political activism in relation to his skepticism towards
politics see Jonathan Mckenzie, How to Mind Your Own Business: Thoreau on Political
Indierence,New England Quarterly,,(), .
Zoe Trodd, Writ in Blood: John Browns Charter of Humanity, the Tribunal of History,
and the Thick Link of American Political Protest,Journal for the Study of Radicalism,,
(), ,.
 Rebecca Ruth Gould
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Massachusetts to deliver the speech called A Plea for John Brown.In this
and in a later essay written for Browns memorial service, Thoreau discussed
Browns rebellion as a revolution in behalf of another and an oppressed
Thoreaus endorsement of Browns raid indicates an evolution in
his thinking about violence and nonviolence beyond his earlier essay of
, and reveals common ground between Thoreauvian political theory
and Muslim militancy. As Turner suggests in his reading of Thoreau, conjoin-
ing aesthetic and legal theory can make of civil (or uncivil) disobedience a
public statement through the artistic re-creation of the act of refusal and
public meditation on its signicance.
Stated otherwise, Thoreau and
Mehanna made their private consciences publicly political through their
words and images.
Although Thoreau and Brown parted ways on many substantive issues,
Thoreaus memorialization of Brown and his eorts to save him from execu-
tion reveal an important dimension of his intellectual agenda. Thoreau praises
Brown as a superior manwho did not value his bodily life in comparison
with ideal things(PJB,). The ideal dissident, in Thoreaus understand-
ing, is willing to lay down his life for his beliefs. Thoreau also praises Brown for
recognizing that the individual is the equal of any and all governments
(PJB,). Revealing a kinship with Browns Calvinism, Thoreau implicitly
acknowledges that there are occasions when violence is the only legitimate and
viable form of resistance.
In maintaining that individual conscience will
ultimately prevail over the states violence, Thoreau and Mehanna cultivate
a sovereign human conscience, which they consider more ecacious than
bodily protest. Thoreau refers to this conscience as the higher law; for
Mehanna, it is shariʿa. For both, this ethical hierarchy denes their respective
positions within the American dissident tradition. The respective distance of
Mehanna and Thoreau from the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King
Jr. regarding the ecacy of nonviolence is linked to their greater openness to
violence and, ultimately, to their more militant politics.
Browns concept of the sovereignty of the individual conscience was
observed and appreciated by Emerson as well, following the formers visit to
Henry David Thoreau, A Plea for John Brown(), in Thoreau, Political Writings,
; and Thoreau, The Last Days of John Brown(), in ibid., . Future
references to these essays are given parenthetically in the text, with the abbreviations
Jack Turner, Performing Conscience: Thoreau, Political Action and the Pleas for John
Brown,Political Theory,,(), ,.
For a suggestive account of the political dimensions of New England Puritanism that
informs this reading of Thoreau and Brown see Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the
Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, ).
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Concord on a lecture tour. According to Emerson, Brown believed that one
good, believing, strong-minded man is worth a hundred, nay twenty thousand
men without character, and that the right men would give a permanent direc-
tion to the fortunes of a state.
Neither Thoreau nor Emerson dwelt on their
substantive divergences from Brown, and equally, neither advocated violence.
Their support of Brown was strategic: they saw it as a means of bringing slavery
to an end, and of forestalling and delegitimizing Browns execution. As
Truman John Nelson notes, the chronology of Thoreaus stand for Brown
ought to inform its interpretation: it took place before Brown had had his
day in court and inevitably made his death a martyrdom.
In defending
Brown, Thoreau was also defending the principle of innocent until proven
guilty,and asserting his right to defend unpopular voices in the name of
justice. It was an alliance forged from adversity. Yet a century and a half
later, parallels between Thoreaus approach to violence and militant social-
justice agendas like Mehannas are increasingly evident.
Brown insisted that any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a
majority of one(RCG,). All three thinkers Thoreau, Brown, and
Mehanna vest their faith in the sovereignty of the individual. From their
point of view, even one righteous person who practices justice is adequate to
shift the balance of right and wrong. Brown raided a US government
arsenal with only twenty-one men in his battalion,yet persuaded that his
cause would triumph. Thoreau viewed with contempt the pragmatism of his
contemporaries, who judged Brown crazy. In a speech he read at Browns
funeral, Thoreau pointed out that if Brown had gone with ve thousand
men, liberated a thousand slaves, killed a hundred or two slaveholders, and
had as many more killed on his own side, but not lost his own life, these
same editors would have called [his rebellion] by a more respectable name
(LDJB,). Browns willingness to live and to die for a cause in
deance of mainstream liberal politics gives the dissident spiritual leverage
over the state responsible for his incarceration. In Thoreaus view, this spiritual
prerogative (which he calls the higher law,anticipating Mehannas concep-
tion of shariʿa) is the source of the dissidents power. Mehannas writings
from prison rely heavily on this concept of an individual conscience acting
upon a higher law.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, , Volume IX, ed.
Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (Boston and New York: Houghton
Miin Company, ), .
Truman John Nelson, Thoreau and John Brown,in The Truman Nelson Reader, ed.
William John Schafer (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, ), ,,
original emphasis.
 Rebecca Ruth Gould
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In defending Browns character, Thoreau compares him with the American
revolutionaries of , expressing the same admiration that Mehanna felt for
gures like Paul Revere. Whereas the  Revolutionaries could bravely face
their countrys foes,Brown had the courage to face his country herself, when
she was in the wrong(PJB,). As Turner notes, What Thoreau most
admires about Brown is his willingness to hold not simply Americas enemies
to moral account, but America itself.
Thoreaus own practice of holding
America to account no doubt served as a model for Mehanna, who also
cited US violence as a basis for his opposition to his government. His senten-
cing statement referenced the massacre perpetrated by Sergeant Robert Bales,
who killed sixteen Afghan women and children while on a tour of duty in
Kandahar in .When Sgt. Bales shot those Afghans to death,stated
Mehanna, all of the focus in the media was on him his life, his stress, his
PTSD, the mortgage on his home as if he was the victim. Very little sym-
pathy was expressed for the people he actually killed.Controversially, Bales
was tried in a military court in the United States, rather than in
Afghanistan, among those who most directly suered from his crime. Bales
was sentenced to life in prison, without parole.
Mehannas sentencing statement contains other allusions to Thoreau, par-
ticularly to the latters writing on John Brown. For example, Thoreau insisted
that Brown could not have been tried by a jury of his peers because his peers
did not exist(PJB,). Similarly, Mehanna follows his discussion of Bales
in the sentencing statement with the claim that the medias biases imperil the
integrity of the justice system, making it impossible for a jury to deliver a just
verdict. I wasnt tried before a jury of my peers,Mehanna states, because
with the mentality gripping America today, I have no peers. Counting on
this fact, the government prosecuted me not because they needed to, but
simply because they could(emphasis added). Mehanna here compares his
own prosecution to that of John Brown, as ltered through Thoreaus writ-
ings. Implicating Thoreau in this conversation introduces a new dimension.
Both Mehanna and Brown openly advocate violence in ways Thoreau did
not, and both do so on religious grounds. Each dissident regards his conscience
as sovereign. They thereby elevate their political convictions and chosen faith
Turner, .
For a discussion of Baless case from the point of view of legal theory see Michael D. Smith,
Mapping the Geolegalities of the Afghanistan Intervention,in Irus Braverman,
Nicholas Blomley, David Delaney, and Alexandre Kedar, eds., The Expanding Spaces of
Law: A Timely Legal Geography (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, ),
. Bales has recently accounted for his actions in an interview for GQ with
Brenden Vaughn: Robert Bales Speaks: Confessions of Americas Most Notorious War
Criminal,at, accessed 
Nov. .
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over the laws of the state, which for them is based on precarious ethical
Resistance to Civil Governmentwas not the only work in which Thoreau
set forth his views on the conditions under which rebellion against the state is
both legitimate and necessary. Ten years after delivering Resistance to Civil
Governmentto the Concord community, Thoreau called an assembly in
Concords town hall to plead for John Brown. He had been disturbed by
reports that, following Browns raid, some of his Massachusetts neighbors
had begun to advocate for his execution. Thoreau was determined to
contest their vilications. As his biographer reports, Thoreau was instantly,
totally caught up in the passion of the momentand decided to make a
public speech to right the imbalanceof the public sentiment that was
turning against Brown.
He rang the bell himself to call the meeting to
order when the towns selectman whose job it was to ring the bell for such
meetings refused. Thoreau then proceeded to oer a plea to his neighbors,
not, as he claried, in the hopes of saving his subjects life, which, as any
realist could have seen, was already forfeited, but rather for the sake of
saving Brownscharacter, his immortal life(PJB,).
Compared to his speech on Brown at Concords town hall, Thoreaus
earlier refusal to pay the poll tax to fund the MexicanAmerican War was a
passive act of resistance. Thoreau was only jailed because of his unintended
encounter with a tax collector. Although Thoreau acted with political convic-
tion, his journey to jail was not intentional; nor was his release, which was
secured by a friend who paid his taxes on his behalf. The political implications
of such passive action are limited; waiting for specic circumstances is obvi-
ously not the most eective way of overturning existing political norms.
By contrast, Thoreaus plea for John Brown was an act of mobilization.
Thoreaus attempt to persuade his neighbors of the justness of Browns
cause was possibly his most political act. Not yet a theory of violence,
ThoreausPlea for John Brownis a program for revolutionary political
action. It proposes to overturn the existing social order, however gradually.
While Resistance to Civil Governmentargues that every citizen is obliged
to avoid perpetuating evil through nonviolent means, by , in a state of
mounting frustration over the continuation of slavery, Thoreau was ready
to acknowledge that under the right circumstances, political violence may be
legitimate and necessary for combating injustice.
Not everyone is obliged to engage in political violence, but when conscience
dictates and when the cause is just, Thoreau accepts this form of dissent. While
Robert D. Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of
California Press, ), .
 Rebecca Ruth Gould
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praising Browns character, Thoreau reects on the appropriate scope of pol-
itical action, including the conditions under which violence is justied. It was
[Browns] peculiar doctrine,Thoreau writes, that a man has a perfect right
to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree
with him(PJB,). This acknowledgment that force is legitimate under
certain conditions highlights an unresolved ambiguity in Thoreaus concept of
civil disobedience, which in part accounts for its range of appropriations, from
the pacism of Tolstoy and Gandhi to the militancy of Mehanna.
The strat-
egy Thoreau followed when he refused to pay the poll tax did not exhaust the
range of legitimate political options. Political theorists who treat Thoreau as
primarily or exclusively a theorist of nonviolence miss these incendiary dimen-
sions of his political thought. Thoreaus ambivalence towards violence (more
than his more publicized rejection of it) is part of what makes him relevant to
Mehanna, who came of age in a country that, with respect to conicts in the
Middle East, had demonstrated a preference for short-term violence over a
longer-term quest for peace.
Four months before his conviction, Mehanna circulated a series of quota-
tions he had been collecting on the topics of violence, terrorism, freedom,
the law, and prison. He had extracted these quotations from the writings
and speeches of Malcolm X, Howard Zinn, Robert Fisk, Usama bin Laden,
Sayyid Qutb, and Thoreau, indicating his source in each case. This is an eclec-
tic but carefully selected list; US radicalism and Islamic dissent are closely
intertwined in Mehannas thinking. Mehanna prefaced the collection with
the remark that the quotations were selected from various books I have
with me in my cell that I feel to be relevant to my trial in one way or
One of the Malcolm X quotations directly touches on the legitim-
acy of violence: I dont go along with anyone who wants to teach our people
nonviolence until someone at the same time is teaching our enemy to be non-
Although Thoreau is typically remembered as a pacist who
retreated to his home by Walden Pond instead of entering the political
arena, the militancy expressed in his writings and speeches on Brown directly
anticipates Mehannas approach to violence against the state.
Gandhi, for example, claimed that until I read that essay I never found a suitable English
translation for my Indian word, Satyagraha There is no doubt that Thoreaus ideas
greatly inuenced my movement in India.Quoted in George Henrick, Inuence of
Thoreau and Emerson on GandhisSatyagraha,Gandhi Marg, July ,,.
Tarek Mehanna: A Selection of Timely Quotes,at
///tarek-mehanna-a-selection-of-timely-quotes, accessed  Nov. .
Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary (New York: Pathnder, ), .
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While its Islamic inection is obvious, Mehannas thinking opens a new
chapter in the intellectual history of American radicalism. As Mehanna
insisted in his sentencing statement, Its because of America that I am who
Iam.This text, which is destined to become a foundational document
within the history of American Islam, integrates a Muslim American identity
into the American project. Emma Goldman, Anne Frank, and Nelson
Mandela all feature as predecessors for Mehannas conception of political
action. Mehannas approach is characterized above all by syncretism, and his
insistence on the sovereignty of the individual conscience over the laws of
the state is distinctively Thoreauvian. Indeed, Mehanna arms that he
gleaned his eclectic dissident history from his public education, and under-
scores that his worldview looks beyond his specic religion. With each strug-
gle I learned about,he recounts, I found myself consistently siding with the
oppressed, and consistently respecting those who stepped up to defend them
regardless of nationality, regardless of religion(emphasis added).
When, in , Mehanna was awarded the Sacco and Vanzetti Social Justice
Award by the Community Church of Boston, named for Nicola Sacco and
Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian-born anarchist immigrants who were wrong-
fully convicted for murder and electrocuted in , the award committee
implicitly linked his Muslim activism to the history of American radicalism.
The Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society made the link explicit when
they published a speech by Laila Murad of the Tarek Mehanna Defense
Committee on their website entitled Yesterday Sacco and Vanzetti; Now
Tarek Mehanna.
Mehannas eclectic dissident genealogy, combined with his belief that soli-
darity along the lines of class, race, and conviction runs even deeper than reli-
gious aliation, is one version of a distinctive yet heterogeneous American
Islam that is increasingly visible within American culture, albeit in undertheor-
ized ways.
While Mehannas Salainterpretation of classical sources is but
Sara Mulkeen, Sudbury Man Convicted on Terrorism Charges Receives Award,MetroWest
Daily News,Jan. ,/Sudbury-
man-convicted-on-terrorism-charges-receives-award#ixzzHMQPaHQ. For the Sacco and
Vanzetti case and background see Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist
Background (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, ).
See. The speech was delivered in
Boston on  Aug. .
Studies that showcase the diversity of American Islam include Zareena Grewal, Islam Is a
Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (New York:
New York University Press, ); and many of the essays in Juliane Hammer and
Omid Sa, eds., The Cambridge Companion to American Islam (New York: Cambridge
University Press, ).
 Rebecca Ruth Gould
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one of many voices in the diverse confessional landscape of contemporary
Islam, his persecution by US authorities is the prism through which many
American Muslims have come to experience what Thoreau called, with
more than a small dose of irony, our civil government.
One of the more eloquent testimonies to what Egyptian American writer
Leila Ahmed has called the quiet revolutionof American Islam is the com-
mencement address delivered to Harvards graduating class of  by then-
senior and president of Harvards Islamic society Zayed Yasin. In a speech
boldly entitled My American Jihad,for which Yasin received a death
threat purely on the basis of its title before the text of the speech was released,
the Muslim American informed Harvards graduating class of his personal
aection for both the Quran and the US Constitution. Yasins title was
chosen in order to reclaim the original meaning of jihad as spiritual struggle
from later, more militant, interpretations.
As a Muslim and as an
American,stated Yasin, I am commanded to stand up for the protection
of life and liberty, to serve the poor and the weak, to celebrate the diversity
of humankind.
Yasin added that no combination of faith, culture and
nationality [that endorses] a community of the human spiritcould see a
contradictionbetween the ethical claims of the US Constitution and the
Quran. A similar reclamation of the word jihadoccurs in Linda Sarsours
keynote speech at the Islamic Society of North America convention in
, which was rapidly picked up by the conservative media as posing a ter-
rorist threat.
Although Mehanna struck a dierent balance between Islamic
dissent and American radicalism that brought him closer to the violent aboli-
tionism of John Brown, each of these examples reveals Muslim Americans
bringing Americanand Islaminto a new kind of union. From the perspec-
tive of American history, and of the history of Islam in America, it is notable
that Mehanna and Yasin are exact contemporaries, both born in .
For the controversy preceding the speech see, among numerous media sources, Free Speech:
Testing,Harvard Magazine, JulyAug. ,,.
Cited and discussed in Leila Ahmed, A Quiet Revolution (New Haven, CT and London:
Yale University Press, ), . The full text of the speech is reprinted, under the
changed title Of Faith and Citizenship,in the Harvard Magazine, JulyAug. ,,
and at//of-faith-and-citizenship.html.
Samantha Schmidt, Muslim Activist Linda Sarsours Reference to JihadDraws
Conservative Wrath,Washington Post,July ,
servative-wrath/?utm_term=.beba. The fteen-year gap between these two
example, both of which caused tremendous controversy and placed the speakers in grave
danger, indicates that, unfortunately, no progress has been made in terms of educating
the general American public regarding the meaning of jihad.
Punishing Violent Thoughts 
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The foregoing is not intended to suggest that Mehannas views ought to be
embraced. Mehannas uncritical relation to many aspects of the Muslim trad-
ition is worth noting, as is his lack of interest in recognizing the contingency of
the historical and political processes through which his readings of classical
Islamic sources have been formed. Many commentators have made these
points, from both secular and Muslim perspectives, have recognized the con-
tingency of these processes within their broader analyses of Salasm.
Mehanna endorsed violence, often uncritically, in ways that are not clearly
aligned with Islam and that have broader social-justice implications.
example, during the trial, the jurors were presented with a photo of
Mehanna celebrating with friends in front of Ground Zero. Although such
visual evidence can be interpreted in many ways, the prosecutor used this
material to argue that Mehanna took an infantile delight in the deaths of
the victims of the World Trade Center attack.
It is dicult to determine
where to situate such anecdotal detail within Mehannas broader political
thinking, yet such evidence places him at a distance from Brown, whose nobil-
ity of character was such that, in Thoreaus words, in teaching us how to die
he taught us how to live(LDJB,).
A civil society such as the one Thoreau advocated for must guarantee the
right to dissent from the political mainstream without risk of imprisonment.
I have reserved my critique of Mehannas embrace of violence in order to
better understand his position within the history of American dissent that
was largely founded by Thoreau and the abolitionists. Mehannas case is
one of many that reveals how the US justice systems cooptation by the war
on terror has shifted the jurisdiction of the state and rearranged relations
between public and private spheres. This cooptation has also exposed tensions
internal to the liberal political imagination, which claims to be grounded in
tolerance yet all too frequently refuses to give its opponents space for free
expression when irresolvable antagonisms shape public debate.
Many recent studies contribute to various lines of critique, including Henri Lauzière, The
Making of Salasm: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia
University Press, ); Alexander Thurston, Salasm in Nigeria (New York: Cambridge
University Press, ); Joas Wagemakers, Salasm in Jordan: Political Islam in a Quietist
Community (New York: Cambridge University Press, ); and Laurent Bonnefoy,
Salasm in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, ).
See, for example, his appeal to Osama bin Laden as my real father,discussed in Innokenty
Pyetranker, Sharing Translations or Supporting Terror? An Analysis of Tarek Mehanna in
the Aftermath of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project,American University National
Security Law Brief,,(), ,.
United States v. Mehanna, day ,, cited in Brown, Notes on a Terrorism Trial,.
In support of this point see the important critique of tolerance by Wendy Brown, Tolerance
in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, ).
 Rebecca Ruth Gould
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Instead of imprisoning those we disagree with, let me conclude by oering
an alternative, drawn from a dierent intellectual tradition than that invoked
thus far. In place of the classical liberal attempt to eradicate dierence through
John Rawlss concept of overlapping consensus, political theorist Chantal
Moue proposes agonistic pluralismas a framework wherein conicts
can take the form of an agonistic confrontation among adversaries.
Agonistic pluralism turns antagonism into agonism, and violence into dis-
agreement. Violence does not thereby disappear, but it is mediated, debated,
and engaged, and thereby made consistent with coexistence. Agonistic plural-
ism incentivizes democratic speech and neutralizes the appeal of violence. This
framework for managing radically opposed points of view approaches ideo-
logical dierence in a way that keeps these dierences in tension rather than
suppressing or privileging a single point of view. Hence agonistic pluralism
is eminently suited to managing the tensions that Mehannas American-
style Salasm would necessarily create within any diverse liberal society, such
as the contemporary US. Moues agonistic pluralism oers a more promising
strategy for engaging with political and religious ideologies that are hostile to
the state than does the post-/ legal systems practice of preemptively crim-
inalizing, and incarcerating, dissent.
Mehannas objections to US actions abroad call for debate. In the absence
of incitement to violence, incarceration is counterproductive. The moral chal-
lenges posed by the bombing of Iraq, Afghanistan, and even (via drones)
Pakistan, as well as the war on terror within US borders, oer a parallel in
certain respects the moral challenge posed by slavery in the nineteenth
century. Thoreau made clear that he perceived violence as the best course of
action in response to slavery in , and thereby revealed a potential alia-
tion between his political theory and Mehannas jihadist embrace of violence.
As at the height of slavery, the public remains by and large passive in the face of
their governments excessive use of force. Now, as then, the majority prefers a
problematic status quo to an uncertain peace. Now, as then, there are many
reasons why an impassioned activist might become impatient with nonviolent
protest, and might be persuaded of the necessity of violent action.
I have undertaken to show how, notwithstanding his alienation from, and
persecution by, the United States, Tarek Mehanna denes himself as an
American dissident. His intellectual genealogy began in Boston rather than
Egypt, and was rst awakened by reading Harriet Beecher Stowe, Malcolm
X, and J. D. Salinger rather than ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood
such as Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna. Mehannas many frames of refer-
ence recalibrate existing alignments between various schools of political
Chantal Moue, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, ), .
Punishing Violent Thoughts 
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thought and various cultural traditions. That Mehannas relation to violence is
uncritical is a weakness in his thought, but it is not a crime. Mehanna speaks
from within an American cultural milieu because he is American. Given
Thoreaus description of John Brown as the most American of us all
because he stood up for the dignity of human nature(PJB,), it is
easy to see why Mehanna chose to juxtapose Thoreaus essays to the Quran
when sketching the view from his prison cell.
Scholars within American studies and beyond have recognized that the
global circulation of knowledge requires us to become acquainted with an
increasingly innumerable number of archivesformerly excluded from
purview in order to plumb the relevance even of such canonical texts as the
essays of Henry David Thoreau.
In the wake of this global turn, which
shapes our disciplines as well as our daily lives, Thoreaus writings enable us
to examine how terrorism has changed the ways we write and think about pol-
itical dissent. Mehannas visual and verbal exegesis of Thoreau, and his inser-
tion of a Muslim voice into American history, tell us much about the potential
for cross-confessional solidarity in post-/ America to reconstruct a broader
political agenda. To make these claims for the importance of Mehannas voice,
and the wrongfulness of his imprisonment, is not to defend any ideology that
condones violence. Violence is indeed the weak spot in Mehannas extant
work, and he has not oered an adequate statement regarding his views,
which may of course have evolved since . Instead of dwelling on the
limits of his thought, I have sought here to demonstrate how this body of
work helps us move beyond empty polarities that oppose Islam to the West,
and recognize the conuence of beliefs, cultures, and ideologies that informs
post-/ America, notwithstanding the many violent attempts from the
highest echelons of power to undermine our diversity.
Rebecca Gould is a Professor of the Islamic World and Comparative Literatures at the
University of Birmingham. Her books include Writers and Rebels: The Literatures of
Insurgency in the Caucasus (), After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other
Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (), and The Prose of the Mountains: Tales of the Caucasus
(). I wish to thank Elizabeth Gould for editorial assistance in preparing this article.
Brian T. Edwards, The World, the Text, and the Americanist,American Literary History,
,(), ,.
 Rebecca Ruth Gould
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... 87 While freedom of expression laws have been used disproportionately to protect Islamophobic speech, Muslims have been systematically punished under anti-terrorism legislation for a range of thought crimes. 88 These examples illustrate how laws that appear to have universalist application are in practice applied only for very particular ends. The rule of law is premised on the idea of equality, but this justice is delivered in social contexts structured by hierarchies intrinsic to the uneven logic of neoliberal capitalism. ...
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We have entered a period of time when the meanings attached to the US in the world have shifted decisively. In the Middle East and North Africa, there is widespread distrust of American imperial intentions. As the global economic crisis persists, the US economy has entered what some prominent economists have called its “autumn,” a putative decline from its apex during the twentieth century.1 During the exciting winter and spring of 2011, a wave of global protests for democracy in the Arab world did not look to American models for sustenance or inspiration. Indeed, members of an apparently spontaneous movement in the US, Occupy Wall Street and its many affiliates, avowed that they had looked to the Middle East for their own inspiration.2 Many, if not all, of the sustaining principles that Americans have held dear through the last half of the twentieth century have been questioned—and no longer on the margins of the left, but at the heart of American public discourse. Meanwhile, the world is experiencing the most profound technological revolution since that which rocked the late eighteenth century, another time of global transformation. The digital age has affected individuals across the globe, from those born in the twenty-first century to those from generations who remember the days before the smart phone, the Internet, or even the microcomputer. The ability to connect with people, via cell phones or social networking sites, personally or tens of thousands at a time, has changed our very sense of what it means to be an individual connected to larger communities—whether local, national, or global, and whether real or imagined. This change is more than practical—it is epistemological, changing our very way of knowing: how we know what we know. In Iran, a vibrant blogosphere has emerged among 36.5 million Internet users, nearly 47% of Iran’s population in March 2011.3 India recently surpassed 100 million Internet users and is predicted to overtake the American presence on the Internet in just two or three years.4 As with the last technological revolution, the links between new tools and the spread of ideas are intimate. Acceleration is the rule. Despite an increasing acceptance that the conditions within which individuals engage American literature and the world in which it circulates have changed profoundly (if not fundamentally), much of the field of American literary studies remains committed to an anachronistic set of reading practices. The great tradition of placing texts produced in and about the US (or by individuals marked as, or calling themselves, Americans) in deep conversation with their historical contexts and the social worlds or publics they engage has constructed a formidable framework. Yet that critical structure has outlasted the conditions within which it was created. Despite its attractiveness and the compelling readings it still is capable of producing, it leads us away from a more supple appreciation of ways in which the multiple conditions of globalization, on both local and international levels, set a fundamentally different encounter between text and world. Though many scholars have advocated a transnational approach to American studies, brilliantly critiqued the exceptionalism at the heart of the Americanist enterprise, and embraced hemispheric and other spatially conceived international approaches to American literary studies, the problem persists when attention to the logics and contexts of circulation is not brought back to our methods of reading.5 The question is what we do with our carefully historicized readings of American literature when the conditions for their circulation and within which they address a reading or viewing public have altered so profoundly. My contention is that American studies’ historicization, perhaps its most defining characteristic, by necessity draws boundaries around texts—and the communities and spaces and temporalities they depict and address—making crucial decisions, sometimes implicitly or even unconsciously, about what is in bounds and what is out of bounds. But an awareness of the transnational, digitally enabled circulation of such texts shatters the presumption of careful historicization because an innumerable number of archives and contexts are now required to place a text in its context. Even when these archives are so large as to defy careful historicization and contextualization, they fundamentally alter the premise...
This note examines the history of the right to free speech during wartime and the Material Support Statute in the War on Terror through the lens of the conviction of Tarek Mehanna. After examining the effect of the Material Support Statute on the right to free speech, this note will argue that a new incitement standard should be developed for speech which provides support for terrorism.
This is the Table of Contents, Introduction, and Chapters 1 and 2 of my forthcoming book, which is entitled "The Cosmopolitan First Amendment: Protecting Transborder Expressive and Religious Liberties" (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press). The book examines the relationship between the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and international borders. In contrast to more traditional and provincial accounts, it reveals a First Amendment that is critical to robust cross-border conversation and commingling and the global spread of democratic principles, protective of expressive and religious liberties regardless of location, influential across the world despite its exceptionalist character, and a core justification for respectful engagement with the liberty regimes of other nations. This more cosmopolitan First Amendment is the product of an array of social, historical, political, technological, and legal developments. Its principles and justifications are examined through analysis of the First Amendment’s relationship to foreign travel, immigration, cross-border communication and association, religious activities that traverse international borders, the conduct of international affairs and diplomacy, and conflicts between foreign and U.S. speech and religious liberty models.