Friday, September 26, 2008

The Holy Land Foundation (re)Trial. THE PROSECUTION: OUR UNALIENABLE RIGHTS UNDER ATTACK (I pray that my Christian Sisters and Brothers take heed)

The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate . . . (concluded below).

I grossly understate the obvious: In the Middle East, just as in the United States, tensions mount from time to time between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims.

Atef Shafik is a senior language analyst for the FBI. He is an Egyptian-American, a Coptic Christian. His testimony in the trial concerned the methodology of translating the years of telephone conversations among the defendants and their colleagues and families (he surely knows every time Mr. Baker took his daughter to the doctor and every time Mr. Abdulqader met with Dallas Mayor Laura Miller).

The prosecution tried to bring into Mr. Shafik’s testimony blatantly un-American aspects of his personal prejudices and angry beliefs. They wanted permission to prompt him to say that when a Muslim uses religious phrases in speech—As God wills it; In the name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful; Peace be Upon You; Praise be to God—he is using code phrases of “Islamism.” Mr. Shafik believes that such religious expressions mean the speaker is fomenting terrorism and ultimately working for the obliteration of Israel (and presumably the United States). The judge disallowed this line of testimony—for now.

However, the prosecution brought into his testimony (inadvertently and largely unnoticed) Mr. Shafik's own impeachment of his own expertise as a witness: that he relies on internet searches and newspapers for the formation of his opinions and his understanding of the defendants’ language. Yes, he said he reads a variety of writings, but apparently he does not have any concept of reseach that stands up under scrutiny through vetting and review. This is particularly outrageous because he is prepared to present un-tested internet-inspired opinions about what Mr. Odeh and Mr. El-Mezain mean when they say, “Peace be upon you.”

Mr. Shafik, the government’s primary linguistic “expert,” grew up in an Arabic-speaking country—Egypt. That does not mean he understands Arabic as Palestinians speak it. (Sidebar: for Americans: do you know what someone from Great Britain means by a “fancy dress party?")

The government’s witnesses (be they Matthew Levitt, Lara Burns, or Mr. Shafik) bring so much personal baggage and so many unfounded opinions to their work that they have no way to be objective or to tell the truth. Their entire purpose is to “prove” their preconceptions, not to discover reality. I am sure they tell their own personal truths, but they make no attempt to ferret out Truths.

Mr. Shafik's proposed bigoted testimony is based, it seems likely, on his experience as part of the Christian minority in Egypt. I have no intention of discussing his experience because I do not, of course, know him. Just as I expect the prosecution to do, I refrain from commenting on something I know nothing about. I do wonder, however, if the Egyptian Christian minority experience can be very different from that of minorities in this country, Muslims for example.

Finding on the internet and in newspapers individual, angry and prejudiced “truths” about the well-known conflicts between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt is easy. To begin to discover truth, one must be willing to research writings that attempt to be even-handed and explore more deeply than the untested private opinions (such as this one) available on the internet. Mr. Shafik (and the prosecutors, if they wished their work to be other than not-so-veiled character assasination) might read some of the voluminous scholarship in the area of Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt. For example:

“Al-Damīr, Human Conscience and Christian–Muslim Relations,” by Oddbjorn Leirvik, published in the journal Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol. 14, No. 3, July 2003. Dr. Leirvik is a Lutheran theologian and Professor of Interreligious Studies at the Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo.

Or, perhaps:
“The Egyptian Coptic Christians: the conflict between identity and equality,” by Randall Henderson, published in the journal Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol. 16 Issue 2, April 2005. Dr. Henderson is from Edgewood College, Madison, WI, USA.

Hatred and prejudice spoken in anger by biased witnesses makes for good courtroom drama. That kind of testimony may, of course, sway jurors, many of whom in this case may well be predisposed to fear or hatred of the defendants.

However, this attempt at courtroom drama for the purpose of obscuring the truth ought to be a wake-up call for all Americans who cherish their religious freedom.

The conclusion of the quotation I began at the outset is:

. . . .This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.

This explanation of Freedom of Religion, of our unalienable right to freedom of conscience, and of the absolute truth that no one can force us to follow the spiritual dictates of any but our own hearts was written by James Madison as part of his successful efforts to prevent the establishment of religion in Virginia (see his “Memorial and Remonstrance”).

Madison's writing became the lynch-pin of American understanding of the absolute Freedom of Religion codified in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Any American, Muslim, Christian, Jew, or any other faith, ought to be terrified and outraged by the attempt of our government, through the offices of the US District Attorney for North Texas, to encroach on our FIRST freedom, the freedom that has made our nation the “gold standard” for liberty of conscience.

The desire to infer from private religious speech some kind of political message would be, as Madison said, a "first experiment on our liberties."