Islamic Studies and the FBI

This is a true story, like all the stories I tell. Although it is acceptable behavior to exaggerate, when it matters most, I do my best to refrain. Here you’ll catch a glimpse into a life that was very different from the one I now have.

I can tell at least two and possibly three stories, where the FBI became involved directly with me. This story, more than the other two shocks me because of its implications. Honestly, writing this story down for the first time, makes me seriously nervous and there are parts I will likely not put into writing. There are several reasons to be nervous for me and some threats have already been made, yet, here I am finally opening up to the writing and reading world about what happened.

Anyone who knows me well, knows I love to study and that anything I’ve studied, I also envelope and it envelops me. I dive so deeply in as to do my best to leave nothing undiscovered and to ensure that I had the most authentic learning experience one could have. The responsibility and toll this takes are yet many other stories I have to tell.

But what about this story, and where do I start? Probably with my neighbor. He was insanely hard to understand, being from Pakistan, considerably aged and only recently new to the country. He would invite me over to tea daily and we would share several cups of Indian chai that his wife would make. I spent time with him, listening to him talk about life and helping him build or repair miscellaneous things around his home or homes he took care of for his son. We became very close and his family would often invite mine to attend important events in their life. They would also bring food to us often, as was their custom to do for persons in need. I went off to college and his family sent me off with several hundred dollars that his family decided to assist me with. I had a very successful but challenging undergrad. One of the elective courses I took was Islamic Politics. Among many books I read including the Qur’an, was this thousand page book we called Lapidus. In some alone time while reading, it occurred to me that seeds for an Islamic study were definitely planted and now, taking root. After graduation, I moved out to the Southwest United States for work. The particular area I moved to was a vast melting pot with millions of people from all over the world. It was here, in this large melting pot that I met thousands of people collectively engaged in their one-off societies, complete with customs, foods and practices; It was an utterly fantastic opportunity just waiting to happen.

After being in the area for a couple years, I decided I wanted to study Islam. Initially, my study entailed immersing myself in whatever ways I could. Arabic songs and cultural references became my first points of reference. I spent a brief time studying about related stuff in college so, I had a fair idea of where to begin and eventually but nervously, I took myself on Friday to the local masjid (mosque), met people there and started attending regularly occurring Islamic studies courses through their madrasa (Islamic seminary). I did a lot of bouncing around out there at various masajid, met several thousand people, had tons of great cooking lessons, fantastic food, meaningful exchanges and learned quite quickly about a viewpoint unbeknownst to me previously. Lots of immersion was taking place by now and I was deeply engrained in courses throughout the southwestern area and especially so when I met the three people who took me under their wing. They and I became very close friends and I got invited to events and places that were seemingly set back in time, so very long ago and so very exotic. My experience was permeated by flavors, sights, smells and experiences that were simply and completely outside any societal experience I had before. I became so immersed in it all, that I disappeared into it, completely.

My then spouse and I were moving and on moving day, the FBI called and asked if they could come to visit me immediately.  I told them I was busy and they insisted that they would come to my house and make it easy for me. I had two movers at my place loading the truck and going in and out so, I was reluctant to let the FBI come but at the end of our phone discussion, it was clear I didn’t really have much choice.  After introductions, they took me into a room in my house and started pressing me about names and faces and people, events and all manner of things I may not have known. The conversation lasted about an hour, they scribbled into their notepads what tiny bits of information I felt giving up posed no threat and at the end of it, they went off to presumably start tracking my whereabouts and building my character profile. There was a lot of psychological playing going on with these FBI and some of it was easy to spot for me, maybe not so much for others. That said, I didn’t always know how to respond and I was worried what people inside the community would say or do when they found out. I was following stories, events, ideations and people at this time that may have been associated with “enemies of the state”. During this time, the US was clamped down in Swat Valley Pakistan, staging a new war in Syria most people didn’t know bout, Obama signed into law indefinite detention for United States citizens, Chelsea Manning was incarcerated for leaking classified documents and a teacher I was listening to was assassinated by our government, to name a few things that were going on. Ironically, that’s not what the FBI quizzed me about. No, they were smart and shook me in other areas to see what might fall and used scape-goat theoretical chase scenarios to lessen my sensing abilities and throw me off of their real intent. At the time, I was attending a Hanafi madrasa that was partially run by Salafi sympathizers and there was a rift going on in the leadership. At the same time, several people from around the globe that I may not have known were executed or indefinitely detained for various “crimes” against the US. Myself and one of my three companions started talking about heading to school in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or India and leaving the mess. India and Saudi seemed the best choices for Salafi-Islamic studies and so, we were focusing our efforts there. This discussion, along with all of my previous life-changes resulted in a lot of tension at home between my spouse and I. As with many of my tangents though, that’s another story. After several FBI visits and growing concern because of things that were happening I decided to bite the bullet and tell my closest friends what was going on.

At yet another gourmet and exotic meal we prepared, several of my friends and I sat to eat and discuss things. There was a new person at the table with us; a cousin of one of my friends. After introductions and putting me at ease a bit, I was told that the cousin was asked to identify me in a photo that the FBI had given them. It was during this conversation that we started discussing an organization who might help us. The organization called CARE was committed to the legal representation and protection of the Islamic community. We all decided that we would collectively put our heads together and over the next two years, that’s what we did. We started exchanging information and found that the community at large was under the microscope of the FBI, many of our members were wire tapped, car tracked, otherwise recorded, photographed and harassed by a growing threat outside our community. After my conversations with the FBI and some time passed, I felt I knew enough about them and my rights to push back. During a phone call with one of their agents, I told them that I was no longer interested in participating in the discussion. At first, the agent played the friend card and said, “I thought we were friends”. Shooting this down, I said I wanted only to protect myself and embrace my rights. The retort from the agent shocked me. He responded by saying if I am against him, I am against the United States and if I am not a friend, I am seen as an enemy and that I needed to call my lawyer and have them ready for interrogations tomorrow.

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