Blogs > Cliopatria > The Unusual Hashmi Case

Aug 14, 2008 7:49 pm

The Unusual Hashmi Case

A number of my Brooklyn College colleagues were profiled in a Chroniclearticle discussing their protests against the treatment of Syed Fahad Hashmi. Hashmi, a 2003 Brooklyn College graduate, is currently being held without bail, awaiting trial on charges of providing material assistance to Al Qaeda.

The petition, alas, seems unlikely to achieve its stated intent. Given the Bush administration’s record on terrorism cases and civil liberties, it’s plausible to believe that Hashmi’s civil liberties have been violated. Yet the petition’s presentation of the case is so one-sided—and its comments about the case’s effects on the academy so off-the-wall—as to make any undecided reader less, rather than more, likely to embrace the signatories’ position.

The Chronicle appropriately describes the case against Hashmi as “murky.” And political science professor Jeanne Theoharis, the statement’s author, has said that the signatories take no position on the merits of Hashmi’s guilt or innocence. Yet their petition and the remarks of the petition’s two chief sponsors (Theoharis and political science professor Corey Robin) read as if cribbed from a defense brief.

It’s not clear how a one-sided presentation of the facts of the case will rally support for the signatories' claim that Hashmi’s civil liberties have been violated. (Such a strategy, it seems to me, only undermines the credibility of the petition's broader assertions.) In their commentary about the case’s possible effects on free speech and the academy, however, the signatories cross over from one-sided to merely bizarre.

Affirm the signatories, “The prosecution’s case against Hashmi, an activist within the Muslim community, threatens the First Amendment rights of others. While Hashmi’s political and religious beliefs, speech, and associations are constitutionally protected, the government may attempt to use them as evidence of his criminal intent.”

Well, yes: for instance, the government may point out that Hashmi’s praise of John Walker Lindh (the American Taliban) provides insight into his state of mind. Similarly, in the 1960s, it was perfectly appropriate for federal prosecutors in trials of KKK members to use their (constitutionally protected) racist statements or memberships to provide insight into the Klansmens’ mindsets. There isn’t anything particularly unusual about such a trial strategy, and it’s absurd to say that such an attempt “threatens the First Amendment rights of others.”

(By the way, I assume that each of the signatories is committed to advocating the repeal of all hate crimes laws—since such legislation is based on the premise of using “constitutionally protected” “political and religious beliefs, speech, and associations . . . as evidence of . . . criminal intent.”)

The statement’s authors stretch credulity even further when they discuss the case’s alleged effect on the academy.

Theoharis: “It’s particularly significant in a moment when we are seeing the criminalization of Muslim students. I think that he is a devout and practicing Muslim who is very political. If he can be treated like this, it sends a message to other young people, particularly other Muslim young people, that you know you are not protected. I think it is crucial in terms of students thinking they can be who they want to be and espouse the politics that they want to espouse.”

Robin: “The classroom is supposed to be a kind of sacred space where students can express their beliefs, and faculty are obligated to push them. It’s chilling to me to think that that whole process, which is the essence of what it means to be an educated person, could suddenly become an item of scrutiny in a court of law.”

The signatories present no evidence that the government intends to use at trial (or has even investigated) Hashmi’s utterances in the “sacred space” of the “classroom,” or that the government intends to make the classroom “an item of scrutiny in a court of law.” Nor do the signatories present any evidence to suggest a pattern of “the criminalization(!) of Muslim students.”

That hundreds of professors could sign a statement associated with such claims says more about the academy than any violations of civil liberties by the government.

Two individual signatories particularly raised eyebrows. By all accounts, Hashmi is an extremely religious man. Yet the list of signatories included would-have-been Brooklyn Sociology Department chairman Tim Shortell, who had previously branded all religious people “moral retards.” It’s not clear if Shortell considers Hashmi a “moral retard,” too.

The list also includes Duke professor Wahneema Lubiano, whose conduct in the lacrosse case (she authored the guilt-presuming Group of 88 statement) didn’t exactly identify her as a friend of civil liberties. It’s not clear what has caused Lubiano’s sudden interest in due process.

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Barry DeCicco - 8/15/2008

"It's not clear what has caused Lubiano's sudden interest in due process."

Well, it looks like the shoe is on the other foot.