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Punishing Violent Thoughts: Islamic Dissent and Thoreauvian Disobedience in Post-9/11 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-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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1 Besheer Mohamad, “A new estimate of the U.S. Muslim population,” Pew Research, 6 Jan. 2016, at

2 Esposito, John, “Muslims in America or American Muslims?”, in Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck and Esposito, John L., eds., Muslims on the Americanization Path? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 319 , 3.

3 See, for example, al-Ahari, Muhammad, ed., Five Classic Muslim Slave Narratives: Selim Aga, Job Ben Sulaiman, Nicholas Said, Omar ibn Said, Abu Bakr Sadiq (Chicago: Magribine Press, 2006).

4 The experience of African Americans abroad has been extensively documented in this regard. See Totten, Gary, African American Travel Narratives from Abroad: Mobility and Cultural Work in the Age of Jim Crow (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015).

5 The Supreme Court ruling around which the prosecution built their case against Mehanna is Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (2010), at

6 See Andrew March, “A Dangerous Mind?”, New York Times, 21 April 2012, SR1; Amna Akbar, “How Tarek Mehanna Went to Prison for a Thought Crime,” The Nation, 31 Dec. 2016, at

7 A more recent source for Mehanna's thinking which was not formally taken into consideration while working on this article are the posts on a Facebook page curated by his brother, and regularly updated with reports from prison: This page has over 6,000 followers as of this writing.

8 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), “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad, at-Tibyan” (pdf at Internet Archive, Although the prosecution could not demonstrate any use of this work by al Qaeda, Mehanna's promotion of this text was nonetheless regarded as “material support” for this terrorist group. See Said, Wadie E., Crimes of Terror: The Legal and Political Implications of Federal Terrorism Prosecutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 70.

9 This phrase is taken from Akbar.

10 Ibid.

11 Quoted from United States of America v. Tarek Mehanna and Ahmad Abusamra, archived at

12 Abel, Nikolas, “Note – U.S. v. Mehanna, the First Amendment, and Material Support in the War on Terror,” Boston College Law Review, 54 (2013), 711–50, 712.

13 On the “material support” accusation see George D. Brown, “Notes on a Terrorism Trial: Preventive Prosecution, ‘Material Support’ and the Role of the Judge after United States v. Mehanna,” Boston College Law School Faculty Papers, 2012, Paper 392.

14 Barrett, Paul M., Muslims in America: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2007), 5.

15 Brown, 26.

16 Zick, Timothy, The Cosmopolitan First Amendment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 6.

17 United States v. Mehanna, No. 09-10017-GAO (D. Mass. 2011), day 3, 38–39.

18 Alberto Gonzales, “Remarks at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh on Stopping Terrorists before They Strike: The Justice Department's Power of Prevention,” at Gonzalez's statement is discussed in Chesney, Robert, “Beyond Conspiracy? Anticipatory Prosecution and the Challenge of Unaffiliated Terrorism,” Southern California Law Review, 80, 3 (2007), 425502 .

19 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, 18.

20 “Tarek's Sentencing Statement,” Appendix to Glenn Greenwald, “The Real Criminals in the Tarek Mehanna Case,” Salon, 13 April 2012, at All future references are to the unpaginated text at this link. Mehanna's statement is available on numerous websites, including the dedicated website for Mehanna's case at

21 See, for example, the lesson plans in Hakim, Joy, Johns Hopkins University Teaching Guide and Resource Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

22 For one such use of “jihad” see Wadud, Amina, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women's Reform in Islam (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008), as well as below, n. 52.

23 “Resistance to Civil Government,” was based on a lecture originally entitled “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government” (1848). The essay was first called “Civil Disobedience” in the posthumous edition of Thoreau's writings: A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-slavery and Reform Papers (1866). See Nancy Rosenblum, “Introduction,” in Thoreau, Henry David, Political Writings, ed. Rosenblum, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), viixxxi , xii.

24 Henry David Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” in Thoreau, Political Writings, 1–22, 13. Future references to this text are given parenthetically in the text, with the abbreviation “RCG.”

25 Mehanna, Tarek, “The Aafia Siddiqui I Saw,” in Dr. Aafia Siddiqui: Other Voices (Silver Springs, MD: Peace Thru Justice Foundation, 2012), 21.

26 A chronology is given in Middle East Journal, 65, 1 (2011), 123 and 64, 3 (2010), 467.

27 For a collection of accounts of what is known about Siddiqui's case see the articles listed by the New York Times at

28 Declan Walsh, “The Mystery of Dr Aafia Siddiqui,” The Guardian, 24 Nov. 2009, at

29 See the official Facebook page at

30 See, for example, Barlas, Asma, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

31 Jenco, Leigh Kathryn, “Thoreau's Critique of Democracy,” Review of Politics, 65, 3 (2003), 355–81, 364.

32 Hallaq, Wael, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), x.

33 See Asad, Talal, Thinking about Secularism and Law in Egypt (Leiden: International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, 2001).

34 I do not intend to suggest that classical Islamic thought has nothing to say about the individual conscience, just that there is a difference in emphasis, and that Thoreau, rather than Islam, is closest to Mehanna in terms of his approach. For a discussion of the individual conscience in Islam grounded in classical sources see Mujeeb, M., “The Status of Individual Conscience in Islam,” Studies in Islam, 7, 3 (1970), 125–49.

35 For further on Thoreau's support of political activism in relation to his skepticism towards politics see Mckenzie, Jonathan, “How to Mind Your Own Business: Thoreau on Political Indifference,” New England Quarterly, 84, 3 (2011), 422–43.

36 Trodd, Zoe, “Writ in Blood: John Brown's Charter of Humanity, the Tribunal of History, and the Thick Link of American Political Protest,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 1, 1 (2007), 129 , 4.

37 Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for John Brown” (1859), in Thoreau, Political Writings, 137–58; and Thoreau, “The Last Days of John Brown” (1860), in ibid., 163–69. Future references to these essays are given parenthetically in the text, with the abbreviations “PJB” and “LDJB.”

38 Turner, Jack, “Performing Conscience: Thoreau, Political Action and the Pleas for John Brown,” Political Theory, 33, 4 (2005), 448–71, 467.

39 For a suggestive account of the political dimensions of New England Puritanism that informs this reading of Thoreau and Brown see Walzer, Michael, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).

40 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820–1876, Volume IX, ed. Waldo, Edward Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913), 82.

41 Nelson, Truman John, “Thoreau and John Brown,” in The Truman Nelson Reader, ed. John, William Schafer (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), 195215 , 195, original emphasis.

42 Turner, 454.

43 For a discussion of Bales's case from the point of view of legal theory see Smith, Michael D., “Mapping the Geolegalities of the Afghanistan Intervention,” in Braverman, Irus, Blomley, Nicholas, Delaney, David, and Kedar, Alexandre, eds., The Expanding Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), 142–66. Bales has recently accounted for his actions in an interview for GQ with Brenden Vaughn: “Robert Bales Speaks: Confessions of America's Most Notorious War Criminal,” at, accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

44 Richardson, Robert D., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 370.

45 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 Thoreau's ideas greatly influenced my movement in India.” Quoted in George Henrick, “Influence of Thoreau and Emerson on Gandhi's Satyagraha,” Gandhi Marg, July 1959, 165–78, 166.

46 “Tarek Mehanna: A Selection of Timely Quotes,” at, accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

47 Malcolm, X, By Any Means Necessary (New York: Pathfinder, 1992), 160.

48 Sara Mulkeen, “Sudbury Man Convicted on Terrorism Charges Receives Award,” MetroWest Daily News, 6 Jan. 2013, at For the Sacco and Vanzetti case and background see Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).

49 See The speech was delivered in Boston on 22 Aug. 2010.

50 Studies that showcase the diversity of American Islam include Grewal, Zareena, Islam Is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (New York: New York University Press, 2013); and many of the essays in Hammer, Juliane and Safi, Omid, eds., The Cambridge Companion to American Islam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

51 For the controversy preceding the speech see, among numerous media sources, “Free Speech: Testing,” Harvard Magazine, July–Aug. 2002, 64–69, 64.

52 Cited and discussed in Ahmed, Leila, A Quiet Revolution (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2011), 234. The full text of the speech is reprinted, under the changed title “Of Faith and Citizenship,” in the Harvard Magazine, July–Aug. 2002, 65, and at

53 Samantha Schmidt, “Muslim Activist Linda Sarsour's Reference to ‘Jihad’ Draws Conservative Wrath,” Washington Post, 7 July 2017, at The fifteen-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.”

54 Many recent studies contribute to various lines of critique, including Lauzière, Henri, The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Thurston, Alexander, Salafism in Nigeria (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Wagemakers, Joas, Salafism in Jordan: Political Islam in a Quietist Community (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Bonnefoy, Laurent, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

55 See, for example, his appeal to Osama bin Laden as “my real father,” discussed in Pyetranker, Innokenty, “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, 2, 2 (2012), 2142 , 21.

56 United States v. Mehanna, day 3, 39, cited in Brown, “Notes on a Terrorism Trial,” 5.

57 In support of this point see the important critique of tolerance by Brown, Wendy, Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

58 Mouffe, Chantal, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000), 117.

59 Edwards, Brian T., “The World, the Text, and the Americanist,” American Literary History, 25, 1 (2013), 231–46, 232.

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