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Opinion

Tarek Mehanna: Punishing Muslims for free speech only helps Al Qaeda

Tarek Mehanna’s political speech was controversial and offensive. But the prosecution did not show that he was willing to actually engage in violence. Terrorists win hearts and minds when the US government prosecutes Muslims in America with little regard for the Constitution.

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In fact, Mehanna had been under surveillance for years on account of his controversial political speech. He believes he was prosecuted because he refused demands by the government to serve as an informant. If true, he is not the first Muslim to face prosecution for his refusal to snitch on other Muslims.

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Some Americans may view Mehanna’s conviction as legitimate and necessary to protect Americans from terrorists. But if Mehanna’s case becomes the norm for prosecuting people for vocalizing extremist views, then it is now incumbent on the government to be much more vigilant and file hundreds of indictments against white militia groups, patriot groups, and even some tea party chapters who spew vitriolic anti-government rhetoric and churn out extremist literature as some of them sit on large caches of weapons.

Those who differentiate between Mehanna and the white extremist groups, whose literature arguably leads to hundreds of hate crimes against minorities every year, have much explaining to do. Other than the color of their skin and their religious backgrounds, there is not much difference between Mehanna and the Sovereign Citizens’ movement, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan. And yet the US government allows the latter groups to operate relatively openly despite American’s collective aversion to their repulsive ideologies.

That is because the Founding Fathers had the foresight to know that without constitutional protection for dissent, especially unpopular and controversial dissent, those in power would use the law to remain in power indefinitely. Hence a meaningful democracy cannot exist without the First Amendment. If it were not for this fundamental right to criticize one’s government, no matter how distasteful, many of our earliest leaders would have been executed or exiled to a life of imprisonment.

One consequence of such freedoms is allowing more than 1,000 hate groups to exist so long as they do not orchestrate imminent lawlessness. This allowed the Ku Klux Klan to hold a rally before a crowd of 500 people in southern Georgia in 2010 and a militant Christian fundamentalist church in California to essentially declare war on the government – without facing criminal prosecution.

When government makes exceptions for Muslims with extreme viewpoints, it does not actually keep our country safer. It simply makes these individuals martyrs. Which is precisely what Al Qaeda wants.

Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas Wesleyan School of Law where she teaches national security and civil rights. She is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and serves on the board of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.

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