Tashnuba Hayder was an average 16 year-old teenager living with her Bangladeshi-American family in Queens when the FBI came knocking on her door. And life has never been the same since. Though she’s lived here since age 5 and speaks not a word of the native language, she has been deported to a country (Bangladesh) she hardly remembers. Only her father and brother remain in the U.S. and they are now in hiding from INS authorities who want to deport them.
If anyone reading this thinks there is anything good about the USA Patriot Act, please read the New York Times story. It is poignant, chilling and ultimately heartbreaking, representing the FBI at their worst and the U.S. justice system not far better:
An F.B.I. agent, posing as a youth counselor, first confronted Tashnuba in her bedroom, going through her school papers and questioning everything from her views on jihad to her posterless walls, she said. Sent to a center for delinquents in Pennsylvania, Tashnuba said she was interrogated without a lawyer or parent present, about her beliefs and those of her friends, mainly American girls she had met at city mosques.
As she tells it, F.B.I. agents tried to twist mundane details of her life to fit the profile of a terrorist recruit, and when they could not make a case, covered their tracks by getting her out of the country. In fact, the court order of “voluntary departure” that let her leave requires a finding that the person is not deportable for endangering national security.
Tashnuba said she believed she was singled out precisely because she is a noncitizen – allowing investigators to invoke immigration law, bypassing the familiar limits of criminal and juvenile proceedings.
Up to three agents at a time pressed her about possible terrorist ties among her friends, and what they saw as suspicious tendencies in her schoolwork, like class notes about suicide. She said they even criticized the austere décor of the bedroom she shared with her 10-year-old sister.
“The F.B.I. tried to say I didn’t have a life – like, I wasn’t the typical teenager,” Tashnuba said bitterly, fingering her long Muslim dress. “They thought I was anti-American because I didn’t want to compromise, but in my high-school ethics class we had Communists, Democrats, Republicans, Gothics – all types. In all our classes, we were told, ‘You speak up, you give your opinion, and you defend it.’ ”
When she recalls how F.B.I. agents questioned her religious lifestyle, her voice drips typical teenage scorn: “Like, I’m supposed to live for you guys?”
The Times even quotes a former FBI agent who is troubled by this first terrorism investigation to involve minors:
Mike German, who left the bureau a year ago after a long career chasing homegrown terror suspects, said that the agency’s new emphasis on collecting intelligence rather than criminal evidence has opened the door to more investigations that go “in the wrong direction.”
“If all these chat rooms are being monitored, and we’re running down all these people because of what they’re saying in chat rooms, then these are resources we’re not using on real threats,” said Mr. German, who has publicly complained that F.B.I. management problems impeded terror investigations after 9/11.
The stress on intelligence increases the agency’s demands for secrecy, to protect its sources. And secrecy, he said, leads to abuses of power.
“Perhaps the government has some incredibly incriminating piece of information and saved us from a terrible act of violence; it would make everybody feel better to know it,” he said. “Conversely, if they [the FBI] did something wrong, the public needs to know that.”
Tashnuba’s problems began some time after she became a devout Muslim and decided she would escape the secular environment of her parent’s home by accepting an arranged marriage with another Muslim man. When she eloped with him and headed to Michigan, her father called the police. And this is how a frightened teenager became a potential suicide bomber in the eyes of the FBI.
What proof does this august, never-erring agency have of Tashnuba’s Islamic radicalism? After confiscating her computer, the FBI discovered that she’d visited the website of a firebrand British Muslim cleric who once told a follower on a radio call-in show that women could be legitimate candidates to be suicide bombers. Of course, there’s no evidence that Tashnuba heard him say this or even knew anything about his attitude toward suicide bombing. And the girl, as part of an assignment from her tutor, wrote a paper on attitudes toward suicide among various religions.
I can’t say that this is all the evidence the FBI has because they won’t reveal anything about the “case” against her. In fact, after forcibly detaining Tashnuba and removing her from her home, the government never told her family where she was or what she was charged with. Only after the New York Times wrote a story about the case would the FBI allow her to have a lawyer.
Unfortunately, with no financial means at her disposal, Tashnuba’s mother agreed to immediate voluntary deportation as a means to get her daughter released from detention. Tashnuba, her mother and two young siblings were thrown on the streets of Dakar without a penny.
Officially, the FBI will not say it ever had a case for labelling Tashnuba a potential terrorist. All they will say is that hers is now an immigration case. Her visa is expired and she must leave. Plain and simple.
What adds to the tragedy of this situation is that Tashnuba’s chief FBI nemesis is an British-born Muslim agent who grew up in a secular Pakistani home. It reminds me of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case in which the defendants, defense and prosecuting attorneys and judge were all Jewish. It was as if the government had recruited Jews to do its own dirty work. And in Foria Younis, born into an Anglo-Pakistani family in Britain, they found their Roy Cohn. Except that the government’s Muslim terrorist-catcher didn’t have her finest hour in this case:
Ms. Younis and her partner did not reveal that they were F.B.I. agents, said Tashnuba’s mother, Ishrat Jahan Hayder. They claimed to be from a youth center, following up on the police report filed five months earlier when the girl tried to elope. Mrs. Hayder readily sent the woman upstairs to her daughter’s bedroom. “I trusted her,” she said.
From the moment she walked in, as Tashnuba tells it, Ms. Younis started paging through her papers. “She was like, ‘Can I look at this?’ Not waiting for an answer.”
What mainly drew the agent’s eye, the girl said, were papers from an extra-help class for home-schooled girls that Tashnuba had joined to prepare for exams. On one page was a diagram highlighting the word “suicide” – her notes on a class discussion about why religions oppose it, she said.
Soon, she said, Ms. Younis was dropping comments like “So, I see you’re interested in suicide,” and “So, you like staying all by yourself in your room. Are you a loner?”
Tashnuba, who had many friends, was immediately nervous and defensive. “No, I’m just in my room,” she said she protested. “I saw where they were going.”
Once the FBI spirited her away into custody in Pennsylvania 12 days of interrogation began in earnest:
“They tried to twist my mind,” Tashnuba said. “They had their little tactics – start with nice questions, try to get more severe. In the end, when I did cry they were, like, mocking me.”
A government psychiatrist concluded that she was neither suicidal nor homicidal, and recommended her release. But the agents, Tashnuba said, kept “trying to link me to the psychological state.” They zeroed in on the single artificial rose in her bedroom (her little sister’s); a psychology course (required by her correspondence program), and an essay she wrote about the Department of Homeland Security (assigned as a writing evaluation by her tutor).
Interestingly, the interrogations stopped the day the New York Times ran its first article on the girl. This is a perfect example of the positive role that the media can play as a government watchdog. Imagine the catastrophe that a USA Patriot Act without media oversight would be. And contrarily, the Daily Telegraph published this glowing profile of Younis last year which looks increasingly ironic when read in the light of this current case and her treatment of Tashnuba. Consider this Younis comment:
“My culture is very Western, in terms of my upbringing, but my heritage is Pakistani. I’ve learnt a lot of positive things from Pakistani Muslim culture.”
Apparently not enough to appreciate and correctly interpret the Islamic religious strivings of a 16 year old Bangledeshi-American girl.
And this passage is perhaps even more deliciously ironic:
She knows that when she enters a Muslim household, even on a raid, the sight of her has an electrifying effect, especially on the women and girls of the home. In many households, women are “held hostage” by their men’s radicalism, she says.
You can bet that the Hayders felt that way when Younis conned her way into their apartment with the lie that she was a youth counselor checking up on their daughter. Hey, now Mrs. Hayder is really free of her husband’s “radicalism” as the two of them live on different sides of the globe thanks to Foria Younis’ overzealous persection of the Queens teenager.
She makes a point of reaching out to children, even when sent to interview their parents. “Kids love to see the FBI badge, you can start off with that and then you put something in their minds – that all jobs should be open to all people as an American citizen. You let them know that that’s a possibility.”
Gee, maybe that’s a career that Tashnuba might be interested in??
In explaining her special appreciation of American freedoms to this British newspaper, she said:
“Spending my teenage years in America was very influential. You study all about American freedoms and the American opportunities you have.”
Tashnuba studied those same textbooks and learned the same lessons. But it didn’t quite work out the same for her now did it?
She is especially keen to counter notions that the FBI has been harassing Muslims since the September 11 attacks. “It wasn’t harassment. If we got an anonymous phone call or letter, we had to follow up on it. We presented the situation very honestly. We told people: ‘Your name has come up and we have to talk to you,’ and most people were very co-operative.”
Just like Mrs. Hayder, who believed that Younis had the girl’s best interests at heart when she barged into the family’s life and destroyed whatever peace and security they had here in this country.
Actually, the FBI’s clear and outrageous harrassment of Muslim-Americans since 9/11 reminds me of two other infamous times in American history when we allowed our justice system to ride roughshod over immigrant groups whose ethnicity or political views were considered unpopular. In the 1920s, the Palmer raids threw thousands of immigrant anarchists and Communists out of the country without charges or trials. And during World War II, we forcibly interned most of the Japanese Americans living in the western half of the U.S. Each of these episodes is viewed with shame by constitutional scholars and most Americans who are aware of them. In time, the same will be said of the USA Patriot Act and our treatment of the Muslim-Americans among us. It’s time to remember the wonderful injunction in Exodus:
Remember the stranger because you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
This is the final heartbreaking paragraph of the Tashnuba Hayder story:
She longed for even one more day in New York, “to say goodbye.”
Fighting tears, she fell silent, staring at the shelf of souvenirs her family had sent back over the years: a big apple, a snow globe of the twin towers, a Statue of Liberty.
Congress is now debating the renewal of the Patriot Act. President Bush recently said that the Sunshine provisions which forced the most contentious of the Acts’ sections to be submitted for reapproved by Congress were a terrible idea. If you needed any reason to doubt Bush’s thinking on this and to question the draconian nature of the Act, it’s all right here in this story.
Mark J says
Count me as one of the Bush voters who is made very uncomfortable by some aspects of the Patriot Act.
Richard Silverstein says
In this age of savage division between parties & ideologies, it’s good to find someone who can find some reasonableness in the views of their opponents. Thanks for your comment.
thank you for your great post. as a muslim-american, this article sent chills up my back. growing up and being a teenager is hard enough, without people interpreting teenage angst and insecurity as wishes to become a suicide bomber. my parents may be from india, but i am american all the way. just the thought of being shipped back to a foreign country because of some websites or lack of posters is horrifying. maybe they should think about that many poor, immigrant children don’t have extravagantly decorated bedrooms, or that teenagers often have feelings of loneliness or suicide at some point in their lives. i always thought that being a us citizen was a protection of my civil liberties, but patriot 2 may even do away with that protection.