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My memories of Aafia in Boston

December 13, 2010


by Bashir Hanif


I remember the first time that I met her. It was at a mosque in one of Boston’s most affluent suburbs. The year was 1993.


Muslims all over the US just like Muslims throughout the world had been shocked by the images of the horrors that were being perpetrated against their co-religionists in Bosnia. A tiny religious minority with virtually no ability to influence policy makers or the media, having seen all their pleas to save the Muslims of Bosnia fall on deaf ears, they had decided to focus their efforts on providing humanitarian relief to the suffering. Fundraisers were held in every city, town or village that had even a handful of Muslims. Sometimes these fundraisers were elaborate affairs with hundreds of people in the audience listening to the passionate appeals for generous assistance made by community leaders and representatives of humanitarian relief organizations. Often they would be small, impromptu events where an individual or a small group of activists would seize the opportunity provided by a gathering to draw the attention of those gathered to the suffering of Bosnian Muslims, and solicit help on behalf of some charitable organization. On that Sunday morning, it seemed like she had decided to turn a routine Sunday school gathering at the mosque into a fundraising opportunity.


What struck me most, and that I still remember, is not just the passion with which she spoke about the victims as she reminded everyone about their obligation to help the suffering. But instead of relying solely on the generosity of her audience, she had something very enticing to offer them as a quid pro quo. She had brought her a large assortment of cookies, brownies, samosas (Indian/Pakistani pastries) and other delicacies that she had prepared. Now there is nothing unusual about having a bake sale to help raise funds for a good cause. But for a young student, living in a dormitory with minimal kitchen privileges if any, it must have presented a host of challenges. Later on, I discovered that this kind of striving to gain an extra edge while pursing something noble is one of her defining traits.


For the next couple of years, we had several opportunities to work together as Muslims of the Greater Boston area remained very active in the Bosnia relief effort. I remember a fundraiser in January 1994 where she did far more than give the proverbial shirt off her back. It was organised as an auction. Weeks were spent in planning the event and collecting items that were to be auctioned. Members of the community donated possessions that they thought could fetch a significant sum. Local businesses from restaurants to hotels to ski-resorts pitched in by offering gift certificates for their services. The New England Patriots donated a football autographed by all their players and the Boston Celtics did the same with a basketball. The Saudi embassy in Washington, DC offered two expense paid trips for the Hajj. We did not get much cooperation from the weather, however. Brutally cold weather is to be expected on a January evening in Boston. That day we broke all records. It was not enough to dampen the spirits of those who gathered for the auction, however. As a student who neither had the material possessions to donate for the auction nor the money with which to bid on the items being auctioned, Aafia decided to make her contribution to the effort in her own way. She donated a beautiful fur coat that had been given to her by her father. Perhaps it was the symbolism of one of the least affluent persons in the crown giving up a cherish possession at a time when she needed it most (it was nearly fifty degrees below zero Fahrenheit with the wind-chill outside the hall!), that moved many people in the audience to make such generous bids for the coat that it became the highest ticket item auctioned that evening.


I lost direct contact with her after she graduated from MIT and moved to one of the more distant suburbs of Boston. Years later, as i was passing by a shop in my neighborhood, I saw a picture of her on a “MOST WANTED” poster. While I did not stop to see the details more closely, it seemed like she was wanted along with a number of other individuals on terrorism related charges. Shortly thereafter, her pictures began appearing in newspapers and on television. Months later, someone brought to my attention a letter to the editor published in the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, written by Aafia’s uncle. According to that letter, Aafia and her three children had been missing for several months. Her family had no information about their whereabouts but suspected the hand of the Pakistani intelligence acting in concert with their American counterparts.


Later, especially after pictures of the treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners were released amid reports that the even more outrageous ones involving treatment of women prisoners were being suppressed out of concern for their inflammatory impact on Muslim sentiment worldwide, I thought about her many times. The thought that Pakistani authorities may be familiar with the conditions of her incarceration or might even be the ones actually holding her, offered little reassurance. After all, it was not the Syrians, the self-proclaimed champion of Arab nationalism and leader of Arab and Muslim resistance to western and Zionist hegemony in the Middle East, who had brutalized one of their own, Maher Arar, at the behest of his Western accusers even without a shred of evidence against him?


Finally, in 2008, she resurfaced but as a prisoner of the US accused of attacking American soldiers during an interrogation in Afghanistan. Such has been the chilling effect of the suspicion with which Muslims are viewed in post 9/11 America at least in matters related to national security, that hardly anyone from the Boston area even acknowledged knowing her, let alone speaking out in her defence.


At the conclusion of her trial as she was sentenced to 86 years in prison, in effect a life sentence, I could not help but to think about another young woman who became somewhat familiar during the Abu Ghraib scandal. Many will recall seeing her picture with a “thumbs-up” gesture and a big smile beaming across her face as she stood in front of the plastic enwrapped body of a dead Iraqi prisoner. It was reported that the prisoner had just been tortured to death by US soldiers and yet there was no trace of remorse on the woman’s face. For her deeds, all that this woman suffered was a few weeks in jail. Even if we are to believe the charges brought against Aafia in their entirety, do her crimes even remotely approach what this other woman did? And of the society where this system of injustice goes virtually unchallenged? Or, was the long sentence inevitable because of what Aafia has been through during the years of her disappearance? Is keeping her in jail for the rest of her life the equivalent of suppressing the pictures of Muslim women prisoners being abused? Perhaps, it is our leaders and their collaborators in the Muslim world who have lost their freedom to do the right things for as long as they are engaged in this Global War on Terror.

First published here

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