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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What Tarek Mehanna Isn't

American citizen Tarek Mehanna's lawyers managed to convince many in the media that his prosecution as a terrorist was all about the First Amendment and U.S. attitudes toward Muslims.

A Boston jury did not agree, on Tuesday convicting Mehanna of material support to Al Qaeda and lying to federal investigators.

One can forgive the defense team for thinking that First Amendment martyrdom was the smart approach. Faced with an overwhelming amount of evidence as to Mehanna's words and actions, they decided the only way to do their job was to undermine the fundamental nature of the charges. The strategy failed, but that doesn't mean they had any better options.

The phrase "budding Islamic scholar" has now become ubiquitous in media descriptions of Mehanna, a phrase the defense used in an effort to normalize Mehanna's indisputably radical beliefs and actions as a normal, even respected part of Islam.

If Glenn Beck put forth the idea that Islamic scholarship included praising the 9/11 hijackers, gloating and laughing at Ground Zero, and celebrating the immolation of American soldiers as "Texas barbecue," he would rightfully be lambasted by sensible people.

But when Mehanna himself advances that argument, through his defense team, people who say they have the best interests of American Muslims at heart should take a deep breath and think about whether they want to co-sign that assertion.

It's one thing to advocate for the First Amendment and the protection of objectionable speech. It's quite another thing to defend an extremist by trying to normalize his behavior within a community that already has enough perception problems.

People of good conscience might differ on whether Mehanna should be considered a criminal, although I personally agree with the jury that his actions in total surpassed the scope of the First Amendment.

But the evidence submitted in court clearly shows that Mehanna was, by almost any interpretation, a hateful person who gloried violence. Defend his legal position if you must, but don't call him a "budding Islamic scholar" and don't allow him to wrap himself in the mantle of "ordinary American Muslim." He is not.

For much more about the Tarek Mehanna case, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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