To Unite A Community
by Stephen Downs
On the night of February 2, 2019, an unusual gathering of Muslims and non-Muslims, about 100 strong, assembled at Albany’s First Unitarian Universalist Society to celebrate a very important event. As steaming trays of rice, curry, and fixings were served, people from all different faiths and backgrounds ate together, renewed friendships, or met for the first time. I sat next to an insurance executive from Pakistan whom I had never met but who greeted me like an old friend. On the other side sat Max, a former dairy farmer and mural painter whose banners I had carried in numerous marches. And we laughed as old friends will about the state of the country today and the pleasure of being able to share a meal together.
After supper, Lynne Jackson, our chief organizer, led the gathering to the Society’s large, well-equipped main hall for the performance of a play, To Catch a Muslim. In this play-within-a-play, an FBI agent and a Prosecutor (played by Diana Morales-Manley and Kathy Manley) acted out the FBI’s entrapment of two beloved Muslims from the community, Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain (played by their sons, Salah Muhiddin and Abu Horayra Hossain). The entrapping informant, Malik (played by Mari Matsuo), elaborated on the fictitious sting that the FBI created to entrap the two innocent Muslims, without them knowing that they were being framed. It is a gothic horror story, overlain with a little humor and a lot of irony, which sounds close at times to a fairy tale. Lynne Jackson, as Announcer and Sign Holder, flitted back and forth behind the actors with signs reminding the audience that it was indeed all real: a particular action was a “true fact,” or a line of dialogue was an “actual quote” or an “actual mispronunciation,” designed to prevent the targeted Muslims from knowing what Malik was talking about.
After the men’s pre-determined convictions, the play continued on to the appellate process, with a judge (played by Jeanne Finley) so corrupted with secret briefs and ex parte arguments (“true facts”) that a law student came up to me afterwards and asked how it was possible that Yassin could have been convicted entirely on evidence for which the jury found him not guilty. (A very good question, which raises issues about whether we have an independent judiciary). By now the story of the 2004 entrapment is well known in the community, but the lengths to which the FBI and the court system went to wrongfully convict two innocent men is so hard to comprehend that the audience sat transfixed, listening to it all over again.
The second half of the play concerned the informant, Shahed “Malik” Hussain, and the impossibility of the FBI separating itself from his toxic personality. The play ends with the realization that Malik was an unguided weapon of mass destruction set loose in the community by the FBI, responsible (via his ownership of a shady limousine company) for the tragic crash of one of his limousines with faulty brakes in Schoharie County in October, which killed 20 people. The play was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Kathy Manley, in which Shamshad Ahmad, president of the targeted Masjid As-Salam, described the extent to which FBI stings have terrorized his and other Muslim communities. Tarik Shah, a jazz musician, described how a different FBI sting in New York City entrapped him and resulted in his 15-year prison sentence. (The FBI informant who targeted Shah, pretending to be Shah’s best friend, actually moved into his house and followed him around with a secret tape recorder for months, trying to goad Shah into saying something political so the FBI could charge him.) At the end, we passed a hat, and over $500 was raised to help Shah purchase a new bass so he could renew his career.
In presenting these tragic stories, what important event was being celebrated? It was the fact that the FBI failed to drive a wedge between our communities, and actually brought us together. Each time we share a meal, retell the story, and acknowledge the wrongs that were done, we become closer and more determined to prevent this from ever happening again. That’s worth celebrating.