Reducing carbon emissions is actually three separate but related challenges: reducing global emissions, slowing population growth through voluntary efforts, and meeting the needs of half the world that now suffers from "carbon starvation."
As pressure to address climate change increases, long-simmering debates
on the connections between population and environment have been
renewed. Historically, concerns have been expressed about the impact of “population” policies on human rights. Rewire welcomes open debate on these
issues and encourages both comments on this and other articles as well
as submissions from other authors.
Recent interest in the role of family
planning in climate change mitigation is long overdue. Efforts to combat global
climate change must include universal access to voluntary family planning to
reduce population growth. Brian O’Neill, the scientist who has done the most
serious research on this topic, projects that 1-2 billion tons of carbon
emissions could be averted each year if women worldwide were able to fully
exercise their reproductive wishes.
President Obama is taking a bold first step in Copenhagen by putting forward an
ambitious emissions target for the United States. Yet global population growth
threatens to undercut – even cancel – all proposed progress. World population
may grow by 18% or more from 2005 to 2020, according to UN projections.
Reducing carbon emissions is actually three separate but related challenges.
First, we must reduce global emissions. Second, we must slow population growth
by supporting programs such as voluntary family planning and reproductive
health. Third, we must recognize that about half the world now suffers from
"carbon starvation" and needs to increase emissions.
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Most emissions reductions must occur in wealthier countries since that’s where
they are highest. At the same time, in order to give billions of poor people a
reasonable quality of life, emissions in some parts of the world must increase
significantly. Rapid population growth makes this balancing act even more
Given available technology, the often-tiny carbon footprints of billions of
people are both a cause and an effect of impoverishment. The one billion people
who struggle to survive on less than $1/day use very little in the way of
fossil fuels (They do, however, contribute to climate change through
deforestation, which is responsible for 20% of global carbon emissions.
Deforestation is a direct result of local population growth and the increased
cropland needed to feed more people). And the additional 1.6 billion living on
less than $2/day hardly use more. In order to have decent lives, they must
increase their emission levels substantially, despite advances in green
Much of sub-Saharan Africa is mired in the most desperate, grinding poverty
imaginable. Governments there are already unable to meet the most basic needs
of their citizens. And it is these people – who contribute least to climate
change – who will suffer most from the problems that climate change brings.
Women especially will face new challenges to their health, livelihoods, and
even their lives, for they are the ones who must walk to fetch the water and
who must tend to their families’ crops.
Africa’s per-capita emissions must increase. But, if Africa’s population grows
by the 39% that is projected by 2020, it will be nearly impossible to create a
healthy quality of life for people in that part of the world.
Population growth will undermine all efforts to achieve lower carbon emissions
unless investments in clean energy are matched by equally comprehensive
investments in universal access to contraception, along with other health and
Unfortunately, for too long, population has been ignored as
part of the climate change equation. Some consider the topic to be toxic.
That’s tragic, but at the same time, it’s easy to understand, because too often
the population connection to climate change is oversimplified, and overhyped.
In recent weeks, there have been a number of examples of
this. Most disturbingly, a widely circulated opinion piece in a Canadian
newspaper resurrected the nasty notion of population control by urging
mandatory limits on child-bearing. That such a chilling thought made it to
publication in a mainstream publication is deplorable.
In addition, an August 2009 report issued by the
UK-based Optimum Population Trust (OPT) incorrectly claimed that meeting the
worldwide unmet need for family planning is a more cost effective way to reduce
current carbon emissions than other "green" technologies. They followed
this up with a plan to allow citizens of wealthy industrial nations to “offset”
their emissions with donations to make birth control available to women in poor
By assuming erroneously the main cause of unplanned births in every
nation on earth is lack of access to contraception, the OPT rendered its entire
study meaningless. Most high carbon emitters live in developed nations where
contraceptives are generally available. Reducing carbon emissions through
universal access to contraception is essential. But the quick carbon fix
championed by OPT is a fairy tale.
It’s true that many women in developing nations cannot obtain or afford
modern methods of birth control. Meeting their unmet needs is critically
important for a variety of reasons. But doing so won’t significantly reduce
current fossil fuel emissions. The annual per capita fossil fuel emissions in
many such countries are less than a single week of such emissions in the US and
many other developed nations.
The simple fact of the matter is this: climate change is
largely caused by the high emissions from wealthy industrialized nations. These
are places where population is growing slowly if at all. To claim that we can
solve climate change solely by addressing population growth in countries where
emissions are low is silly. And to suggest that people in the high emitting
countries can contribute birth control to poor people instead of cutting back
on their own consumption is offensive.
This is one of those times – and one of those issues – where we need to keep
our eye on multiple goals. Reducing emissions is an energy issue. But it is
also in equal measure a human rights challenge, one that must include
unprecedented investments in a full spectrum of reproductive health services
for women and couples. Worldwide, 200 million women have an unmet need for
family planning. And demand for contraception is projected to increase by 40%
in just 15 years.
As we develop hybrid cars and the like, what about the other
half of the world? Will they be left to sweat and starve while we glide forward
into a century of renewable energy? Their carbon footprint needs to grow. That
can only work if we are willing to meet the population growth challenge.
The White House has already made great strides in reversing the pernicious
policies of the Bush Administration, which turned a blind eye to the needs of
billions. But additional bold action is needed.
No doubt President Obama is keenly aware of the multiple dimensions of the
climate challenge. Yes, it’s about energy. But, more than that, it is about
meeting the basic human needs of soon-to-be seven billion people. Universal
access to family planning must be a centerpiece of the climate change agenda in
Copenhagen and beyond.
Recently, Porter spoke with Rewire about the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike. Her film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.
Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED focuses on the targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws designed to close clinics. But, as Porter told Rewire in a phone interview, TRAPPED is also about “normal people,” the providers and clinic staff who have been demonized due to their insistence that women should have access to abortion and their willingness to offer that basic health-care service.
Between 2010 and 2015, state legislators adopted some 288 laws regulating abortion care, subjecting providers and patients to restrictions not imposed on their counterparts in other medical specialties.
In Alabama, where most of the film takes place, abortion providers are fighting to keep their clinics open in the face of countless—and often arbitrary—regulations, including a requirement that the grass outside the facilities be a certain length and one mandating abortions be performed in far more “institutional” and expensive facilities than are medically necessary.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this month on a Texas case regarding the constitutionality of some TRAP laws: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The lawsuit challenges two provisions in HB 2: the admitting privileges requirement applied to Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, Texas, and Reproductive Services in El Paso, Texas, as well as the requirement that every abortion clinic in the state meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers. It is within this context that Porter’s film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.
Recently, the award-winning filmmaker spoke with Rewire about the Supreme Court case, the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue, and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike.
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Rewire: What has changed for the clinicians featured in TRAPPED since the documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January?
Dawn Porter: Now, in Alabama, the legislature has passed a law banning clinics within 2,000 feet of a school. There’s a lot of frustration because the clinicians abide by the laws, and then more are put in place that makes it almost impossible to operate.
Everyone has been really focused on Dalton Johnson’s clinic [the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives] because the clinic he moved to was across the street from a school, but the law has also affected Gloria [Gray, the director of the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama]—and that’s not something a lot of us initially realized. She’s afraid this will shut her down for good. I would say this has been a very hard blow for her. I think Dalton was perhaps more prepared for it. He will fight the law.
The good news is that it’s not like either of these clinics will close tomorrow; this gets decided when they go back for relicensing at the end of the year. Right now, they’re in the middle of legal proceedings.
Of course, we’re all also awaiting the Supreme Court decision on Whole Woman’s Health. There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety right now, for these clinic owners in particular, but for all clinic owners [nationwide] really.
Rewire: Let’s talk about that. Later this month, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on that case. Even if the Supreme Court rules that these laws are unconstitutional, do you think the case will change the environment around reproductive rights?
DP: It really depends on how the Court writes the decision. There may be no case in which it’s more important for the Court to have a comprehensive decision. It’s a multiheaded hydra. There’s always something that can close a clinic, so it’s crucially important that this Court rules that nothing can hinder a woman’s right to choose. It’s important that this Court makes it clear that all sham laws are unconstitutional.
Rewire: We know abortion providers have been killed and clinics have been bombed. When filming, did you have safety concerns for those involved?
DP: Definitely. The people who resort to violence in their anti-choice activities are—I guess the most charitable way to describe it—unpredictable. I think the difficult thing is you can’t anticipate what an irrational person will do. We took the safety of everyone very seriously. With Dr. Willie Parker [one of two doctors in the entire state of Mississippi providing abortions], for example, we wouldn’t publicize if he’d be present at a screening of the film. We never discussed who would appear at a screening. It’s always in the back of your mind that there are people who feel so strongly about this they would resort to violence. Dr. Parker said he’s aware of the risks, but he can’t let them control his life.
We filmed over the course of a few years, and honestly it took me a while to even ask about safety. In one of our last interviews, I asked Dr. Parker about safety and it was a very emotional interview for both of us. Later during editing, there was the shooting at the Colorado clinic and I called him in a panic and asked if he wanted me to take our interview out of the film. He said no, adding, “I can’t let irrational terrorists control my life.” I think everybody who does this work understands what’s at risk.
Rewire: It seems Texas has become ground zero for the fight for abortion access and because of that, the struggles in states like Alabama can get lost in the shuffle. Why did you choose to focus on Alabama?
DP: I met Dr. Parker when he was working in Mississippi. The first meeting I did with him was in December 2012 and he told me that Alabama had three clinics and that no one was talking about it. He introduced me to the clinic owners and it was clear that through them, the entire story of abortion access—or the denial of it—could be told. The clinic owners were all working together; they were all trying to figure out what to do legally so they could continue operating. I thought Alabama was unexplored, but also the clinic owners were so amazing.
To tell you the truth, I tried to avoid Texas for a long time. If you follow these issues around reproductive rights closely, and I do, you can sort of feel like, “Uh, everyone knows about Texas.” But, actually, a lot of people don’t know about Texas. I had this view that everyone knew what was going on, but I realized I was very insulated in this world. I started with Texas relatively late, but decided to explore it because we were following the lawyers with the Center for Reproductive Rights and they were saying one of their cases would likely go to the Supreme Court, and Whole Woman’s Health was most likely. They, of course, were right.
When you’re making a film, you’re emerged in a world and you have to take a step back and think about what people really know, not what you think they know or assume they know.
Rewire: In TRAPPED, you spliced in footage of protests from the 1970s, which made me think about how far we’ve come since Roe v. Wade. Sometimes it feels like we’ve come very far, other times it feels like nothing has changed. Why do you think abortion is such a contentious topic?
DP: I don’t think it’s actually that contentious, to tell you the truth. I think there is a very vocal minority who are extreme. If you poll them, most Americans are pro-choice and believe in the right to abortion in at least some circumstances. Most people are not “100 percent, no abortion” all the time. People who are, are very vocal. I think this is really a matter of having people who aren’t anti-choice be vocal about their beliefs.
Abortion is not the number one social issue. It was pretty quiet for years, but we’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party and conservative Republicans heavily influencing policy. The conservative agenda has been elevated and given a larger platform.
We need to change public thinking about this. Part of that conversation is destigmatizing abortion and not couching it in a shameful way or qualifying it. Abortion is very common; many, many women have them. Three in ten U.S. women have had an abortion before the age of 45. I think that part of the work that needs to be done is around stigma and asking why are we stigmatizing this. What is the agenda around this?
Evangelicals have done a great job of making it seem like this is an issue of morality, and it’s just not. To me, honestly, it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-choice or anti-choice. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. I can respect different opinions, but I can’t respect someone who tries to subvert the political process. People with power and influence who tamper with the political process to impose their beliefs on other people—I really can’t respect that.
Rewire: There are a lot of entry points for conversations about abortion access. What brought you to focus on TRAP laws?
DP: People often discuss abortion in terms of morality, but that’s not what we should be talking about. The reason why these laws have been so effective is because they successfully harm the least powerful of the group they’re targeting. Who’s getting picked on, who’s suffering the most? Women of color, people who are low-income, people who don’t have health insurance. There’s something so unjust about how these laws are disproportionately affecting these populations, and that really bothered me. I’m certainly interested in abortion as a topic, but I’m also interested in politics and power and how those things take shape to hurt the most vulnerable.
Rewire: In TRAPPED, we get to see a very personal side of all the clinicians and providers. One clinician discusses having to be away from her six children all of the time because she’s always at the clinic. We get to see Dr. Willie Parker at church with his family. And it was amazing to learn that the remaining providers in Alabama are friends who regularly eat dinner together. Was it intentional to humanize providers in a way we don’t usually get to see?
DP: Absolutely. The anti-choice side has successfully painted the picture of an abortion provider as this really shady, sinister person. I spent three years embedded in these clinics, and that couldn’t be further from what I saw. These are passionate, brave people, but they’re also very normal people. They’re not superheroes or super villains. They’re just normal people. It’s not that they don’t think about what they’re doing; they’re just very resilient and courageous in a way that makes me very proud. I wanted people to see that.
Rewire: Honestly before watching TRAPPED, I never thought about the personal toll that pressure takes on providers. Dalton Johnson used his retirement funds in order to continue providing abortion care. In several scenes, we see an emotional Gloria Gray struggling with whether or not to keep fighting these laws. Do you think people generally understand what it’s costing providers—financially and emotionally—to continue operating?
DP: I don’t think a lot of us think about that. People like Dalton are saying, “I would rather cash out my retirement than give in to you people.” We should not be asking people to make that kind of sacrifice. That should not be happening.
We also don’t spend enough time thinking about or talking about all of the things that have happened to create the conditions we’re now dealing with. It’s like a perfect storm. Medical schools are not training abortion providers, and the abortion providers that are around are getting older and retiring. Of course laws keep getting passed that make it more and more difficult to run a clinic. In this kind of environment, can you really blame people for not wanting to be providers? Especially when there’s the added pressure of having to take not just your own safety into account, but the safety of your family.
This is why so few go into this field. As the number of providers in some states continues to get eliminated, the burden left on those standing is exponentially greater.
The reason why we have a crisis around abortion care is not just laws, but because we have so few physicians. There are all of these factors that have come together, and we didn’t even get to cover all of it in the documentary, including the fact that Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion [under federal law. Seventeen states, however, use state funds to cover abortion care for Medicaid recipients.] A lot of this is the result of conservative lobbying. People have to be aware of all the pressures providers are under and understand that we didn’t get to this point of crisis accidentally.
Rewire: It can feel hopeless, at least to me. What gives you hope when it comes to this unrelenting battle for reproductive rights in this country?
DP: I don’t feel hopeless at all. I feel like it’s really important to be aware and vigilant and connect these dots. I wanted to help people understand the complications and the challenges providers are up against.
These providers have done their part, and now it’s time for the rest of us to do ours. People can vote. Vote for people who prioritize providing education and medical care, rather than people who spend all of their time legislating an abortion clinic. Alabama is in a huge fiscal crisis. The education system is a mess. The Medicaid system is a mess, and the whole Alabama state legislature worked on a bill that would affect a couple of abortion clinics. Voters need to decide if that’s OK. I think this is all very hard, but it’s not at all hopeless.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.
Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.
In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”
When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.
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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.
Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.
A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.
Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures
Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:
Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.
While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.
As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]
In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.
In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.
According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.
Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.
In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.
March wrote in the Times:
As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.
March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.
Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.
From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.
Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.
He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Timesarticle that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.
Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.
Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.
“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.
At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.
Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.
From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence
Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.
In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.
Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.
It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.
Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.
At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.
Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.
Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.
In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.
“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.
“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”
They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.
The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.
“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”
They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”
CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”
Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.
This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.
Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.
CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.
“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.
CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.
“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.
“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.
In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.
In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.
“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.
The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement
The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.
Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.
“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”
Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.
“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.
His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.
Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.
“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”
Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.
In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.
Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:
My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?
“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”
Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.
“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.