By Ken Krayeske • 1:05 AM EST
Yusuf James Yee graduated West Point in 1990. He went to Syria, studied Islam, and soon was a Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Army. He later attended to the spiritual needs of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Then he began challenging U.S. military policies on the ground.
The Army accused him of spying. Superior officers threatened him with the death penalty. When treason failed to stick, they threw charges of adultery at him. For 76 days, the Army held him in the same Navy brig in South Carolina with Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi.
Yee didn't see Padilla or Hamdi because they were all isolated, and all were tortured with sensory deprivation tactics. Yee was never tried, charges were dropped, and he received not just an honorable discharge, but a commendation, too.
Sometimes, I get angry that I spent 13 hours in jail for blogging about a sitting governor's misguided policies. So when I saw Yee this past weekend at Hartford's Connecticut Convention Center for the Islamic Circle of North America conference, I asked him how he handled his anger.
"When I feel the bitterness, the anger, the frustration," he said, "I try to channel it into positive activities."
Yee humbled me. He survived the solitary confinement and torture tactics doled out by the U.S. government from lessons learned at West Point, and he is calm, at peace, almost, when discussing his ordeal.
Nor is he merely preaching positive change. He has channeled his angry energy into social organizing and change – he earned a selection to serve as a Washington state delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer.
Electoral change is the best avenue not just for Muslims, but for everyone, to reclaim our civil liberties, according to not just Yee, but the five other panelists who shared ideas with him during a discussion Saturday morning entitled "Stand Up and Claim Your Rights: The State of Contemporary Civil Liberties."
"We need to get our souls to the polls," said Imam Mahdi Bray from Virginia. "We need to register, educate and mobilize. Every single mosque should be used as a voter registration center, and then turned into a polling place."
Bray told how the Muslim vote catapulted Democrat Jim Webb into the U.S. Senate in 2006 over George Allen, and the Muslim community should follow that lead.
Webb won by less than 10,000 votes, and Bray claimed that some 93 percent of Muslims, or, about 48,000 votes, polled for Webb.
Bray's numbers run 15 percent higher than CNN exit polling data. But CNN seeminglyt equates Islam with "Other" in its "Vote by Religion" category. CNN named Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Other and None.
At less than 2 percent of the 2006 Virginia Senate vote, Jews repesented such an insignificant minority that CNN reported their vote totals for Allen and Wenn as asterisks.
On the "Other" hand, "Other" made up seven percent of all voters, and "Other" went 78-22 for Webb, two touchdowns from the 93-7 rout Bray described.
"Jim Webb wouldn't have won has it not been for a block vote from Muslims,” Bray said. In the upcoming presidential election, he said, "There are battleground states where Muslims can make a difference."
Chaplain Yee agreed, pointing to the "hijab incident" at a recent Obama rally in Michigan, where campaign staffers moved two women wearing headscarves from behind the podium to out of the cameras viewpoint.
The Obama campaign apologized, but the damage lingers. Yee argued the incident would not have occurred had Muslims been doing what Bray said – organize, organize, organize.
"Unless you get involved politically, things will not change,” said Ako Abdu-Samad, the state representative for Iowa's 66th district. "We need to be involved on all levels, from school board to city council."
Abdu-Samad, a Democrat, won the Des Moines seat in 2007. He noted that Blacks make up 2.3 percent of Iowa's population, and 25 percent of the prison population. They also make up at least four percent of the state legislature.
Despite modest gains in the electoral arena, all agreed racial and religious hatred has not stopped.
Imam Bray of Virginia said that his first encounter with terrorism was not 9/11, but in 1955 when the KKK firebombed his grandparents' home in Virginia because they raised money to pay Jim Crow poll taxes for poor blacks.
The persecution of black Muslims in America is nothing new.
"We are being made a product of the new cotton,” Abdu-Samad said. "We have fallen for the fact that we are a new bogeyman in town.”
To combat that, the Islamic community needs to step into the political battlefield.
"It is our right to be involved in this process," Abdu-Samad said. "It is our civil right to address these laws. I would also advise the Muslim community to meet with local officials, like every quarter, set up a meeting with the governor. We cannot sit back and pretend we don't exist."
All levels of law enforcement agencies that have been co-opted into fighting the war on terror seem to actively following and in some cases suppressing the Muslim community.
Yee ran through the list of liberties the government violated in capturing him: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, right to a speedy trial, right to due process, and right to legal counsel.
In Los Angeles, the LAPD attempted to map the Islamic community, according to Shakeel Syed.
"The LAPD said Muslims need to be studied," Syed said. "This project of mapping wanted to look at geographic location, history, demographics, language, culture, ethnicity, socio-economic status and social interactions. The LAPD wanted to be the psychoanalyst for the Muslim community."
Syed is executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an organization of some 75 mosques and Muslim organizations serving half a million Muslims. They fought it.
"What happened was unusual and worth celebrating," Syed said. "Muslims stood up and said absolutely no. They helped the LAPD see the light of day when they asserted their rights."
Perhaps the mapping maybe continued under a different guise, but Syed proclaimed it an organizing victory that challenged and negated the perceived vulnerability of a faith-based community .
"Rights don't come on a platter," Syed said. "They come in the streets with blood and sweat. We have to work for it. We have to be ready to sacrifice whatever it takes to restore the dignity of men and women."
Muslims need to reject the FBI's resuscitation of the notorious counter-intelligence surveillance operation, CointelPro. Anonymous tipsters destroyed CointelPro in the 1970s, but according to Imam Bray, it lives again. He dubbed it CointelPro-Lite.
Muslims, he said, need to frame this fight for civil liberties in terms of an expression of religiosity – of a directive from the same God that inspired people to end slavery, to end Jim Crow, to stop the Vietnam War and to dismantle Apartheid.
"We have to stand for justice even if it is in spite of ourselves," Bray said. "The consequences of injustice are dynamically drastic. Deliberate injustice is more fatal to the one who imposes it than to the one who it is imposed upon."