The state of the American man
by TOM JUNOD
By: Tom Junod
Can America and Islam coexist? The answer may lie with the fate of twenty-five-year-old “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. As the U.S. military again storms Taliban strongholds, revisit the prison profile of the man who now calls himself Hamza.
Arabic must be one hell of a language. It must indeed be preeminent among all languages on earth, because it is the language of revelation in Islam. It is not only the language that the Prophet, peace be upon him and his family, spoke to all of humankind; it is the language that God spoke to the Prophet. It is the language that God chose to make His wishes for humankind known. In Islam, there are none of the bewildering textual controversies that have beset Judaism and Christianity; in Islam, there are no authors with competing claims. There is only one God, giving one specifically Arabic Koran to his final Prophet. Let other religions divide themselves with their warring tongues, their disjointed canons. In the singular Arabic of the singular Quran, humankind has found its answer to Babel.
And so it is that the Holy Koran cannot exist in translation. There are many translations of the Koran, but they are not the true Koran itself, for it is only the Arabic that transforms God’s repetitive instructions and injunctions and warnings and threats — and his repetitive hatred of the infldel — into a miraculous song impervious to every challenge.
And so it is that every Muslim must try to master Arabic. It is not necessary that every Muslim succeed in his effort, for God made every man with different capabilities. But it is necessary for every man to try, once he becomes a Muslim. The effort is his obligation, his fard. God is merciful, wise.
And so it is that when a sixteen-year-old American named John Walker Lindh converts to Islam in 1997, he begins calling himself Suleyman al-Faris and sets about trying to master the language of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
And so it is that Suleyman travels alone from California to Yemen when he is seventeen years old and attends an Arabic language school. Two years later, he goes again, this time with the intention of absorbing not only the singular language of Arabic but also what he hopes will be a singular Islamic culture. He does not find singularity in Yemen, and so he tries finding it in a madrassa — an Islamic school — in Pakistan, and then a military training camp in Afghanistan.
And so it is that for months, Suleyman speaks almost nothing but Arabic in the mountains of Afghanistan, for Muslims come to Afghanistan from all over the world, seeking to fulfill their religious obligations by engaging in jihad — by taking up the cause of Afghans fighting to maintain a pure Islamic state. The Afghans he is fighting for are called the Taliban, and speak their own language, Pashto. The Muslims who come in their cause speak Arabic and go to the front lines in the Afghan civil war as Al Ansar — the Arabic term for “the helpers.” By the time Suleyman reaches the front on September 6, 2001, carrying his rifle and his grenades, he is just twenty years old and already fluent in the one language of the one God. He is a prodigy waiting to become a saint.
And so it is that after September 11, when the Americans come to Afghanistan with their planes and their bombs, and they capture Suleyman and put him in front of a camera, he speaks his English with a slight Arabic accent, and millions of people in America and all over the world believe they hear the mottled tongue of treason.
And so it is that when an American dies in the battle that led to his capture, Suleyman is accused of conspiring to kill him.
And so it is that now he is imprisoned in America for twenty years, and part of his sentence is that America will not allow him to speak Arabic. He cannot teach; he cannot even pray with an open mouth. It is forbidden. And yet the brothers in the prison speak Arabic to him, because they know he is learned, patient — a serious scholar. He doesn’t call himself Suleyman anymore, but he hasn’t gone back to calling himself John, either. He calls himself Hamza, after the uncle of Muhammad, peace be upon him. He is Hamza Walker Lindh, still caught between the language of the Islamic imperium and the language of the American empire. And one day in late 2003, when he is on line for chow and one of the brothers says to him, “Assalamu alaikum,” he has a decision to make. Assalamu alaikum is the traditional Muslim greeting. It means “Peace be upon you,” and when a Muslim hears it, it is customary for him to respond not only in kind but in excess of the original greeting — in slightly more effusive language. But the language is Arabic. And Hamza is standing within earshot of a guard. And he, with his pinioned tongue, knows that to speak is to be punished. And he has to choose, as he has always had to choose. And his choice has always been one choice, as his God has always been one God.
And so it is that Hamza speaks.
He is a better person than you or I. He has gone away, but his story hasn’t, because his story is about something no prison can extinguish. Even in prison, he has a glow, a light on his face. He has a spiritual presence. His list of don’ts stretches further than your list of dos, and his list of dos keeps him occupied in the vast chronological wasteland of prison. He’s very kind. He has no anger, no dark testosteronal currents. He has a sad story to tell, but he doesn’t tell it as a sad story. He is not bitter. He’s funny, in fact. His father, on the lecture circuit now, says that when he visits his son in prison, they sit for five and six hours at a time, talking, laughing. The guards look at them. Not that he’s flippant, a wiseguy. He’s very, very serious. He’s very concerned about the poor — so concerned that he’s lived among them. He’s committed to social justice, though he’s the first to admit that he’s made some bad decisions in that regard. But that’s another thing about him. He never lies. He never changes his story, even when he has every reason to. He’s very consistent, to put it mildly.
If you happen to be a Muslim: Well, he’s a better Muslim than you are, too. If you want to know him — why he did what he did, why he does what he does — all you have to do is open the Koran and read. It’s all there. In Islam, more than in Christianity or Judaism, perfection is a possibility, and that’s what he strives for. Islam has no apparatus for the official recognition of saints, but it has a word, waliyy, that means in the Arabic “one of God’s special slaves.” Well, that’s him. When he went to Yemen in 2000 — the trip that took him to Pakistan and Afghanistan and back to America in shackles — he went to memorize the Koran. He got a quarter of the way through before he was captured on December 1, 2001. He finished at the federal prison in Victorville, California, where he lives now. In the Muslim world, that’s not only an honor to him; it’s an honor to his entire family.
But then: Maybe you’re not a Muslim. Maybe you’re just an…American, and you don’t particularly care if John Walker Lindh is waliyy or not. You don’t particularly care if he’s a better Muslim or even a better person, because neither of those things makes him a better American. Even if he didn’t do what the government originally said he did, he did something, and what he did was put Islam first. Islam is the Arabic word for “submission,” and John Walker Lindh submitted. He was free to do so, of course, because he was an American. But his freedom to practice any religion he wanted eventually put him in the service of a cause that had nothing to do with freedom. His search for purity within himself eventually led him to search for a pure Islamic state — and to serve the comprehensively oppressive Taliban. And now he is supposed to be pure in thought and in word and in deed. Well, that purity is what makes him problematic to Americans, because it’s Muslim purity, and Muslim purity and American freedom seem to be on a collision course. Indeed, they have already collided in the person of John Walker Lindh, and American freedom was the worse for it, while Muslim purity found its perfect, silent spokesman.
Hamza does not have to speak. He does not have to answer the brother’s greeting, even after the brother says, “Assalamu alaikum” on the chow line. It is not an obligation. Oh, sure, he knows what is customary among Muslims. There is no one at the federal medium-security prison in Victorville who knows better. He has made a study of proper Islamic etiquette, as he has made a study of most things relating to the Prophet, peace be upon him. The way Hamza shakes hands — with a lingering refusal to be the first to break the clasp — is the Muslim way. So is the way he engages his teachers. “In the Islamic spirit of learning, there is an elaborate etiquette to be followed,” says Shakeel Syed, an imam from Los Angeles who served as a contract chaplain at Victorville through the summer of 2005. “If your teacher is wrong, and you know he is wrong, there is no public correction. There is only public praise. And even in private, criticism is implied and inferred. And even after all that, it is customary for the student to say, ‘God knows best — maybe both of us are wrong.’ Well, that’s Hamza. He has the kind of knowledge you don’t get from Islam 101 books. We used to have circle discussions after Friday prayers. And in one of the historical stories I mentioned, I referred to a person as a cousin of Muhammad. Hamza waited till everyone left. Then he said, very politely: ‘You might want to double-check that. You may very well be right, but you might want to check — and I’ll check, too.’ There’s nothing he does that’s not in the Islamic spirit.”
And yet, because Hamza knows his etiquette, he knows it would not be a violation of etiquette to stay silent after the brother’s greeting, for God is generous, forgiving. Indeed, God says that He has given his Koran to the faithful to make life easier for them, not harder. God calls Islam the middle way, not only the straight path but the path of moderation. He allows many exemptions from the practice of faith if the practice of faith puts the faithful in peril. He even allows the faithful to disavow their faith, so long as their hearts stay true. And surely Hamza faces peril from the practice of his faith and the expression, in Arabic, of his true heart.
He was in chains, after all, when he returned from Afghanistan to America on January 23, 2002. He faced spending the rest of his life in prison after a federal grand jury returned charges two weeks later that he had conspired to kill Americans and had lent “material support” to Al Qaeda. Even after the Justice Department offered a plea bargain in July 2002 and dropped eight of the ten charges against him, even after prosecutors finally admitted that there was no evidence that he had joined Al Qaeda or threatened to kill Americans, even after he wound up pleading guilty only to carrying a rifle and grenades for the Taliban, the government and its negotiator, Michael Chertoff, made his silence a condition of the plea. And so, although it dropped all charges against the defendant relating to terrorism, the administration would continue to treat the defendant as a terrorist through the course of his incarceration by imposing what is known by statute as special administrative measures and by common parlance simply as a gag order. He would not spend his life in jail. He would spend, instead, twenty years in jail, and during that time not only would he be unable to have any visitors but his attorneys and his father and his mother and his brother and his sister and his grandmother; not only would his visitors be forbidden to relate to the public anything he said or thought; not only would the FBI have to read and clear any letter he sent or received and the government reserve the right to bug his conversations with his cellmates and monitor his phone calls. No, he would also have to abide by the following provision of the SAM: “All communications with others will be in English.”
He is, by virtue of the strictures on his speech, regarded as a political prisoner inside prison walls. And so surely the brother who greets him would forgive Hamza his silence. Surely Hamza could just mouth the proper Arabic words, or speak them under his breath, or whisper them so quietly that no guard could hear him. Surely God would forgive such an exercise in discretion….
“Walaikum assalam,” Hamza says, loud enough for the brother — and the guard — to hear.
Maybe the guard is new, and zealous. Maybe Hamza knows the guard is new and zealous and wants to be zealous in return. For, as Shakeel Syed says, “he has an option to lead a normal Muslim prison life. Instead, he chooses to defy every norm the prison is used to — both the administration and the inmates.” And so the zealous guard reports that zealous prisoner 45426-083 has spoken words in the forbidden tongue. And when prisoner 45426-083 returns to his cell, he is ordered to back up to the feeding slot in his cell door. He is handcuffed through the slot and led away to the Special Housing Unit — also known as the SHU, also known as the hole. There he has to strip naked and is searched under his testicles and in the cavity of his ass. And there Hamza settles into his cell, with the Arabic singing in his head, where no one can stop it.
He was the first.
The first American to get Abu-Ghraibed, long before Americans knew they were capable of such an exotic verb. The first to inspire Donald Rumsfeld to issue the order “Take the gloves off,” and the first to be on the order’s receiving end. The first to be denied medical treatment, the first photographed naked and bound, the first taunted while blindfolded, the first — certainly the first — to have SH**HEAD scrawled on his blindfold, the first whose digital photos made their way round the world as souvenirs, the first denied access to the Red Cross, the first to be ushered into a legal limbo created ex nihilo by the administration’s notions of executive power. He served as a test case for an administration eager to see what it could get away with, and what it tried to get away with was, well, this: His father hired him a lawyer as soon as he saw his son on MSNBC. The lawyer immediately wrote to John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and George Tenet and informed them that John Walker Lindh had counsel, and counsel was ready to fly to Afghanistan to meet him. They did not write him back, but John Ashcroft did not believe he was obliged to. He operated on the theory that John Walker Lindh had a lawyer only if he, not his father, hired one, even though at the time John Walker Lindh was blindfolded and duct-taped naked to a stretcher in Afghanistan. He was being held in a shipping container, and he had a bullet in his thigh, and by the time an FBI agent interrogated him, the bullet had been in his thigh for nearly two weeks and the wound was starting to stink. “Of course, there are no lawyers here,” the agent told him, and two days after he gave his statement, he was moved to a ship in the Arabian Sea and the bullet was finally extracted.
The treatment John Walker Lindh received while in American hands is not only an affront to conscience. It manages to make someone described by everyone who knows him as “singular” and “one of a kind” somehow representative of betrayed American innocence, and that indeed is how Frank Lindh characterizes him when he talks about him in public. When John Walker Lindh was being reviled as a traitor, Frank Lindh was being reviled for allowing him to become one. When no less successful a parent than George Herbert Walker Bush was lampooning John Walker Lindh for being a “misguided Marin County hot-tubber,” Frank Lindh was being lampooned for actually raising his son in a place like Marin County, and then for divorcing his wife, Marilyn Walker, and living with a man. And when, after his sentencing, John Walker Lindh began his imposed silence, Frank Lindh began an elective one, along with the rest of his family. Now, though, John Walker Lindh’s lawyers have petitioned the administration to commute his sentence. Yaser Hamdi — the other American citizen who was taken prisoner alongside John Walker Lindh during the rout of the Taliban and was in the same place at the same time doing the same things — has, after spending three years in a Navy brig without being charged with any crime, been sent home to Saudi Arabia, where he was raised. And Frank Lindh, a lawyer himself, has sensed an opportunity not only to press his son’s case but also to tell his son’s story the way he sees it — the way he has always seen it, even when his son was extolling the virtues of martyrdom on CNN.
It has always been difficult for John Walker Lindh’s parents to reconcile the classically American innocence and idealism they perceive in their son with the extremism of his eventual actions and allegiances. And to the extent that Frank Lindh does it, while speaking one April evening on the stage of a private school in Oakland, he does it by characterizing John Walker Lindh as extremely innocent, extremelyidealistic, and, above all, extremely American. A teenager who found God, or, as his family thought of it, his passion. A seventeen-year-old who travels with his father to Ireland in full Islamic dress and wins over the local Catholics with the simplicity and fervor of his love for God. A nineteen-year-old who is bold and brave enough to say goodbye to his weeping family and travel for the second time on his own to Yemen in search of the true Arabic. A twenty-year-old who in late April 2001 e-mails his parents from an Internet cafe in Pakistan with a request for permission to go into the mountains for the summer — and neglects to mention that he means the mountains of Afghanistan. A young trainee who believes he has chosen the right side in the civil war between the mujahideen of the Taliban and the corrupt warlords of the Northern Alliance. A dedicated student who knows after meeting Osama bin Laden in the summer of 2001 that bin Laden is not a serious scholar — and who falls asleep during bin Laden’s speeches. A green soldier who does sentry duty at the front lines and never flres his gun. A homesick American who like all Americans dreams of coming home for Christmas…until, that is, America comes for him. And not the America he knew, not the America he left just a year earlier — an America changed by 9/11 and determined to show the world that the innocent empire that might have forgiven someone like John Walker Lindh is gone forever.
It is an American story, all right. It is so American that Frank Lindh, in his trimmed beard and his gray suit, sometimes seems to be offering his own innocence — at once wounded and breathless — as proof of his son’s. When he gave his permission to John to travel into the mountains in the spring of 2001, he wrote in an e-mail, “I trust your judgment and hope you have a wonderful adventure.” After all that has happened since Frank wrote those words, he still lives by them. He still trusts and he still hopes. He still has such complete faith in his son that he has become a kind of fundamentalist on his son’s behalf — a fundamentalist who discounts his son’s own fundamentalism. In Frank’s recounting, John Walker Lindh is not a religious figure but rather a romantic one, whose e-mails from his travels “are still a delight to read, full of wonderful observations and wry comments,” and who while abroad “met a lot of interesting people” from places like Indonesia and Chechnya. “John’s views are very much those of a mainstream Muslim,” he says, in answer to a question. “He’s not an extremist in any sense.” Never, in the hour and a half he’s onstage, does he acknowledge that the interesting people John met were, like John, perfectly willing to die in defense of Islam. Never does he suggest that it’s John’s very talent for extremity of faith and feeling that has sustained him through his trials and sustains him still. And never does he call John by the name John calls himself.
Never does Frank Lindh call his son Hamza.
Hamza spends a lot of time in the hole, according to two Muslims recently released from Victorville. He doesn’t even have to do anything. Other people do it, and Hamza goes into the hole. Other Muslims do it, and Hamza goes into the hole. Whenever there’s a big terrorist attack and Muslims take the blame, there goes Hamza for his own protection. He went to the hole after Madrid, and he went to the hole after London. He went because he was the most visible Muslim in the prison, and therefore representative. The prison didn’t want him to be the object of anti-Islamic anger. It did not want Hamza to provoke violence just by being quiet, gentle Hamza.
He was always a Muslim, his father says. He was born a Muslim on February 9, 1981 — already still, already centered, already disciplined. The Men at Work album was popular at the time, and his father and his mother and his older brother used to sing one of the songs to him: Boy, you sure are a funny kid, Johnny, but I like you. So tell me what kind of boy are you, John?
It’s one of the things Frank Lindh has a hard time getting people to believe, even from the podium — that his son became a Muslim not because of what went wrong in his childhood but because of what went right. What kind of boy was John? He was a rare boy indeed — a boy who consolidated all his frailties into a fantastic tensile strength and used all his stumbling to find exactly what he was looking for. He was a boy who loved music and language but was immediately skeptical of Santa Claus. He was a boy who went to Catholic church with Frank but who couldn’t accept the Trinity. He was a boy who loved his family but didn’t have a lot of friends. He was a boy who was physically robust but also suffered terribly from allergies. When he was ten years old, his family moved from a suburb of Washington, D. C., to San Anselmo, outside San Francisco, and he got sick. He had chronic diarrhea. It was caused by a parasite, but it was thought to be psychosomatic, and he wound up being home-schooled for four years, developing the habits of the solitary scholar. Not particularly comfortable in his own skin, he sought to transcend it, and after he saw Spike Lee’s Malcolm X with his mother when he was twelve years old, he followed Malcolm’s own course from militancy to Islamic submission in accelerated fashion. In his early adolescence, he presented himself as a militant black rapper on hip-hop message boards, composing epic rhymes that castigated the rest of “his” race for selling out to the commercial interests of the white man. At the same time, he studied Islam, and when he was sixteen, before he could even drive, he showed up at the mosque in Mill Valley, California, a half hour from his home, and met a devout young Muslim named Abdullah Nana.
“Most people, when they come to mosque for the first time, have questions, and ask for reading materials,” Abdullah Nana says at a halal restaurant in downtown San Francisco. “John Walker came in and said, ‘I want to be a Muslim.’ He’d already made the decision on his own. He didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t have any doubts. He was unique, in my experience.”
He converted that day. He took his shahada, right then and there. He declared, in front of the few brothers assembled at the mosque, that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad, peace be upon him, is His Messenger. Then he went home and took his symbolic shower and left his old — his young — life behind. He did not tell Frank and Marilyn, though, until one night Marilyn picked up the phone and a voice she had never heard before — the voice of an older man — asked for her son. When she asked John for an explanation, he said that the man was from the mosque and that he, John Walker Lindh, was now a Muslim. His father and his mother both wound up taking John back and forth to the mosque nearly every day, and John found himself with few encumbrances for his new faith. The Koran asked him to quit the association of infidel friends, but in Abdullah Nana’s memory there were no friends to quit. The Koran asked him to avoid women who were not devout, but in Abdullah Nana’s memory there were no women, no girlfriends back in San Anselmo. There were only the trips to the mosque in Mill Valley and then other mosques in San Francisco, and the two- or three-hour discussions he and Nana and a few other strictly orthodox young Muslims would have after Friday prayers, sitting bearded and robed and shoeless in a circle on the mosque’s carpeted floor.
“He was an example to other Muslims,” Nana says. “He was very pious, very dedicated. Within six or seven months, he was wearing full Muslim dress. And after a year and a half, he decided to leave the country. His first objective was to memorize the Koran. The fact that John accepted Islam and within a year and a half had left his country for study in a Third World country — this could only happen with a person who had dedication, discipline, and commitment.”
Abdullah Nana and the teenager he still calls John Walker often spoke of going abroad to study Arabic and Islamic law. John went first. Abdullah went a year later, and now, at twenty-seven, he’s the co-imam of the Mill Valley mosque. He’s married, and in public his wife covers her face completely. He wears a long white robe and a white flat-topped headdress. His face is curtained by a thick black beard, and he speaks in a soft monotone that is occasionally inaudible. He does not listen to any music with a beat, because “music with a beat is not permissible — it causes hypocrisy of the heart.” He eats without a fork, with his right hand, because that is how the Prophet, peace be upon him, is said to have eaten. He tries to sleep as the Prophet is said to have slept, and to deal with his relatives as the Prophet dealt with his relatives. When he speaks of his own conversion to a devout and orthodox brand of Islam, he recalls his years attending Cal-Berkeley, where, he says, “it does bother you a little, to see too much freedom.” He offers, in short, a glimpse of the kind of Muslim John Walker would be if John Walker had gone abroad, completed his studies, and come home to Marin County. Of course, John Walker never did come home. Although Abdullah’s devotion nearly matched John Walker’s, he wound up following the course of study most Muslims from secularized countries follow — that is, he chose to study in another relatively secularized country. He studied in South Africa. John Walker, on the other hand, chose to study in a country untouched by modernism, much less secularism. He chose to study in Yemen, where men wear daggers and carry guns and chew khat all day. Now he is in Victorville, and what he has in common with Abdullah Nana is…well, almost everything, because they have both offered their freedom to God, and while Abdullah continually checks the time to make sure he’s not missing his obligatory prayers, John Walker is doing the same thing four hundred miles away, an anchorite in a desert prison.
Each day, just before dawn, Hamza wakes up to pray in a world of men. It is not easy to wake up in a prison before the wake-up call, but as an inmate and a Muslim there are two clocks he has to obey. There is the clock set by the prison and the clock set by the Creator, all praise be upon Him, when He bid the earth to move in its wobbly cycles around the sun. And so Hamza gets out his prayer mat and bends toward Mecca in the dark at the time prescribed on the downloaded prayer schedule posted in the prison chapel. As a free man, he made himself a prisoner of God’s will. Now this imprisonment is his only freedom. It is all one, to the one God.
He never misses the predawn prayer. He is known for not missing the predawn prayer, for even the most devout sleep past the prayer occasionally. But not Hamza, because Hamza is waliyy. There are about fifty Muslims at Victorville, and they all know Hamza is a beautiful brother. His cellie is a Muslim, an older white man. His closest friend is a Muslim, a slim, bespectacled black man who — according to former inmates — killed another soldier while in the military. Hamza doesn’t have many friends, though, for he is in for the long haul and doesn’t want anyone to suffer from their association with him. He also doesn’t watch TV, or play cards, or play basketball, or talk about politics. He just prays with the other Muslims. He studies with the other Muslims. And he eats with them — for they all eat together, away, by choice, from the other inmates — when he is not fasting. He fasts twice a week, Monday and Thursday, from sunup to sundown. Like all his brothers, he feasts at the end of Ramadan.
At seven o’clock in the morning he goes to work in the library. It is not a job that most other inmates want, but it suits Hamza, because all Hamza does is read and study. He reads and studies so much that people have to stop him from reading and studying, and sometimes his only respite comes when the brother who makes the prayer call comes for him and brings him to the chap-el. He cannot speak Arabic, he cannot pray in Arabic, but he can read Arabic. He can read the Koran and he can read, in his father’s words, “five-hundred-year-old Arabic texts,” and they are his sustenance, although according to Shakeel Syed, “he has lost some of his spoken fluency.” Still: Arabia, pronounced Ar-a-bee-uh. That’s what the brothers call Arabic, their slang for the divine language. As in: “Hamza? No, you can’t do nothing to Hamza. Nothing fazes him. He just sits there reading that Arabia….”
His diet is what’s called common fare, which is the institutional attempt to accommodate all prisoners with dietary restrictions. Hamza is a good cook, though, and often he and some of the brothers skip the meat and make their own meals with the common-fare vegetables and sardines they buy at the commissary. After dinner, there is time to relax, although for Hamza relaxation often means listening to Islamic audiotapes and watching Islamic videos. Ten o’clock is the count, when every prisoner must be in his cell before the doors close. And then, slowly, there is the sound of surrender, the sound of men dropping off to sleep, even Hamza, until midnight. That’s when he wakes up for his last prayer, an optional prayer, a prayer that God does not require but is delighted to receive. The prayer is called thetahajjud. It is a prayer through which the Muslim speaks to God most intimately. A sleeping man must wake himself up, and Hamza wakes himself up. And now, when he is obliged to show his deepest heart to God, the one thing his Muslim brothers can’t imagine him doing is asking God how he might have lived his life differently.
Whatever sympathy there was for Lindh was based on the idea that he was an idealist, and therefore a fool. That he took a wrong turn. That he was a starry-eyed kid, in over his head. That he was looking for his Muslim merit badge. That he stumbled and bumbled his way into Afghanistan. The problem with this idea is that it sells John Walker Lindh short. It doesn’t give him credit for his sense of purpose or his vast reserves of will. It doesn’t give him credit for what it took to get to Afghanistan, much less what it took for him to get back to America.
David Fechheimer knows what it took for John to get to Afghanistan. So does Barry Simon. They were the investigators hired by James Brosnahan and his law firm after Brosnahan took up John Lindh’s case. They were hired to trace his every step from February 2000, when he left for his second trip to Yemen, to December 1, 2001, when the remnants of the routed Taliban climbed out of the basement at an Afghan fortress and there he was, famously bearded, famously fllthy, famously Muslim, famously American, famously white. Not long after he came home — or, rather, back to America — Fechheimer and Simon met him in his cell in Alexandria, Virginia, where he was awaiting trial. They met with him for a total of about eight hours, and for a very specific purpose: “to get enough information to put together a defense,” says Fechheimer. “So there wasn’t a lot of small talk. We had to know where he had been and who he had talked to, and he was the only person who could tell us.”
They did not get to know him in their time with him — but then, he was not the kind of person you got to know. He was, rather, unlike any person they’d ever met, a throwback, Fechheimer says, “to those Victorian explorers” who had to go native in order to feel authentic. He was, like Lawrence of Arabia, willing to suffer almost any kind of deprivation, if deprivation was what it took to erase the distinction between himself and his hosts; he was, like Simone Weil, so spiritually ambitious that he was willing to starve himself into sainthood. “He had terrible eyesight, and he was frail physically, but he was tough as nails. He told me that during the last year of his travels, he spent $200, and he was deeply embarrassed at having spent that much.”
When Fechheimer and Simon traveled through John Lindh’s world in the spring and summer of 2002, they also found out this about him: “He had,” says Fechheimer, “almost photographic recall. He was an absolutely reliable narrator. We were on the moon, man, but you could find these places he talked about by following his directions to the letter. He would say, ‘Go west an hour and a half, then look for a large rock. If there’s a red mark on it, take a right and then look up and you’ll see a small valley….’ Well, if you did that, a small valley is exactly what you’d see. We actually found the foxhole he’d been in on September 11, and that’s how we found it.” And as John’s directions guided the two investigators, they came to discover the principle that guided John: “He was extremely hard on himself. If we ever came to a fork in the road and didn’t know which fork to take, we’d say, Okay, let’s take the hardest one. Let’s take the one that looks impossible — because that’s the one he’d take. And it always was.”
And so they followed his path to Yemen, where he was displeased with the first language school he attended because, in Simon’s words, “there were young girls from Texas smoking hash at night with bare sleeves” and where, ultimately, he went to three different schools, each one more fundamentalist than the last. They followed him to Pakistan, where he found a contact from a group called Tablighi Jama’at — a Muslim missionary group that preaches a fundamentalist brand of Islam to other Muslims — and rode for days on the back of a motorcycle looking for the right madrassa. They followed him to the city of Bannu, where he lived in the tiny, dirt-floored back room of a madrassa and where they found some of the possessions he left behind — notebooks filled with Arabic exercises, underwear, and an Adidas tracksuit. They followed him to the old smuggling town of Peshawar, where in May 2001 he showed up at a recruiting center for the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, which in 1997 had been designated a terrorist organization by the Clinton administration. They followed him to the military training camp of the HUM, where he was displeased to find prosperous Saudi boys looking to jihad as a way to lose weight. Then they did what he had done at the end of June and crossed into Afghanistan. Using his directions, they found the site of Al Farooq, the training camp funded by Osama bin Laden, where John Lindh, in the words of his sentencing memorandum, “voluntarily swore allegiance to jihad” and trained to serve the Taliban in its civil war against the Northern Alliance. And then they found his foxhole. It was in a place called Takhar, and “if we had seen a sign that says the world ends in five miles, we wouldn’t have been surprised,” Fechheimer says. “All the men are like five foot two. We met thirty-four-year-old men who had white beards. And if the people are smaller, so are the animals. There were all these…tiny donkeys.”
It was far away from Marin County, far away from America. Indeed, it had nothing to do with America, which, as far as Fechheimer and Simon could see, was why John Lindh went there. He wasn’t interested in being an American in Afghanistan; he was looking to lose his American identity among Arabs and Afghans — and Chechens and Uzbeks and Muslims from all over the world — in the most extreme landscape imaginable. “He wasn’t a poster boy for the Taliban,” Fechheimer says. “He didn’t receive special treatment, and he didn’t want any.” It was only the global shock of 9/11 that brought America and Americans to this place of tiny men and tiny donkeys, and, as Fechheimer says, “if George W. Bush couldn’t see 9/11 coming, how the hell could Johnny Walker?”
The same conclusion was reached by Rohan Gunaratna, who was hired by James Brosnahan to interview John Walker Lindh and write a report to the court before his sentencing. Gunaratna had made a career of interviewing terrorists and writing about terrorism and had served as an expert witness both for and against the government. He spoke to John Lindh for eight hours and decided emphatically that he was not a terrorist. “He had no intention of killing civilians,” Gunaratna says. “He was not Al Qaeda. At Al Farooq, there was military training for soldiers in the Taliban and very specialized training for Al Qaeda. He trained as a soldier. He wore a Taliban uniform. It has become common to speak of Al Qaeda and the Taliban as if they are the same thing, but they are not. In fact, he was asked by [Al Qaeda lieutenant] Abu Mohammad al-Masri if he wanted to go to the United States or Israel as a martyr. John answered that he came to Afghanistan to serve on the front lines against the Northern Alliance. It’s very difficult to refuse in a place like Al Farooq. But he refused.”
And yet: Shouldn’t the nature of al-Masri’s invitation have informed him that he might be fighting for the wrong side? Wasn’t the spring and summer of 2001 a decisive time, when the Taliban set itself on an increasingly confrontational course with the West? Even if John Walker Lindh had no access to the Internet or anything like modern communications when he was training in Al Farooq and soldiering on the front lines in Takhar, he went to Internet cafe’ when he was in Bannu, and surely he knew what course the Taliban was taking. Surely he was aware that on March 9, 2001, the Taliban had destroyed the towering twin fifteen-hundred-year-old Buddhas carved into the side of sandstone cliffs in northern Afghanistan, in an emblematic bit of icon smashing that indicated a new kind of evil was afoot and presaged so much grief to come….
“Yes, he was aware,” Gunaratna says. “But he was a young man. People make mistakes when they are young. He didn’t think it was the worst thing. For him, the destruction of the Buddhas was like Lenin’s statue coming down at the end of the cold war. He was very ideologically driven. He was radicalized. The process of radicalization had begun when he was in Yemen. He went to the Taliban because he had been radicalized.”
There were no Taliban left when Fechheimer and Simon retraced John’s steps in Afghanistan. At least, they couldn’t find anyone who admitted he belonged to the Taliban, although they did see plenty of people driving the Taliban’s trademark black Toyota pickups. And they did meet plenty of people who knew or knew of John Walker Lindh. “He was kind of a mythical character,” Simon says, “because his single-mindedness outdid theirs.”
America still doesn’t know how many radicalized Muslims made their way here. But as far as radicalized white Americans making their way over there:
John Walker Lindh was the only one.
About three months after Hamza was incarcerated at Victorville in February 2003, he was jumped outside the chapel by a white inmate reputed to have ties to the Aryan Nation. According to a former Muslim inmate named Abdul Rahim, the attack came not because of Hamza’s history but because of his fraternization with the brothers, in both senses of the word — the Muslims and the African-Americans. “They just couldn’t stand the fact he was in that religion with blacks and Hispanics and Arabs. Now he’s surrounded by Muslims. They got Muslims now coming from the penitentiary, and they’ll kill you if you transgress a brother.”
Still, Hamza is careful. The greatest fear of his father and mother is simply that he will be killed in prison, and it is probably Hamza’s, too. He doesn’t go where there is a lack of supervision. He doesn’t play sports, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time out on the yard, except on Fridays, when after Friday prayers some of the brothers find a corner in the yard and talk about God and nobody dares mess with them or with Hamza. Well, almost nobody: “A Christian guard — a good, decent man — told me something one day,” says Shakeel Syed. “He said, ‘Some of us try to provoke him once in a while. We try to make him mad.’ Then he said, ‘We fail miserably.’ ”
It is what everybody who comes into contact with Hamza eventually concludes: that there is something inviolate at the heart of his being, maybe because he has found a peace beyond understanding, or maybe simply because he has already been violated. By the terms of his gag order, he is not allowed to speak publicly of what happened to him in Afghanistan and in American hands after the surrender of the Taliban, but Hamza never talks about it with anyone, not even his father or Shakeel Syed. And so his father, when he visits Victorville and watches his son walking across the visiting room, sees the body language of a man holding in tremendous grief, and Syed says, “I would often question myself: What can I teach to this man who has gone through experiences no man should go through, who has endured such hardships and tribulations? What can I possibly impart?”
“They who believe, and who fly their country, and fight in the cause of God may hope for God’s mercy,” says the second Sura of the Holy Koran.
Why did such a gentle soul as John Walker wind up carrying a gun for any army, much less the army of the Taliban? It is simple: John Walker believed. Therefore he was obliged to fight in the cause of God. And therefore he received God’s mercy.
Of course, it is easy to doubt. It is easy to join in the chest-beating rhetoric of America’s right-wing commentators, who every time they mention John Walker seem compelled to observe the convention of calling him a “punk” and a “coward.” But he was neither punk nor coward. He was Al Ansar. He was a helper. He was where he wanted to be — at the front lines in the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. He was in a foxhole. The front was static, and he spent his time reading the Koran. Then the American planes came and the front broke and the Northern Alliance began the rout. There was a desperate retreat, in the form of a fifty-mile march on foot from Takhar to Kunduz. There was no food and no sleep and hardly any water, and in the panicked darkness scores of Taliban soldiers were killed by friendly fire. The Taliban’s commanders negotiated a mass surrender with Northern Alliance warlord Rashid Dostum. The men were transported to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Many of the foreign fighters who made up Al Ansar were herded into a basement at Qala-i-Jangi, an old mud-brick, star-shaped castle several miles in circumference. Hundreds of men were in the pitch-dark basement, praying, shining flashlights in one another’s faces, trying to sleep standing up. John Walker was among them, standing in a corner where men defecated and pissed. So was Yaser Hamdi, the Saudi who was the other American citizen. They had met each other after the retreat, and Hamdi initially had no idea John Walker was an American because he spoke nothing but Arabic, and besides, there were no Americans in Afghanistan.
There were, though. The Americans had come, and the next morning — November 25, 2001 — when the men in the basement were brought one by one into the courtyard at Qala-i-Jangi, two American men were standing with Dostum’s soldiers. The men from the basement were bound by their arms and forced to kneel while the Americans looked them over and asked them questions and Dostum’s soldiers translated and hit them with rifles. Then John Walker was hit in the head with a rifle, and the Americans saw him and took him aside. They did not know that he was American, and John Walker did not tell them. John Walker, cross-legged and bound, did not say a word. They did not threaten him exactly, but they said that if he did not speak, he would be left to Dostum and he would die there at Qala-i-Jangi. Then one of the men John Walker shared the basement with the night before blew up a grenade he hid under his coat and the uprising at Qala-i-Jangi began. The American who was trying to get John Walker Lindh to talk was a CIA agent named Johnny Micheal Spann. He was shot in the head, and he was a historic figure just like John Walker, for he was the first American killed in America’s war on terrorism. John Walker was shot in the leg, and he played dead for twelve hours while the shooting continued and bodies piled up on both sides. Yaser Hamdi just ran and went back down to the basement. Finally dark came and someone came out of the basement and dragged John Walker back in. And then John Walker and Yaser Hamdi and several hundred men stayed in the basement for six days while Rashid Dostum, with the backing of American bombers, tried to get them out.
Six days: The American bomb came first, but the American bomb missed. Then came the grenades tossed down the air shafts. Then came the diesel fuel, poured in and then lit on fire. And then the freezing water pumped in from an irrigation ditch. They were blown up and then burned and then drowned in the dark. Men were dying continually, men were howling in pain and hunger, men were going mad. John Walker had a bullet in his leg, and he was also wounded from shrapnel, and he was sick from drinking the water fouled with the excrement of several hundred men and the effluvia of the sick and the dying. Yaser Hamdi, like all the rest, couldn’t sleep and had to keep standing because at the end, to sleep meant to slip away in the water. And still for six days they held out and only began to surrender because they faced the choice of surrendering to Dostum or surrendering to the water, and John Walker is said to have reminded the others that suicide was strictly prohibited by the Holy Koran.
And so you see — God is merciful, wise. You might say He was not there in such hell, but Yaser Hamdi was in the basement with John Walker, and this is what he says, in a phone interview from Saudi Arabia: “It was twenty-four hours asking our God, Allah, for any help. Men crying out to him. Men who were wounded, men who were sick, men who were dying: The Koran tells you how to pray in all situations. People there who couldn’t move and couldn’t turn to face Mecca still prayed. They prayed in one position until they died.
“We really had a strong belief and a strong faith in Allah, and we were praying to him all the time, and we knew what we were going through was something Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his companions would go through with patience. We were praying for patience. But it was hard. Really, really hard. You cannot imagine. This guy was killed, that guy was killed, and you saw your friends die right in front of your eyes. When they put in the water, people started sinking, and when we walked, we walked on top of them. Bombs, bullets, fire, and thirsty people yelling, ‘We want to drink the water.’
“What happened then was that some people lost their minds, and also people were injured really badly and they couldn’t stand up in the water anymore, and they just threw themselves into it. They are not killing themselves, because they are Muslims, but they just can’t handle it anymore, and we try to help them, and maybe John Walker did, too.
“When John Walker was in the basement, he was in a bad situation. He was injured and the situation was really bad, and Mr. John said, ‘I want to surrender. I can’t be patient more than that.’ It was impossible for him to be patient any further. We’re Arabs and we can be patient but John Walker couldn’t be patient any further. I said, ‘You be patient. If we surrender, we surrender all; if we die, we die all.’ And after that he moved and he walked in front of my eyes, and after that I did not see him at all. But he was not the first to surrender. Some of the guys in the basement who lost their minds were the first to surrender. And after that some Pakistani people. And after that John Walker came. He was not saying to anybody, ‘Let’s surrender.’ He surrendered by himself, and that’s it.
“In our life, in our world, there is no story like this. When we all surrendered, we said, ‘This is a miracle.’ Four hundred people were in the basement. Seventy survived. Three hundred thirty people died.
“Believe me, the most important thing in John Walker’s life is what happened in this castle.”
Hamdi’s numbers are not exact. The count is closer to this: 330 men went into the basement on November 25, 2001, and 85 came out on December 1. Many, including Hamdi, were then sent to GuantÃƒfÃ‚Â¡namo, although once American officials realized that Hamdi was an American citizen, he was brought to the United States and put in the brig for two years without access to counsel, until at last his lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld went to the Supreme Court and he was deported back to his family in Saudi Arabia. And John Walker went back to America with every reason to turn away from God.
Instead, he became Hamza.
It is agonizing for him, not to be able to share what he knows. When a person knows as much as Hamza does, it is human nature to want to share it, but in Islam the desire goes much further. It is an obligation. God has given him his knowledge for a reason, and the reason is the further glory of God. Oh, sure, sometimes he is asked to weigh in on disputes, for he is known for his wise counsel. And sometimes he offers a correction, if one of the brothers mispronounces his Arabia. And sometimes he’ll turn his back to a guard and say what he has to say in Arabic, quickly, as if he has turned away to cover a cough. Most of the time, though, he keeps it in, both the weight of his knowledge and the weight of experience that was necessary to get it.
Prisons actively discourage inmates from assuming leadership roles, because they are in the business of actively discouraging inmates from assuming power. And that goes double for Muslims, the Muslims say. And yet people come to Hamza. They watch him, they study his example, the way he talks, the way he walks. And they show up for Friday prayers to find out what Hamza — and by extension Islam — is all about. He even converts the converts. “You’ll see someone who’s been playing basketball too much, and he’ll be sitting in his cell reading the Koran,” Abdul Rahim says. “And you’ll say, Hey, man, aren’t you playing ball? And he’ll say, No, man, I’m fixing to be like Hamza.”
Christianity seeks to remake human nature, and its great ambition is its great fault. It is unambiguous in its prohibition of violence for any purpose, including self-defense, and so it makes hypocrites of its warriors. Islam’s great advantage is that it seeks only to govern human nature as it is, and so it doesn’t ask its warriors to be confiicted about confiict, as long as confiicts are conducted according to the principles of the Koran.
And so Hamza is an unconfiicted soul. Jihad is the obligation of every Muslim, and Hamza met his obligation. Martyrdom is the goal of every Muslim, but Hamza wrote later in an essay to the court that suicide bombing is against Islam, because the suicide bomber seeks to become a martyr by his own hand, and martyrdom is only God’s gift to grant. Hamza was not granted martyrdom, but he was granted something else — righteousness.
The reviled one is the righteous one. And if you don’t think so, take a look at him in the courtyard of Qala-i-Jangi, as he is questioned by Johnny Micheal Spann. Spann does not identify himself as a CIA agent, and Hamza does not answer his questions. Indeed, Hamza, with his beard and his long hair and his air of humble dereliction, looks iconic in a Christian sense, for the Christian god was well-known for not answering questions when his life was on the line. And yet he is spared. Who then is the righteous one? And who is favored by God?
Take another look at Hamza, when he is starved and shot and dehydrated and sick and sleepless and filthy and sooty, after being taken in a truck from the basement to an infirmary set up inside an old Afghan prison. It is not overdramatizing things to say he is close to death, but a CNN reporter finds out that he’s an American and puts him on camera. “If you’re concerned about my welfare, don’t film me,” Hamza says. The reporter finds a medic, and the medic gives the prisoner a shot of morphine, but the camera stays on. Who then is the righteous one? And who is favored by God?
Take another look. Now Hamza is on a plane, being transported to an ad hoc American base set up outside Kandahar called Camp Rhino. He still has the bullet in his thigh. He can’t walk, but his wrists are bound so tightly that he begins to scream. He says, “Please don’t kill me,” and a soldier tells him to shut up. Later he’s duct-taped to a stretcher, naked, and put in a shipping container. Soldiers are spitting in his food and taking souvenir pictures of him and his blindfold emblazoned with the word SH**HEAD. Who is the righteous one? And who is favored by God?
Take another look. He’s out of the container now, but he’s being interrogated by an FBI agent at Camp Rhino and still bound and still wounded. Of course, there are no lawyers there, and the FBI agent has neither audio nor videotape nor another agent to attest to the propriety of the proceedings and the accuracy of the statement. And Hamza tells him everything he knows, for he has nothing to hide. Who is the righteous one? And who is favored by God?
Now take another look, for he is back home. Take a look as the Justice Department makes sure he can’t speak Arabic, take a look as the Christian guards make sport of trying to provoke him….
It goes on and on. And here’s the thing: It will go on and on. He is Hamza now — Hamza Walker Lindh — and Hamza will never stop. His righteousness will never stop. In prison, and then out. “I don’t see him going on the speaking circuit when he goes out,” Shakeel Syed says. “But he will be pushed into that. When he gets out, he will have a married life. He will have a child, because his faith is so strong and his faith demands it. I see him living in a normal corner of life and yet bringing about some massive change….”
His father’s vision is at once more ambitious and more, well, innocent. Frank Lindh hopes that when his son gets out, he can serve as an ambassador between the United States and the Muslim world.
And he will get out. Unless the worst fears of his parents come to pass, he will get out, either when the Bush administration itself gets out and a more righteous man is elected, or at his scheduled release in 2019. But he will get out, and the question is not what he will be like — that we know — but what we will be like. For Hamza Walker Lindh has come to embody the challenge of Islam to America, and the challenge is simply this: In response to what America has done to him, Hamza has become more Islamic — more himself, and a better Muslim. And in response to what Hamza has done to it, America has become less properly Christian, and ever less democratic, and ever so much less than itself. It is a simple, remorseless calculus, and it will transform the face of the country Hamza is released into, whenever he is released.
For so it is that Hamza will be free to say what he knows, in the language of God.
And so it is that Hamza will finally speak, and America will have to hear.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of MuslimVillage.com.