The Usual Suspects

Defending Arabs and Muslims in the Age of the New War

It is September 16, Day Six of the manhunt for the collaborators in the suicidal dive-bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Activist attorney Stanley I. Cohen—the man some say might defend terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden if he is captured and brought to justice in America—is in his fourth-floor loft in Loisaida, pacing and fretting. For the past 10 hours, Cohen has been mulling over an anonymous communiqué someone has been circulating to Arab and Muslim leaders, calling on them to "refuse to participate . . . as a point of principle and . . . of self-defense" in the FBI's far-reaching investigation into the attacks.

Cohen is worried: Arabs and Muslims, current and former clients as far away as Texas, are frantic. Some are considering going into hiding because of what the FBI is asking them to do. The communiqué alleges that the FBI is twisting the arms of some imams to get approval for agents to "hold assemblies with members of our communities at which they propose to project slide shows of photographs depicting Arabs and Muslims [from] whom they are seeking more information."

According to the document, "It is the FBI's hope that community members will recognize the persons in the photographs, and then submit to interviews with agents, detailing all they know. Their proposed slide shows can only be regarded as 'fishing expeditions' at best, creating a coercive forum in which they can pursue any fanciful line of inquiry, no matter how unrelated to the current events." At worst, the communiqué warns, "such assemblies would give [the FBI] unlimited scope to stain any unfortunate Muslim's reputation with guilt by inference, making our community leaders, religious teachers and scholars easy targets for those who would wield the weapons of insinuation, rumor, and character assassination."

Cohen sighs and begins counting would-be casualties on his fingers. In "the first war of the 21st century," as President George Bush put it, the usual suspects—those Arabs and Muslims linked to terrorism abroad and hate crimes at home—will be the first to call him.

Five days earlier, after returning from his office near the smoldering ruins of the twin towers, an antsy Cohen tries to hunker down in what he calls "my ground zero." His three phones, which he believes have been monitored by the FBI for the past 15 years, have been ringing nonstop. On this somber Wednesday afternoon, Cohen barks at his growling chocolate Labrador retriever, Sadie, hangs up on a call, and answers the ear-splitting ring from his cell phone.

The caller, Cohen would tell this Voice reporter later, was Said Assi, the father of Mazin Assi, a 22-year-old Palestinian American who was charged with two other Arabs in the attempted firebombing of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel in the Riverdale section of the Bronx last October. Mazin and co-defendant Mohammed Alfaqih, 19, will be the first to be tried later this month under New York's new hate crime law. The third, who was 15 at the time and has not been identified because of his age, will be tried in Family Court. Attempted arson carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, but as a hate crime the maximum punishment is 15 years.

Immediately after the World Trade Center tragedy, Said began raising concerns about a pending neurological examination of his son; the trial was three weeks away, and he wanted Cohen's advice on resolving an insurance problem.

But Cohen, who, along with attorney Lynne F. Stewart, is representing Mazin, has heard Said's voice break before under emotional strain. He can tell that the hardworking immigrant is frightened—that he's petrified by the anti-Muslim fervor building in New York City in the wake of the kamikaze-style bombing of the World Trade Center by suspected Muslim extremists. Cohen can't guarantee Mazin's safety, but he cautions Said to keep his son shuttered and off the streets. After hanging up, Cohen is more determined than ever to petition the Supreme Court in the Bronx for a four-month delay.

"I do not want to change the venue," Cohen says defiantly. "I want my client tried by people of color in the Bronx. I want my client tried by a jury of people who understand the difference between anger and hate, a people who understand the legitimacy of fighting back.

"What I don't want is for Mazin Assi to be tried in this anti-Arab climate that is so pervasive right now. I think Muslims will be lynched all over the United States in the coming weeks. I think the FBI is going to whip up such fury that it will replace the hysteria caused by the shark attacks this summer. I can't have a young Muslim man tried in this light."

Cohen gives his word to Said Assi that he will do all he can to protect his son's constitutional rights. He isn't bluffing. The firebrand throwback to the '60s represents Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, the Hamas political leader who was jailed in New York and then turned over to Jordan in 1997.

It is now 6:30, and Cohen seems more accurate in predicting the type of calls he'll be fielding this evening. "I figure it is only a matter of time before the FBI and other delusional, paranoid wannabes start bothering clients of mine," he scoffs. "Already, they are being harassed, intimidated, and frightened."

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