In 2009, after a previous trial resulted in a hung jury, Shukri Abu Baker was sentenced to 65 years in a United States prison after being convicted of having a role in distributing over 12 million dollars through the charity The Holy Land Foundation in material support to the designated terrorist group Hamas. The trial garnered a fair amount of press and attention as a supposed aspect of the War on Terrorism, but what frequently what wasn’t discussed was what the Holy Land Foundation actually did, which was provide relief in the form humanitarian aid. The organization focused on the Palestinian territories and refugee camps but it also extended into other regions of the world facing calamity, including the victims of floods in Iowa, Tornados in Texas, and the Oklahoma City Bombing in the United States. The crux of the argument against the Holy Land Five relies on the argument that the Palestinian zakats (charities) they worked with were in actuality fronts for Hamas. The truth beneath this accusation is that these zakats were at the same time receiving funding from USAID, and were not designated by any department as affiliated with Hamas or any other designated terrorist group.
The mass injustice of this trial were overwhelming, and best left to be rehashed on their own, but having to live in a society that can so callously distribute such harsh punishment for the crime of charity should be cause to react, to speak, and to speak to its victims directly, with the hope and compassion that the system has denied to them. This at least has been my thinking, and what prompted me to first write to Shukri, and it is with his blessing that I wanted to share our correspondence. The following letters were sent between February and May of 2013:
To Shukri Abu-Baker,
I’ve felt compelled to write to you, and I think before anything else I should offer an explanation as to why. It’s not as easy a task as it seems; to explain one’s self and their motivations. I might say in my gazing at the world my heart is drawn strongest to the things that pang it most. I understand you with limitations of headlines and anecdotes, I see a world, a country, a force of great power that came down upon you very harshly, and in my small corner of the world, my eyes and heart, I find you as a man without guilt. Perhaps I find you to be a man guilty of caring for the world; the people in the world who are hurting from her imbalances, her inequities, and her cruelties hidden from light. There are condemnations on the gentlest of hearts when their compassion touches where it is deemed undesirable, where human beings are deemed undesirable. For this I can console no one, not even myself.
If one could apologize for the whole of world, if even that was possible, still they would have to spend every last blessed breath of the rest of their life just to have uttered enough to cover but the smallest pockets of time and land. But still we try, and in part I write to you in this way: I as a small part of the world reaching out to you as another part of the world, frustrated by the impossibility of finding the words to say “I’m sorry for all of us,” yet offering them anyways. This extends on to the world. You and I can both look to Palestine and say “We’re sorry for the world.” We can look to Yemen, we can look to Pakistan, we can look to Burma, we can look almost anywhere in the world, and if we looked for too long the weight of it would crush our hearts. The frustration of wanting to apologize for the world is ever compounded by the size and beauty of it; the hope and glory of human beings. “We could be so much more, we should be so much more.” I would shout it to someone, but I’ve lost track of who to blame.
I’d like to move on to more hopeful topics, and to close on what compels me, us, all of us, I want to offer you a quote from Frederick Buechner that I think covers the issue to the point where need might not be left to say anything more: “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ” Now in fairness I have no idea what it is like for the people and places that break my heart, but still it breaks, onward and onward.
Having covered the shadow that means to envelope the world it is imperative that we discuss the hope that lives inside of it, the lights that refuse to be snuffed out, the sparks that grow into beacons. It is a power that lives inside of each of us, and in many it is awakening; the realization has spread that life, justice, and equality are more precious than any illusion, any grandeur, and any covetousness. The notion of “us and them” is dissolving into the simplicity of “We”, of a single “Us” wherein none is greater than the other. From the parks of New York City to the streets of Gaza, from the people of Karachi to the people Chiapas the call for justice is finding a voice and the world is finally learning to listen. Men who once were learned to fear each other have found instead the ability to unite, to love the human being, to defend the oppressed and to tell the truth in the face of tyrants. I am keen to use geography and politics for examples, and I hope you don’t find it trite.
Here in this change, this shift, if you find it believable, I pray too you find it hopeful; That you are not forgotten, that the wrongs done unto you are not unnoticed and that the voices behind you and your peers are many. The power of those voices is only limited to depths of the human heart, where in a future there is hope that men and women will be recognized by their character, and no one shall be jailed for their religion, or the religion and region of the people they meant to help. Freedom is not an abstract concept, but a tangible thing to pursue, and with all sincerity I believe it will find you soon.
Hoping this letter finds you in good health and good spirits,
Thank you for your heart felt letter. I want to assure you, my friend, that the tempest that I have survived only made me more appreciative of the profound power of human endurance. The loudness of calamity as it screeched through the fissures of my new reality only made me more submissive to the soothing melody of positive anticipation, the dream that is about to manifest in the realm of the “true reality.” The world is evolving and humanity is transporting into a new unparalleled dimension. It is only a matter of time before our dreams can grow wings by which they may glide. I am not discouraged by the pitch darkness in some corners of our world, for the light is mightier- much mightier than the elephantine layers of darkness. When we join the specks of light and direct our energy towards the deep of our inner selves we engender nothing short of an invincible force of enlightenment that will transform the current reality around us. I live with the strong conviction that a new dawn is upon us provided that we are able to handle the moral obligation that will follow. No one can escape his own moments of capitulation under the heavy burden of life. No one can carry a load heavier than that which is bearable. However, every one of us has what it takes to make one another stronger and more capable of making bigger things happen in our lives.
And Greater things are bound to happen. I see a bright future, a future where children in the Holy Land play alongside one another after decades of meaningless wars, peace and prosperity are rights not privileges. All people should expect to be safe and be able to provide for their families. Time is the only thing that is standing between our dreams and their articulation in life; but it will happen, make no mistake about it.
I know for a fact that many of the young Palestinians that the Holy Land Foundation had provided for are now doctors, businessmen, teachers, industrious, creative, and leaders in their own fields that promote peace and prosperity for all people. Our good work produced good people worldwide. Therefore I have no regrets for being an agent of positive change in the world. I will continue to care about humanity. I will keep my eyes on the world while keeping my heart in a constant state of praying for all people: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus… and all without exception. And I want you to pray with me- hope with me, and dream with me, for tomorrow is only one moment away.
With love and true appreciation,
It’s been a long month since I received your letter, and in honesty it’s been a challenge to find words adequate, and I may still disappoint. Maybe I’ve reached a decision to put continuity over perfectionism? Your letter was very much appreciated, your response left me tender and hopeful, for you, for me, for all the light hidden in the world to unfurl, to consume, to consummate; among every tragedy, and there are all too many in the world, lies the need for hope, lest the tragedies begin to spread, and brothers gnash their teeth against one another.
“Greater things are bound to happen,” your words give me courage. I pray mine bring you hope, or at least offer company and friendship. Time is to men both a commodity and a tool, finite and priceless, yet malleable and responsive. We only have so much of it, but with it we can do so many things. We are given time both as a gift and a duty, and fear of waste and ingratitude are their own motivation, when we realize how precious all of it is. In a language of its own the heart says “O God, Ya Allah, please guide me not to fail you with what you’ve given me. “ The children of Palestine whom you and The Holy Land Foundation helped have a chance at life, at being positive in the world, we know they haven’t forgotten your good works, and neither have I, or the many others who know of them as well. The good you do now will be known by the world too, the work of your hands, the words of peace, they will resonate, and these if things we know to be true are things we pursue.
The endurance you’ve shown to remain hopeful is truly an inspiration. Not just that you’ve overcome, but that you’ve found or maintained something true and unshakable. Perhaps it is maintaining you? These are questions in faith that lead us to the greatest beauty in the world.
I write also not only to offer comfort but in part with hopes to bring correction to the ills of a society we share. In your case, and all the defendants from the Holy Land Foundation, I want to offer my support, my word, and my commitment to help raise awareness and, Insha’Allah, overturn your cases. There are many interested in helping, and I know there are many who already are. Part of this will be to further raise public awareness, and if I have your permission I would like to share some of what we’ve spoken to each other, and may speak in the future as well. I know that in the same way I find your words inspiring and your message of peace touching, so will many others.
Truly hoping this finds you in good health and good spirits,
I received your letter on 5/14 which is the day my daughter Sanabel had died in her deathbed in Dallas, TX. She had been battling with Cystic Fibrosis and Thalassemia major since birth, but was able to live one month and 19 days past her 26th birthday on 3/25. As you can imagine the most dreadful part of being a parent is to lose a child and the most painful aspect of losing a chld is when her last breath was not mixed with my breath! She departed this world 850 miles away from me, but kept asking for me until she was unable to speak anymore. This is the saddest moment in my life, not only because I have lost a great child, but because she had to go that way- separated from me and heartbroken. This adds another dimension to my story and the Holy Land Foundation.
It is Ironic that while I was able to reach out to alleviate the suffering of children all around the world I was unable to be by my own child at her deathbed. However I am not deterred from my obligation towards humanity, to the contrary, now I am more resolute to do more for the children of the world. Sanabel was born in 1987 and her birth under her conditions had inspired me to start the HLF. Her passing inspired me and my family to start a new charity under “Sanabel’s Promise” which was the name for her campaign to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundations’ walkathon on May 18. Although she died four days earlier her team and my family walked for her and raised thousands of dollars for the cause.
My friend you have my blessing to share everything I write you or send you with the world. It is the support of good friends like you that keep me strong.
Shukri Abu Baker