As the threat of war in Iraq looms closer, a group of activists from North Carolina is heading to Baghdad to act as human shields. The last prayers of the day are over, and the Islamic Center of the Triad in Greensboro, North Carolina is closing up for the night. But President Badi Ali is still at work… explaining why he and 10 other local residents are traveling to Iraq, where they could well find themselves in the crosshairs of American guns.
"As an American citizen, or as a Muslim-American, Arab-American, I think we are obligated, actually, in the name of America to say no to the war," he said.
With his gray hair and beard, Mr. Ali looks older than his 41 years. He's worn and somewhat rumpled, the price, he says, of representing the local Muslim community in these troubled days. That climate has only worsened since the news broke last week that suspected Al Qaida operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed attended A&T University in Greensboro.
So did Mr. Ali and his cousin, Wajeh Muhammad, now the treasurer of the Islamic Center. But instead of going off to fight with the Taliban, the two men settled in Greensboro and became naturalized American citizens. They are Palestinians, from the West Bank city of Ramallah. Wajeh Muhammad says that living in both cultures makes them ideal U.S. ambassadors to the Arab world.
"All that our people see from America is the embargo from Iraq. All our people see from America is they see these airplanes, which are dropping bombs on them. All that they see are all these leaflets which are dropped from the planes. This is what our people know about America. They do not know about America the way we know it. They do not know the great things about this country," Mr. Ali explained.
They don't know, says Mr. Ali, that America stands for freedom and justice… and that the United States has allowed him more rights than any Arab or Muslim country in the world.
"They gave me freedom, citizenship, the right to vote, the right to express myself, the right to a home, the right to a job, the right to education, the right to live," he said. "Our effort, our project, is like a payback, a little payback to America."
Not everyone is thanking him, though. One letter-writer in the Greensboro News and Record called Mr. Ali's plans a "lame stunt" without sense or purpose. A columnist in the Raleigh News and Observer called for the arrest of human shields as war criminals.
Mr. Ali and Mr. Muhammad agree with their critics on one point: that Saddam Hussein is a dictator. But they say other Arab leaders are, too… and that the Constitution doesn't give the U.S. government the right to oust dictators.
The men are also skeptical of the Bush administration's claim that Saddam Hussein is aiding terrorists. They say if he were going to help al-Qaida, he would have done it already. And Wajeh Muhammad denies the notion that he and his fellow human shields would become pawns in the Iraqi leader's propaganda war.
"It will not be easy for him to put us on TV where we're going to attack our country. We will not. We are Americans," he said. "As a matter of fact, if I go on TV, I'll be wearing the same tie I am wearing with you now, which has three American flags in it. Why? Because I am proud of being an American. I am coming to deliver a message about America."
That delivery is fraught with risks. Recently FBI agents paid a visit to the two men, ostensibly to warn them about the dangers of going to Iraq. Those include the possibility that the Iraqi government would try to force them to protect military targets instead of the schools and hospitals where they intend to stay.
Another is that they could be killed. Badi Ali has a wife and two young daughters. Wajeh Muhammad has a wife too, and a dog named Champ. But he says his teachings tell him to put family considerations aside for the moment.
"Our priorities in life is God, then country, then family," Wajeh Muhammad said. "Family is number three in our priorities. God is first. Our religion asks us to support our friends, and our fellow Muslims. Not support them by going against America we are supporting to be with them, to be beside them in their time of crisis. This is the only thing I can do."
Being a human shield carries its legal risks, too. Using a U.S. passport to get into an enemy nation like Iraq is against the law. So is spending U.S. dollars in any way that would benefit the Iraqi government. State Department spokesman Stewart Patt says human shields who commit either of these acts could face fines or even jail when they come home.
"In general terms, I can say that entering Iraq with a U.S. passport is not permitted, and that people who are in Iraq and spending their U.S. dollars there run the risk of being subject to sanctions when they return sanctions for the use of a passport to enter, and sanctions for financial support of a terrorist regime," he said.
While those sanctions apply to any American, Badi Ali says the risks of acting and speaking out against the threat of war are greater for Arab Muslims like him, who weren't born in the United States. Still, he says, he's honoring the principles of his adopted country.
"Because if I want to take a risk to give my life to save lives, I am more loyal to the American Constitution and to the Bill of Rights, than those who chose actually just to watch TV and witness the genocide which is going to affect the Iraqi people and their children," Badi Ali said.
Eight of the 11 members of the Greensboro human shields group are already en route to Baghdad. Most of them are non-Muslims. Badi Ali and Wajeh Muhammad plan to leave sometime within the next two weeks.