Interview with Muslim Legal Fund of America’s John Janney

The Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA) recently opened a Michigan office headed by longtime community leader and activist Muthanna Al-hanooti. There is no doubt that MLFA has done a lot of great work defending the rights of American Muslims- rights that have been unjustly diminished under the pretext of the “war on terror.” MLFA is not as widely known in the community as other organizations long established in Michigan. In an effort to better inform the community about the importance and work of this great organization, the Forum and Link approached the MLFA’s Communications and Operations Director, John Janney with a number of questions:

-Tell me a little about yourself. What is your background and why did you choose to work for the Muslim Legal Fund (MLFA)? My name is John Janney. I am the Communications and Operations Director for the Muslim Legal Fund of America. I choose to work for MLFA because the direction the American justice system is taking goes against the principles of justice this national was founded upon. I'm a strong believer in Thomas Jefferson's ideals about civil liberties and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s ideals about justice. There is a great need to defend those principles today because the some entities within the government are aggressively chipping away our civil liberties under the guise of fighting terrorism. I work for MLFA so I can lend my talents for the cause of justice, because without justice there is no freedom, no liberty.

-Tell me about the MLFA. Who started it? When and why?

The Muslim Legal Fund of America is a charity that defends civil liberties in America. The organization does this by funding legal cases involving encroachments on civil liberties and programs that promote awareness of these issues. The organization started in late 2001 by a group of activists in the Dallas, TX area. After watching the Clinton Administration lock away over two dozen Muslims and citing "secret evidence" as justification, we knew that things could be taking a bad turn for Muslims in America. After the 9/11 terrorists attacks the government raided and shutdown Muslim charities and business in various American communities and prosecuted their leaders. We witnessed new laws being passed that grant the government unprecedented power to criminalize speech, treat religious observation as suspicious activities and violate the very civil liberties that serve as the basis of our society. Fortunately, we have MLFA, our supporters, and other like-minded organizations that are actively standing up to these challenges.

-Who is the current leader of MLFA? Khalil Meek is MLFA's Executive Director.

- How many chapters does MLFA have? MLFA does not have chapters. We have offices. This is an important distinction. Chapters are more common in advocacy organizations. MLFA is not an advocacy organization. As a charity looking to expand our work into local communities across the nation, we opened offices in Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York, San Francisco, and the Washington, DC, area -- bringing the total to nine offices plus the National Headquarters.

-When was the Michigan office opened? We opened the office in Michigan in September of last year.

-Does MLFA work with other Muslim and non Muslim organizations? Yes. We frequently join coalition efforts with organizations such as Center of Constitutional Rights, Rights Working Group, American Civil Liberties Union, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim Advocates, Charity and Security Network, and many more.


-Has the Muslim community nationally been supportive of MLFA? We've been blessed with tremendous support from the Muslim community in America. We also enjoy support from people of different faiths who understand that when the government takes away the Muslim community's civil liberties, they are taking away everyone's civil liberties. They understand that the erosion of liberty will not stop with Muslims, it will -- and already has -- spread to all communities in America. Justice denied to one is justice denied to all.

-What are some of the successes of MLFA? Some of our recent successes include:  1. Jamal Abusamhadeneh, who was falsely accused of being a member of a foreign organization. MLFA funded his defense and was successfully cleared of those charges. He is now a free American citizen. 2. Linda Mahmoud, who had her 20-year security clearance revoked by her employer, the U.S. Department of Defense. MLFA funded her defense against accusation she was tied to Palestinian terrorists, and her security clearance was reinstated.  3. Mohammad Salah, who has been wrongfully designated as a terrorists for the past 17 years, despite a jury finding him innocent. MLFA funded the lawsuit to lift the crippling designation. He is now free of this designation and can function normally in society.  4. Imam Foad Farahi, who was the victim of government heavy-handed attempts to turn him into a spy against his congregation. He refused to deceive his community, but it nearly costs him his bid for citizenship. MLFA funded his defense and he is now on his way to becoming a U.S. citizen again.

-How many cases has MLFA been involved with so far? We are currently funding around a dozen cases and have nearly a dozen past cases.

-How does MLFA choose which cases to take? MLFA evaluates case funding requests on the basis of each case's potential impact on the status of civil liberties in America. We make a distinction between civil rights violations, which are violations between two private parties, and civil liberty violations, which are violations carried out by the government against private parties. We focus our work on civil liberties.

-Many in the community used to be afraid of donating to Muslim organizations. Some still are. What do you tell the few that are fearful of donating to a Muslim American nonprofit organization? Freedom is a feeling. If you don't feel free, you're not free. Fear is the enemy of freedom. Don't let fear rob you of your freedom. If you believe in the mission of an American nonprofit organization, then feel free to support it. Don't let fear paralyze you, and don't let fear get in the way of your duty to support good.

-What are some of the challenges facing MLFA? Besides the need for more funding support, one of the challenges we face is clearing up the confusion about the nature of the organization. Charitable legal funds are not common and many people mistake MLFA for an advocacy organization. However, MLFA is a charity in the same way that Islamic Relief is a charity. When people see starving children, they know they can give to Islamic Relief and those funds will be used to pay for food and other humanitarian aid for people in need. In the same way, when people see Muslims being treated unjustly in America, they know that they can give to MLFA and those funds will be used to pay for the expenses associated with legal cases for people facing legal challenges related to civil liberty encroachments in America. 

-When is the MLFA Michigan Gala? Where is it going to be held? Who is the keynote speaker? The MLFA Michigan Gala is on Saturday, March 23 at the Adoba Dearborn Hotel. The gala is featuring two courageous whistleblowers who faced the unimaginable power of the U.S. government. The first speaker will be Thomas Drake, who is a former executive with the National Security Administration (NSA). The second is Coleen Rowley, a former agent and senior attorney for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Attendees are in for a rare treat because it's not often to see whistleblowers from two of the nation's most powerful government agencies share a stage and their insider's perspectives. Their stories are truly riveting. Those fortunate enough to attend will walk away with an experience they won't soon forget and information that many wish they had.  The program starts at 7 p.m., but we are urging people to arrive early to ensure good seating.

-Are there any issues that I did not raise that you want to talk about? One of the initiatives we are launching this year is a preventative campaign aimed at increasing awareness of informants who snare innocent, and sometimes emotionally or mentally unstable, community members into manufactured plots. We are providing posters for mosques to display that warn their communities that "If that new friend starts calling for 'violent jihad,' he might be an informant." We are seeing informants being used to prey on innocent community members and to push them into plots they would otherwise have no interest in and no ability to carry out. Law enforcement should focus on preventing crime, not creating it. Every community member needs to be aware of this issue. We also include our phone number on these posters for people who believe they are being targeted by informants.


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