When the jury acquitted Noor Salman on all charges on Friday in her trial for aiding and abetting Omar Mateen, her husband, in the 2016 Pulse massacre and obstruction of justice for allegedly providing conflicting statements to the FBI, it was indeed good news. She had been in solitary confinement for the past year, allowed one phone call a day with her young son, and faced the possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison for the crimes of the man she has accused of domestic violence.
But for many women, it is chilling to know this prosecution was even allowed to take place: The terrible tragedy at Pulse was exploited by a deceitful prosecution and the FBI to depict Salman as a terrorist supporter, when she was no more and no less than a survivor of domestic abuse at the hands of a mass shooter.
While we all want justice after the mass shooting at Pulse that killed 49 people and wounded many others, targeting Noor Salman was no kind of recompense for the community in Orlando. Instead, Salman’s prosecution was rooted in gendered Islamophobia; Muslim women are too often depicted as being terrorist sympathizers or supporters because of being Muslim.
Muslim women are too often depicted as being terrorist sympathizers or supporters because of being Muslim.
But during Salman’s trial, even the prosecution admitted there was no evidence that she was ever radicalized or supported any terrorist organization. Even the confession the prosecution touted as evidence was misleading. The confession was written by an FBI agent who interrogated Salman for 11 hours with no legal counsel, accompanied by threats that they would take her son away from her and place him in a Christian home.
Another component of gendered Islamophobia is the trope that Muslim women are submissive, oppressed and consent to domestic abuse and violence as part of our Muslim identity. The government’s prosecution was rooted in this logic: Prosecutors refused to take into account that Salman was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of Mateen as opposed to his collaborator. As reported in the New York Times, Noor was abused, raped and isolated from her family, yet the prosecution depicted Salman as a greedy terrorist supporter — even though it was stated at trial that Mateen only gave her $20 each week and controlled her every movement.
After surviving the violence and isolation to which Mateen subjected her, the FBI and the prosecution added to her trauma by charging her with complicity in his crimes, incarcerating her, separating her from her child and subjecting her to prolonged solitary confinement.
After surviving the violence and isolation to which Mateen subjected her, the FBI and the prosecution added to her trauma.
Her prosecution continued the cycle of dehumanization and terror Salman experienced in her marriage to Mateen. And, in today’s climate of Islamophobia and the War on Terror, her prosecution has alarming repercussions for Muslim women and for all survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault who are criminalized for the actions of their abusive partners.
It is hopeful that a system which has often found Muslims guilty of material support charges without the presence of strong evidence, let alone a system that continues to criminalize survivors of abuse, acquitted Noor Salman. Still, given the barriers faced by formerly incarcerated people and those publicly associated with Muslims who are terrorists, Salman will need the support of our communities to rebuild, heal and live with a minimum of stigma and shame. She is also a victim of the mass murderer who took so many lives at Pulse, and has much healing to do.
But we additionally need to hold institutions like the FBI and prosecutors accountable for destroying the lives of survivors of abuse in their pursuit of a living person to blame for the terrible actions of a dead one. Perhaps, at least, this acquittal — if not the trauma of the prosecution itself — will give prosecutors and investigators pause before they use guilt by association as a standard for targeting Muslim women like Noor Salman.
Darakshan Raja is the co-director of Justice For Muslims Collective, a community-based organization that works on tackling structural Islamophobia. It was one of more than 100 organizations that supported dropping the prosecution of Noor Salman.