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James Yee's life took a “very different turn” for him when he went from being an Army captain and Muslim chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to finding himself imprisoned for 76 days on allegations of being a terrorist spy. Charges, which were later dropped.
Yee remains outspoken nearly a decade later on his experience and says it's crucial for Americans to make sure that they not only uphold the importance of civil liberties and equality but make sure the government upholds them, too.
He will speak to a variety of groups in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City throughout the weekend leading up to Armistice Day on Monday, Nov. 11. Monday, where he'll be speaking at the University of Iowa's Pomerantz Center at 7 p.m.
“Many of us, I was one of them, have an amount of trust that the government is doing the right thing,” the 45-year-old said. “But my experiences in Guantanamo and the ordeal I experienced opened my eyes to the level of corruption that can take place even within our own United States government.”
Yee, a third-generation Asian-American who converted to Islam after attending West Point military academy, served at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to attend to the religious needs of Muslim prisoners and educate military personnel on the Islamic culture. There, he said, he witnessed prisoners being abused and the atmosphere at the facility was often “hostile towards Muslims and Islam, and even effected the Muslims serving on the Joint Task Force.”
He said he thinks this malevolence towards Islam is why he was targeted and briefly imprisoned in 2003 and why it's now important for citizens of all backgrounds to respect and try to better understand each other.
“We're really in this together,” Yee said. “Our country was founded on ideals of equality and diversity and respect for everyone and that also includes taking a look at how the Constitution was developed and the rights that protect everyone in this country, including religious freedom.”
Adrien Wing, UI law professor and director of the Center for Human Rights, said misunderstandings of Islamic religion and Islamophobia remain a wide-spread problem throughout all aspects of society. She said educating children and adults about people of diverse backgrounds is important.
“There's no quick fix,” said Wing, whose center is one of the many groups co-sponsoring Yee's visit. “There's not one article, one movie, one meeting that's going to correct that misconception.”
Yee has also remained a strong advocate to close Guantanamo Bay, which remains open even following President Barack Obama's campaigning to close it when he first ran for office in 2008.
John Jadryev, president of the Veterans for Peace Iowa City chapter and one of the sponsors for Yee's visit, said the man, himself, is an example of his message.
“By coming to Iowa City he offers this community a chance to want to integrate better with the Islamic community,” he said. “He's a walking, talking, living example of diversity.”