The mysterious case of Muzaffar Shahid
It was around 9am when the doorbell rang. Arsalan was having breakfast in the kitchen. Amna had already dropped her three children to school and was standing in front of the freezer, contemplating the day’s menu.
“Were you expecting someone?” Arsalan looked at her questioningly.
“No,” she answered, as she walked out the kitchen and towards the front door.
She peered through the peephole and saw a man and a woman in police uniforms. She didn’t open the door and went back to the kitchen.
“It’s the police,” she told Arsalan. “You get the door.”
Arsalan was up in an instant.
“Good morning,” both the officers smiled pleasantly at him when he opened the door.
“Yes, good morning, may I help you?” Arsalan inquired while he couldn’t help but feel edgy.
The man took out his ID and showed it to Arsalan.
“My name is Detective Warner and this is Detective Fray,” the man said, nodding towards his lady partner. “We’re from the local police station. We just need to ask a few quick questions.”
Detective Fray referred to some papers she had in her hand and then looked at Arsalan.
“Are you Mr Arsalan Khan?” she asked.
He had stiffened at the presence of a police officer at the door. In the current age of Islamophobia, visitors like these made any Muslim nervous. Amna could hear the conversation from the kitchen. She had stopped what she was doing, listening intently.
“Is everything alright Detective?” Arsalan asked with a guarded tone.
“Do I need a lawyer before I answer your questions?”
This was the first rule in the Muslim advisory on how to deal with the police or detectives at your doorstep; do not answer any questions without the presence of a lawyer.
“It’s your right to get a lawyer but it really won’t be necessary,” replied Detective Fray.
“You’re not under any direct investigation. These are just a few routine questions. May we come inside please?”
Arsalan hesitated for a moment then stood aside, allowing the detectives to enter the living room.
The detectives looked around the well-decorated and clean house appreciatively. The paintings depicted eastern themes and there were carved pieces of furniture, decorative items, and handmade rugs, obviously from Pakistan.
“We’re actually looking for a person of Pakistani descent in the neighbourhood,” said Detective Warner once seated. “So we’re checking in with all families of Pakistani background here. Maybe you could be of help. The name is Muzaffar Shahid.”
Although she was allowing her partner to lead the conversation, her shrewd, observing eyes more than made up for it.
“Muzaffar Shahid?” Arsalan asked, genuinely surprised.
“I’ve never heard that name before.”
“Are you sure Sir?” Fray closely noted his every move and expression.
“Yes, I’m very sure,” Arsalan relaxed a little.
“I’ve been in this city for over 10 years. I know nearly all the Pakistani families in the area.”
“Do you think your wife might have heard of him?” Detective Warner asked.
“Let me ask,” Arsalan said and called out to Amna.
Amna walked into the living room, apprehensive and a little white-faced. Nevertheless, she managed a smile and a quiet hello. Arsalan motioned for her to sit with him on the sofa.
“Do you know a Muzaffar Shahid in our city?” Arsalan asked her.
The detectives seemed to have scared her more than they had scared him.
“No,” Amna shook her head slowly. “I’ve never heard of him.”
The two detectives looked at each other.
“Look, Mr and Mrs Khan,” Detective Warner’s voice was slightly steely, “I hope you’re being honest, because obstructing justice is an offense too.”
“Of course I’m being honest!” Arsalan replied in an irritated tone. “I’ve never heard of this man in my life. And what has he done anyway? Is he dangerous?”
Detective Fray took a deep breath. Mr Khan certainly had a low boiling point.
“I wouldn’t call him dangerous in the conventional sense,” Detective Warner explained.
“Shahid is a writer. His columns have been published in a number of newspapers in Pakistan and the US. He mostly writes on current political situations in Muslim countries. He also writes for some key Islamic blogs here.”
Arsalan was listening keenly. As for Amna, she felt like she couldn’t breathe.
“A week ago, we got a red signal from Homeland Security to fish this guy out. They began tracking his writing about a year ago when it started touching sensitive issues like the IS, Pakistan-India conflict, Saudi Arabia-Yemen, support for the Middle East conflict etc. In some articles, Shahid also supports jihad against western domination, quote-unquote.”
“But a writer of any background could write on these issues,” Arsalan interrupted him. “Why pick out a Pakistani-Muslim?”
“Because his writing style clearly depicts him as one,” Detective Fray replied this time, her tone a little dry. “So we’re working on that possibility at the moment.”
Arsalan Khan seemed to have started an investigation of his own, a sign of scepticism.
“We keep an eye on these writers to rule out the possibility of negative think-tanks and terrorist sleeper cells within the US,” she continued. “Writers of Muslim backgrounds often tend to fan negative thought processes and instigate passive social uprisings amongst Muslim communities.”
“Don’t take this personally Mr Khan,” Detective Warner attempted to assuage him, “Homeland Security doesn’t do the picking and choosing here. Their system picks out words from articles and when certain words appear repeatedly for a certain writer, they ask the local police to conduct a routine investigation.”
“Well, I wish I could be of more help but I really don’t know the guy,” replied Arsalan.
He was not in the mood to continue the discussion any further. He didn’t know the guy and that was the end of it. Amna had not spoken at all during the entire conversation.
“Are you sure Mr Khan?” Detective Fray asked in a calm voice, “Because we have reason to believe otherwise.”
Arsalan stared at her in sheer disbelief.
“I’ve told you I’ve never heard of him!” he retorted exasperatedly, “Why are you insisting that I know him?”
Amna’s hands went from clammy to cold. The two detectives looked at each other.
“Because the IP addresses of the writings have been traced,” replied Detective Warner.
He was completely unperturbed by Arsalan’s indignation.
“And it has led us right to your home.”
Neither Arsalan nor Amna could believe their ears.
“What? That is insane!” He sputtered. “There is no Muzaffar Shahid in this house and I’m not in the mood to continue this meeting without a lawyer. I am an engineer by profession, not a writer, and my wife is a housewife.”
Arsalan’s face was red with anger. Mr Khan certainly got very angry, very fast, both the detectives noted.
“We know what you do Mr Khan and believe me you’re not under any investigation,” she attempted to calm him. “If Muzaffar Shahid is not an acquaintances or a friend, then there is only one explanation for this; Shahid has hacked into your system and is using your IP address to publish his articles.”
Arsalan stared at the detectives, dumbfounded. Someone had hacked into his system for such a serious felony? This sort of a thing only happened in movies.
“How many computers do you have in the house?” Detective Warner asked.
“My wife and I have a laptop and so do two of my older children,” replied Arsalan.
He was slightly calmer than before but visibly upset.
“I suggest you check your computers for viruses and clean up all four computers immediately,” Detective Warner told him. “We also need to know the nature of the virus, if you find out and the extent of damage so we can report back to DHS.”
“I’m going to do it today,” Arsalan promised. “But this guy could be anywhere in the world using my IP address.”
“Yes, that is a possibility.” Detective Fray said. “But at the moment, we’re working to make sure we don’t incriminate innocent citizens like you unfairly for this.”
Both detectives stood up. Detective Warner took out his card and handed it to him. Detective Fray did the same.
“Call either of us as soon as your computers are clean so we can put it in our report,” he said.
“The DHS will still continue to monitor Shahid’s nature of writing and their origination address. In case your IP address flashes again, we’ll have to confiscate your computers and have them professionally analysed.”
Detective Fray looked at Amna. The woman was obviously a complete housewife. She wondered if Amna Khan even spoke English fluently.
“Can you imagine?” Arsalan said exasperatedly after the detectives had left.
He had placed his laptop on the kitchen table and was now switching it on.
“These people just need a reason to pin such issues on a Muslim. I’m sure this ulloo ka patha is just some crazy hacker using our IP address and writing out of Gujranwala or Sukkur.”
Arsalan had opened up Google search now. Amna did not answer him. She was trying to get her thoughts together. The detectives had put her mind in a tizzy.
“This is the age of the internet. Anyone who has an opinion posts it on the internet,” Arsalan was still ranting as he typed ‘Muzaffar Shahid’ in the search tab. “So it makes a person a terrorist?”
Google was now displaying search results.
Arsalan stared at the screen, his tirade on Islamophobia halted abruptly. There were over 500,000 results.
He randomly started clicking on Shahid’s printed articles. The detectives were right. Shahid was indeed writing in some of the top Pakistani newspapers and key blogs as a political analyst. He was also writing for three or four very well-read Islamic blogs in the US. His articles were reprinted by a lot of other blogs and newspapers, hence the increasing the number of hits for his name in Google search.
Arsalan skimmed through a few articles and blogs. Most of Shahid’s articles were garnering over 70 to 80 comments per blog. Obviously the guy had a commendable readership. Depending on the situation at hand, many of his articles in Islamic blogs were not only candid and heated but often slightly seditious. No wonder the red flags had gone up.
“This guy is quite well-read,” Arsalan announced to the still quiet Amna.“He’s smart too. Stealing IP addresses to submit his writing so he wouldn’t be traced.”
“What are you going to do now?” Amna finally spoke.
Arsalan was shutting down his computer.
“If I didn’t have that meeting today, I would stay home and take care of this thing right away,” he told her.
He had put his laptop back in his office bag and was walking towards the door.
“But I’ll come early. I also need to buy the software we need to clean up all the computers.”
After he had left, Amna walked back to the kitchen, absorbed in deep thought. She stood thinking for a moment, then picked up her car keys and left the house.
The city police station was about a mile from their home. She went straight to the reception desk.
“May I help you?” the officer inquired pleasantly.
“Yes,” Amna replied. “I’m looking for a Detective Fray. I wish to speak with her.”
“And you name is?”
“Amna Khan. Detective Fray was at my house this morning.”
The officer looked at her a little more closely now.
“Please wait here for a moment,” he said and went to the offices at the back.
He returned less than a minute later.
“Come with me please.”
He motioned for Amna to follow her.
Amna followed him to one of the offices. Detective Fray was seated inside.
“Hello Mrs Khan,” she greeted her.
If she was surprised, she didn’t show it.
“Please have a seat.”
Amna went inside and took a chair.
“How may I help you?”
Detective Fray took her chair across the table. Amna hesitated a moment, trying to put her thoughts in words.
“I just have a few questions regarding this investigation,” she said. “This Shahid person, what will you do with him once you find him?”
“I can’t say Mrs Khan,” replied Detective Fray. “A lot of his writing can be defended on the grounds of freedom of speech. So it is a tricky situation. Frankly, we only want to alert him that we are watching him and monitoring his ideas and activities. Usually this is enough to make a person more responsible with their writing.”
“Is this your usual practice with all the writers who hold strong opinions?”
“Not really. But Shahid’s writing sometimes tends to openly instigate violence against US institutions. The authorities cannot overlook that.”
“I see,” said Amna, listening very carefully.
“Look Mrs Khan, if you don’t know the guy then you have nothing to worry about,” Detective Fray attempted to put her at ease. “I’m sure your system has been hacked and your IP address stolen for this purpose. This is not uncommon. We will be questioning other Pakistani families in the area too but your home falls most within proximity of that IP address.”
Amna was silent for a moment before she spoke again.
“Could I speak to you in complete confidentiality without this information getting to my husband?” Amna asked.
Detective Fray looked at her keenly. The woman obviously had something on her mind.
“If this information is related to the case, it will need to be shared.”
“I understand, but I’m asking for your help as a human being.”
“I can’t promise that without listening to what you have to say,” replied Detective Fray.
She knew she had to choose her words carefully lest the woman tell her nothing.
“But I’ll try to help you as much as it is within my bounds to do so.”
“I know who Muzaffar Shahid is.” Amna said in a clear voice.
Detective Fray stared at her in utter shock.
“You know who he is?” her tone was sharp. “Why did you deny this knowledge when we were at your house?”
“I didn’t want my husband to find out,” Amna sighed. “It would have ruined everything.”
“Ruined everything? Are you having an affair?” asked the detective.
Despite the solemnity of the situation, Amna smiled at the detective’s assumption.
“Oh no, Detective Fray,” she said. “It’s nothing like that. You see, I am Muzaffar Shahid.”
The detective stared at her incredulously.
“You are Muzaffar Shahid?”
“Yes, that is my pseudonym. My pen name.”
“And your husband is unaware of this?”
“Yes. No one knows about it. Not even most of the editors who have published my work.”
“So you use a pen name to publish volatile material?”
“I don’t deliberately write volatile material,” Amna explained. “Believe me, that has never been my intention and I never meant any harm by it. I guess you could say I have ‘explosive’ opinions on certain issues, nothing else. I know you did not just arrive at our doorstep today detective. You must have been watching our movements for a while before you finally knocked at our door. You must be fully aware of my activities.”
This was an entirely different, smarter woman than the mute, meek one Detective Fray had seen at the Khan residence earlier in the day. The change in persona was evident.
“Why the secret pen name?” Detective Fray was extremely curious.
“My husband does not believe in wives voicing their opinions or ideas. He wants me to be seen and not heard,” she replied.
Detective Fray could discern a faint hint of bitterness in Amna’s tone.
“But judging by your articles, you are educated, intelligent and well-informed. Your husband should be appreciative.”
“Thank you for the compliment, Detective Fray,” Amna smiled. “But these are the very things my husband does not wish to see in me. He wishes me to be quiet, ‘respectful’ and knowledgeable only about the menu, the kids’ homework and when to buy groceries.”
Detective Fray took a deep breath. She had spent enough time in the police department to recognise domestic abuse when she saw it.
“You do realise this is domestic abuse?” she didn’t mince words.
“Of course, I know exactly what it is,” Amna shrugged her shoulders. “More specifically, it’s psychological abuse. Domestic abuse isn’t always about physically hitting or breaking bones.”
Detective Fray was taken aback by Amna’s candid understanding of her own condition.
“Woman to woman, Mrs Khan, why is a rational person like yourself putting up with it?” Detective Fray was more than curious now.
“My kids are too young right now and I don’t want to put them through the trauma of separation and divorce. Plus, in my social background, divorced women are more or less ostracised and their kids pay the price too.”
“But this is America.”
“And I’m still a Pakistani, Detective Fray. My kids are I are still connected to the community. And above all, Arsalan is not a good husband but he is a good father. I can’t deny my children that.”
Detective Fray didn’t know what to say.
“So you allow this mistreatment to continue?”
“It’s a choice I have made for my children.”
“You do know you can file charges against your husband?”
“I know, but that is not an option until the kids are older. If I leave their father now, they’ll spend their entire life wondering whether to blame the father or the mother for their broken home.”
“And you think they won’t do this later?”
“No, Detective Fray,” Amna said confidently. “Once they see what’s happening, they’ll probably ask me to leave him myself.”
Detective Fray took a deep breath.
“So writing is your escape?” she finally asked.
“If you own a pressure cooker, Detective, you’ll know why I write.”
“I must say you’re very calm and serene for someone in your situation.”
“Muzaffar Shahid keeps me calm.”
“What do you wish from me, Mrs Khan?”
“I wish you would close this file and I promise to be more careful of what I write from now onwards. You were only going to warn the writer anyway and not press any charges. If you choose to divulge the information I have shared with you, it will only break up my marriage and my home and my kids will suffer. I leave the choice to you.”
Detective Fray thought for a moment.
“Stop writing for a while and when you do write, tone down your words and harshness. Otherwise, the system will single you out again. Try to be very passive on the Islamic sites as they are under most critical surveillance.”
“I will,” Amna promised.
The relief was evident in her voice.
“And if you need to get in touch with me, please don’t call at home or my cell phone. It might catch Arsalan’s eye. Just email me at Muzaffar Shahid’s email address. I’m sure you have it.”
Amna added the last part with a twinkle in her eye. Detective Fray smiled at her wit.
“Yes I do, Mrs Khan,” she said.
Amna smiled and got up.
“I can’t thank you enough for your understanding,” she told Detective Fray. “Arsalan will clean up the computers today and will probably call to tell you.”
“When he does, we’ll close the file saying your computers were hacked and that there is no Shahid in this area.”
Amna held out her hand to shake the detective’s.
“Thanks again, Detective Fray,” her voice was warm.
“Good luck, Mrs Khan. And to be on the safer side, you might consider changing your pseudonym.”
“Oh no,” Amna laughed. “Muzaffar Shahid is a real presence now. He has a long list of devoted readers. I couldn’t bear to disappoint them by disappearing into thin air.”
“And Mrs Khan, please be very cautious. The next officer who comes knocking at your door may not be as understanding as I was,” reminded Detective Fray.
“I know. Take care Detective Fray.”
Linda Fray watched the slim, tall woman walk away. Such a waste of a life, she thought to herself. Or was it?
She wanted to feel sorry for Amna Khan but she couldn’t. Amna Khan wasn’t pathetic or pity worthy. She was audacious. She was in control of her life and she knew exactly what she was doing. Women like her were admirable. There was only one person worth pitying in this entire situation, thought Linda Fray – Arsalan Khan.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.