It has been just over a week since the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen year old boy who was slaughtered by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The exact circumstances of his death are unknown. They do not matter. He did not have a weapon and, whatever pretenses are eventually revealed, the underlying truth is that he was killed for the crime of being black. People on either side of the debate will try and confuse the issue; they will defend him by saying he was college-bound, as though his basic humanity can only be affirmed with this qualifier. Or they will smear him, saying he robbed a store or was violent, as though the price of a human life is a mere handful of stolen goods in a pocket. We cannot get bogged down in these details; like any other person, Michael Brown was a lot of different things. But, to his murderer, only one of those things mattered: his skin color. Existing while black – whatever else he might or might not have done, that is the crime for which he was executed.
I am guilty of the same crime. I, too, have been convicted. It is by the grace of God that my sentence was never carried out, that I sit comfortably in my Fairfax home, awaiting my return to college as I write these words, that I am not, like Michael, laying under a blanket of dirt, awaiting only my reunion with the Creator.
What is happening in Ferguson is a Muslim issue. The community there is rising against the injustice, standing up in the name of their lost son and demanding the right that was taken from him, the right to be alive. First of all, all injustices ought to be a Muslim issue. God has warned us to be wary of the prayers of the oppressed; there is no veil between them and Him and He hears their prayers clearly. It is because of warnings like this that we must be careful to never be the oppressors. We must, at the very least, take the time to learn of the oppression of the African American community and, if nothing else, to at least hate that oppression in our hearts. We cannot pretend that there is no oppression happening, not when the Michaels and Trayvons of this country have already forfeited their lives. It is easy to be myopic, to only care about things when they directly affect you, but as Muslims, we must try and apply our principles universally; we cannot argue against Islamophobia in this country and then look the other way when issues of racism arise. If anyone should be able to understand the struggle of the Black community- the unfairness of an always existing fear, even while doing nothing at all- it should certainly be the Muslim community. Who among us has not been stopped for “random” additional screenings in airports? Who has not been given suspicious looks when simply out and about doing our business? This is the same reality which turned deadly in Ferguson. We Muslims know what it is to be feared without reason.
God created us in different stripes and colors that we may learn from one another. And, I ardently believe, that we might protect one another. I do not want to live in the sort of world where activists can only stand up and empathize with a community if they personally belong to it. If you want to be a good person, you must learn to speak up, even if you cannot benefit from your own bravery.
Ferguson is an issue, too, of solidarity. When the first Muslims came to America, they were brought here in slave ships. They were not allowed to keep their religion in their harsh new reality but, in the violence of that kidnapping, they began the long, rich tradition of Islam in America. In fact, the history of Islam in America is a Black history. Not only were the original Muslim Americans black, but the current Black community also has its fair share of Muslims. It is a common stereotype, for people uneducated about Islam, to assume that Muslim is the same thing as Arab or South Asian. Those of us on the inside know that is not at all true. And so we need to act like it.
In this summer of bloodshed, my newsfeed and inbox have been filled with pleas for help for the people of Gaza (may God grant them strength, bravery, and peace). I have learned of many protests all around the country and I personally know people who have traveled quite far to attend them. The Muslim community has risen to announce our displeasure with the genocide in Gaza. I understand. I, too, pray for our Palestinian brothers and sisters, but now we must show that same support for the African American community in the United States. We must stand in solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters, too. We must not forget that Muslims are not only Arabs and so, as Muslims, we should not only care about Arab issues.
Michael Brown was not Muslim. But his death is a Muslim issue. In the broadest of senses, it is because we Muslims should fight against any and all injustice. But also, in this specific case, his death symbolizes the tragedy of America’s fight against its Black community, a community which is intertwined with the Muslim community. We must fight against racism in this country, not only to try and fight against all prejudice, but also to support the Black Muslims who are our brothers and sisters in Islam.
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
– Elie Wiesel