When Silence Says it All: Reflections on American Muslim Leadership and the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

I love my community, deeply. And my definition of love always requires complete honesty to the best of my ability: this is how I approach the full range of my intimate relationships with everyone—my children, my family, and my friends. So it is with a heavy heart that I write the following, hoping for dialogue, engagement, and ultimately, a better set of answers.

Like many Americans, I have been keeping a close eye on the developments in the Trayvon Martin case ever since the news broke a little more than a year ago. From the moment I heard about his tragic death, and the unconventional manner in which it was handled by law enforcement authorities, I have been unable to look away. The case is compelling: an innocent child is dead as a result of a senseless and unnecessary chain of events fueled by individual and societal paranoia around black bodies. A young man lay lifeless on the ground in the rain, armed with candy and a bottle of tea, while his family waited in vain for him to return home. I was actually in Florida when I first heard the news. It was just a week or two since it had happened. On my way to enjoy a much-needed day of sun and relaxation at the beach, I listened in horror to the car radio. What I heard connected me immediately to a long and tragic past of utter disregard for black life in the country we call home. As an African American, that past is both distant and all too near—as a post civil-rights era baby, I am not quite old enough to remember the barbaric murders of Emmitt Till and the countless other lynchings that took place throughout the U.S. I am, however, just one short generation removed from those events, and at the age of 12 I had my own tragic introduction to the ease with which black life could be taken. Anthony Agurs, a childhood friend, was struck dead by Pittsburgh police at the tender age of 13. No one was held accountable for his death.  And so Trayvon’s death opened up a deep and painful can of worms for me–it was a reminder of how vulnerable and unsafe being black in America always is. In the era of proclaimed post-raciality and color-blindness, the putrid stench of racial violence was once again discernible in the air, reminding all of us that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva had it right: the claim that race no longer plays a role in shaping our social world is just the same old perfume in new bottles.

I became a Muslim at the age of 17, fueled largely by what I perceived to be a commitment to equality and diversity as an organizing principle, profound and deep concern for the rights of the oppressed and most importantly, the fusion of these ideals into everyday spiritual practice. My faith journey was guided and informed by an eclectic mix of conscious hip-hop and the example of the Prophet of Islam, Allah bless him and give him peace, who reminded us that whoever sees wrong should change it with her hands, and if she can’t do that then she should change it with her speech, and failing either of those two she should hate it in her heart, with the last being the weakest manifestation of faith. From his blessed lips we learned that we should want for humanity what we want for ourselves, and that one is ultimately not a true believer if she eats her fill while her neighbor goes hungry. At the end of the day, Islam is a profoundly phenomenological orientation to the world—it is about being, acting, and doing. Belief fuels this being, and provides the foundation for all action, but you cannot have one without the other. As I have been reminded in countless Friday sermons and religious lectures over the last 20 years, Allah couples these two pillars together countless times throughout the Qur’an. “Those who believe and do righteous works…” is a constant refrain.  In other words, belief in God should ultimately propel us to act in the world. Righteous deeds are not limited to fasting and prayer—we should do these things in abundance but when you get up off that prayer mat and return to the world of the profane, you had best be leaving it better than how you found it.

These ideals inspired untold numbers of African Americans like myself to convert to Islam—believing (rightfully so, I think) that we had found a powerful tool that was equally useful in the war against personal spiritual afflictions such as greed, envy, and selfishness as well as in our never-ending battle with the devastating oppression brought on by the regime of white supremacy. For many of us, Islam offered us both a critique and a set of practical solutions to transform ourselves and the society that we live in.

None of that has been obvious in the last few days. In the immediate aftermath of George Zimmerman being declared not guilty by a jury of his peers, reactions poured in from a wide range of quarters—reactions expressing the spectrum of emotions that could be found in the public: shock, sadness, grief, anger, and fear (or conversely, elation, and relief, peppered with racist epithets just for good measure). Wading through the myriad opinion pieces, blog posts, op-eds, and social media posts, I, and many other Muslims that I know kept asking, “Where are the Muslim voices?” Why aren’t American Muslim “leaders” weighing in on a major American crisis? How on earth can a faith community which has produced human rights icons such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali fail to offer any insight or comfort to its neighbors or even its own constituency when an innocent black child is dead and his killer has gone free? More to the point, when did we become so impotent?  (Yes, I know that many of us have been speaking up, using our voices and our bodies to talk about this tragedy.  Some imams have given sermons, Muslim artists have written poems and songs for Trayvon, many of us have organized and marched in peaceful demonstrations around the country and will continue to do so.  But taken as a whole, the response from Muslim leadership has been spotty and tepid at best–and in many cases the silence has been deafening.)

It certainly isn’t that we aren’t media savvy. Muslims may not control major media outlets but we have taken full advantage of the more democratic means available to us to make our voices heard. We have websites, blogs, and Facebook pages; we know how to write press releases, and so forth, and have availed ourselves of those outlets in the past to call attention to issues that mattered to us. The next time there is a random terrorist attack, you will be able to witness the truth of my assertion—Muslim “leaders” and organizations will issue direct, forceful, and immediate statements making it clear in no uncertain terms that our religious tradition does not condone violence against innocents and that we stand with the victims. We will be the loudest voices against racial profiling when (and only when, it seems) a Muslim is dragged off a plane for saying ‘Allah’ within earshot of a jittery passenger or TSA employee, or attempting to board a plane in a headscarf. So what happened here?

We have a dirty secret. Muslims have a terrible and cancerous race problem. Many Muslims will tell you with straight faces, mostly because they really do believe it, that “Islam” is even more post-racial than America is supposed to be. They will tell you that we believe in universal brotherhood and point you to Qur’anic verses that instruct us to take human diversity as a sign of the majesty of the Creator and point out to you that Bilal the Abyssinian is one of the most revered figures in the history of Islam. And for the record, this is all perfectly true (except that I don’t believe there is such a thing as post-raciality, at least not in America, but that’s a topic for another day). It is also true that “Islam” is as much a product of flawed human beings as it is lofty principles, and while analytically one can separate the two, experientially they are deeply entangled, for better or worse. Trayvon was a black male victim in a system that in Foucaultian fashion molded him into a particular type of subject from the moment of his birth—and the ugly truth is that many Muslims, even some black and brown ones, have internalized these world views and we allow them to shape our relations with other human beings, both Muslim and not. Put simply, his death does not move many of us because we only care about injustice when it occurs to someone that “matters”–and for far too many of us, black bodies, especially non-Muslim black bodies–don’t matter nearly enough.

To add insult to injury, in spite of the fact that millions of Muslims call America home, and at least half of that number have never known any other home, the U.S. is not considered—even by many Muslims—to be a part of “the Muslim world.” And sad to say, in spite of our Prophet’s heavy emphasis on caring for one’s neighbors—many of us routinely turn a blind eye to the plight of non-Muslims. Don’t get me wrong, wherever we are on the earth, injustice and suffering in Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, etc. etc. all should be on our radar. But racial injustice in America needs to be front and center on our agenda as well. I am Muslim, I am black, I am a woman, and I am American, all at once. I am a part of the ummah and what hurts me should hurt my brothers and sisters in faith too, but most often, it simply does not even register. I don’t mean to suggest that this is about me. As I am processing my own pain, I am listening to the voices of other Muslims, especially the African American ones. I listened as a brother told me yesterday about his own harrowing experiences (and those of his father) with racial violence and profiling. I’ve watched my newsfeed and witnessed the expressions of powerful emotions in status updates. I’ve listened as many of us continued to wonder where the majority of our leaders are. What are they thinking? What advice are they offering us?  How can I use Islam to help me process the pain and trauma that so many of us are feeling? What are we supposed to do?  How do we make this better?

There are earnest conversations in Muslim communities across the nation and a number of very valiant efforts afoot to “make Islam more at home” here and to bring together those two unreconciled strivings, to invoke the mighty DuBois—to make Islam “relevant” in this particular cultural context. Many of us, our “leaders,” included, have spoken at length about the need to move American Muslims out of the liminal, in-between spaces in which we tend to live—simultaneously not quite Muslim enough because of our Americanness and not quite American because of our Muslimness. That is all well and good, but it’s going to take more than wearing blue jeans with a kufi or celebrating the culinary virtues of bean pie in order to do so. If our leadership cannot or will not offer comfort and guidance on issues of paramount and critical concern to those of us living here, then our search for a truly “American Islam” will continue to be elusive. We might have better luck finding a unicorn.

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