Stop This Killing…

19 July 2016

“Stop this killing!” was the fervently repeated plea of Alton Sterling’s aunt, being interviewed in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That is the very town that witnessed the gruesome killing of Sterling himself. Indeed, we must stop the killing, on all sides, for a deepening cycle of tension, revenge and retribution will only fuel greater discord, division and misunderstanding in our society at a time when perhaps they have never been more dangerous.

I do not write these words as someone peering down from a vista that only permits theoretical or academic musing around the issue of violence in our society. I remember, as a teenager, how the minority community in our city, New Britain, Connecticut, was traumatized when thirteen-year-old Miguel Arroyo was shot in the back by a policeman. The killing was never even investigated. Several years later, Clarence Thomas, the best friend of my younger brother, Jeffery, was murdered by a bullet fired into his head, from behind, at point blank range, as the two of them were walking shoulder-to-shoulder outside of a New Britain nightclub.

Serving as Imam of an inner-city mosque, Masjid al-Islam in New Haven, Connecticut, I was surrounded by violence and its tragic effects. During the “crack wars” of the late 1980s, I was eye-witness to two shootings while sitting on my front stoop reading the Qur’an. Fortunately, neither was fatal. Our mosque had to bury one young congregant whose killers were not thrown off his trail by his entrance into Islam. Another young man was pushed back into the streets by his grandmother, who had raised him. Her hatred for Islam was so deep that she pulled him away from the mosque. He slid back into the streets and was murdered shortly thereafter. Another young convert who had married the former girlfriend of a prominent gang leader was so harassed and threatened by the former boyfriend that he felt his only option was to pump nine bullets into his wife’s “ex.” The victim did not die but was left paralyzed for life (for anyone associated with law enforcement, the shooter was duly prosecuted and served time for this crime). While I was in Syria studying during the late 1990s, Malik Jones, the son of one of the leaders in our community, Dr. Jimmy Jones, was fatally shot by an East Haven, Connecticut policeman after a car chase. These stories go on.

Racial tensions, impoverished communities, dysfunctional schools, limited opportunities for economic advancement, personal insecurities all play a part in the sort of violence mentioned above. They also indicate a massive societal failure. They further serve as a barometer measuring the degree to which our Muslim community has failed. Our greatest failure in this regard lies in our inability to even begin offering an alternative to the disgraceful status quo. This is particularly true around the issue of race relations.

The first Muslim community under the leadership of our Prophet Muhammad (peace upon him) brought Africans like Bilal and Umm Ayman; Arabs, such as Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali; Asians, represented by Salman al-Farisi and Europeans like Suhaib al-Rumi, together to form a cohesive community. Thereafter, historically, all of our great urban centers, Medina, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Fez, Marrakesh, Tunis, Cordova, Istanbul, Hyderabad, etc. have been thriving cosmopolitan centers where diverse people did not just coexist, they prospered.

At this tense time in the history of our country, we Muslims must rediscover the genius of our religion, which made those societies possible. Once we discover it, we have to live it and share it. In my estimation, this is the only hope for our nation. As racial and ethnic minorities we have gone down the path of protest in the 1950s and 1960s. We have seen large swaths of our cities burned to the ground –Watts, Newark, Detroit, Hartford, Washington, DC and many others. Those of us in the African American community have asserted our identity, responding to the lead of James Brown, “Say it loud, I’m back and I’m proud,” and others. Despite that, we have failed miserably. The proof of that failure is that here we are fifty years later protesting the very same issues, which if anything, have only gotten worse. Similar tactics will inevitable lead to similar failures.

I believe that our only hope lies in bringing all members of our national family together, black, white, brown, red, yellow and “blue.” At the end of the day, our problems, while they may differ in degree, are all the same and they are rooted in fear, ignorance, insecurity, and in many instances, evil. These are the issues religion exists to address. It is time for us Muslims to make our unique, religiously-informed contribution to addressing these issues.

Many would argue that Islam could never meaningfully impact our society, especially during these times when anti-Muslim sentiments are so strong in some quarters. Many learned observers would differ with that assessment. We will quote two of them here to reinforce our point. Malcolm X wrote from Mecca:

“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’ –but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.

“With racism plaguing America like an incurable cancer, the so-called ‘Christian’ white American heart should be more receptive to a proven solution to such a destructive problem. Perhaps it could be in time to save America from imminent disaster –the same destruction brought upon Germany by racism that eventually destroyed the Germans themselves.”

The great historian, Arnold Toynbee, after a lifetime of reflection, penned the following words:

“The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding moral achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue; for, although the record of history would seem on the whole to show that race consciousness has been the exception and not the rule in the constant interbreeding of the human species, it is a fatality of the present situation that this consciousness is felt -and felt strongly- by the very peoples which, in the competition of the last four centuries between several Western powers, have won at least for the moment the lion’s share of the inheritance of the Earth.

“As things are now, the exponents of racial intolerance are in the ascendant, and, if their attitude towards ‘the race question’ prevails, it may eventually provoke a general catastrophe. Yet the forces of racial toleration, which at present seem to be fighting a losing battle in a spiritual struggle of immense importance to mankind, might still regain the upper hand if any strong influence militating against race consciousness that has hitherto been held in reserve were now to be thrown into the scales. It is conceivable that the spirit of Islam might be the timely reinforcement which would decide this issue in favor of tolerance and peace.”

It is time for us Muslims to throw the weight of Islam “into the scales” here in America. For as Toynbee accurately opines, the heart of the matter before us is a spiritual crisis. A spiritual crisis is not amenable to strictly socio-political solutions. It is only when we share a vision of each other that recognizes a common humanity and a common unifying spirit that the killing will stop. Historically, Islam has proven that it possesses the ability to accomplish this daunting task. It is time for us Muslims to start acting like we truly believe it.

Imam Zaid Shakir

#stopthiskilling #altonsterling #batonrougeshootings #inthistogether #ourlivesmatter