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Zaid Shakir & Mohamed Magid on Curbing Violent Extremism

Audio from the lecture removed by request.

A few weeks ago, I attended the “Curbing Violent Extremism” event hosted by the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Virginia. Zaid Shakir, an Islamic activist and teacher at Zaytuna College spoke alongside Mohamed Magid, the imam of the ADAMS Center and the new President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). I found the discussion invigorating and refreshingly frank. Below is a recap of some of the major points and the Q&A that followed.

Imam Zaid Shakir

Zaid Shakir opened the discussion by recognizing that the issue of violent extremism is “a very complex, sensitive, and emotive topic and one that stirs up a lot of emotions” so he mentioned by way of reminder the hadith in which the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) advised a man three times to not become angry meaning to “not act out of your anger.”

The most “dangerous manifestation” of violent extremism here in the U.S. in Shakir’s view comes from those who seek to gain positions of prominence in the government to advance an agenda that will prove detrimental to Muslims. However, Shakir stated that his primary focus is on how the American Muslim community can “empower or diffuse” the agenda of those who seek to inflict ever greater levels of harm upon innocent Muslims around the world. He posits that the real targets in this climate of increased attention and hostility towards Muslims are not Muslims themselves but rather the “disappearing white middle class.” The fear of Muslims and Islam is conveniently used to distract attention away from the difficult economic climate.

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According to Shakir, we should also be concerned with what Muslims do because “we are a people of personal and individual responsibility. We are not a people who play the victim card or blame others for our actions.” Muslims must learn the lessons of history and look internally to remember that “we are the responsible actors for effecting change and not anyone else.”

Shakir then noted that, “we have some Muslims who are just as wedded to violence as this cabal of neo-cons, extreme Zionists, and [some] Christian fundamentalists in this country.”  However, there is a significant difference between the two groups as the latter group has access to the instruments of mass destruction while the Muslims do not. Shakir then noted the example of General Ken Waller during the first Gulf War who responded to Saddam Hussein’s boast to “fight the Americans until the last Iraqi” by saying that “we’ll grant them their every dying wish.”

Imam Zaid counseled the audience to not be so naïve as to think that the claims of those including candidates for public office who say we need to wipe Islam off the face of the earth or bomb Mecca or intern Muslims are so far-fetched if the political reality changes, for “what human beings have done, humans can do” and the examples from history are numerous. In the face of such a concerted effort, the Muslims promoting a violent ideology would not be able to effective counter measures.

Shakir answered critics who say that the violent extremists are only following a literal reading of the Quran with the verse, “Allah does not forbid you concerning a people that have not fought you over your religion nor expelled you from your homes that you have amicable and just relations with them and Allah loves those who are just.” Some may respond by saying that “the Americans are driving people out of their homes” but Shakir countered this by saying “most Americans I know haven’t driven anyone out of their homes.” Rather, he advised Muslims, especially frustrated and angry young Muslims that want to do something to join forces with those Americans like Michael Ratner and Chris Hedges that have dedicated their careers to shutdown the Guantanamo Bay prison and oppose the invasion of Iraq.

“Michael Ratner has dedicated the last 8 years of his career with others in trying to shutdown Guantanamo Bay. What have you done to help him in this effort, did you go to law school or learn about the political mechanisms of this country and add your voice, organize your community, educate your neighbors, use the media…Where were you when Chris Hedges and Veterans for Peace chained themselves to the White House fence and were arrested while trying to draw attention to those veterans protesting the war? Had Shakir, a military veteran been here, he says he would have a joined them.

Out of frustration, Shakir said that some Muslims claim “the only thing they can do is to blow something up and kill their neighbors who never did anything to them” all the while strengthening the forces that are salivating to go to war against Muslims. He then reminded the audience of the hadith where the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “Don’t any one of you insult your father.” The companions replied, “How could any of us insult our father?”  To which, the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “You insult another man’s father and in return he insults your father, you’re the cause of your father being insulted.” Similarly, “if you were to go and blow up a bunch of people and these people become filled with rage, vengeance and retaliation and they kill thousands of times the number of people you killed, do you think that none of that blood would be on your hands?” Shakir probed the audience, “There are millions of able-bodied Muslim men that can bear arms and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, why do they need an American to go over there to pick up an AK-47? Is that why Allah put all of these Muslims here in America? Allah has given us so many opportunities here, access to education, the ability to organize and mobilize politically, to critique and stand against our government and its vicious war machine.”

Shakir closed his opening remarks with a final reminder, cautioning Muslims not to be used as unwitting “pawns” in a geo-political game and exhorting Muslims to stand up for justice and to recognize that if the community does stand up, that many other Americans will also stand with them.

Imam Mohamed Magid

Imam Magid opened his remarks by acknowledging the unfortunate reality that despite the many condemnations of terrorism by Muslims, the wider American public will still say that they have not heard this message from the Muslim community. Violent extremism, in Magid’s view has three components – ideological, political, and social.

Ideologically, verses and hadith are taken out of context. Politically, many Muslims do not believe they have an effective platform or may be afraid to speak about foreign policy grievances for fear of being labeled a “terrorist sympathizer.” Zaid Shakir offered that “if you are against American foreign policy, its brutality and its excesses and you are called a sympathizer, then you should know that is nothing new in American history…you should understand that you are part of a proud tradition” of groups that were labeled for standing up for what’s right. And socially, Muslims may become frustrated and angry by the public attacks on Islam and/or by the personal bullying they have experienced for being identifiably Muslim, the last two factors, which Magid believes if taken together may lead to “social isolation.”

In Magid’s view, the Muslim community must respond by engaging in various means of dialogue to deconstruct the arguments used to justify violent extremism. Imam Magid advised the audience that “no Muslim should be intimidated, scared, or afraid to engage in political discourse or to stand up and say that I disagree with the American government on a specific issue because you have the right to free speech.” Commenting on the fears some Muslims have expressed about having their phones tapped or receiving undue scrutiny, Magid responded by saying, “even if that is the case, we have to fight the fight of civil rights and civil liberties as that’s how each people gain respect in this country.”

He also emphasized that “on a political issue if you disagree, you have to use a political platform to make that disagreement known. Trying to take up arms in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq does not solve the real underlying issues.” In addition, Magid believes there is a need for Muslims to work to combat the negative portrayals of Muslims in the media and to offer young people an opportunity to learn “authentic and true Islam” to minimize the reliance on sometimes dubious internet sources.

Questions and Answers

For more thorough responses, listen to the mp3 audio. Zaid Shakir has written an extensive set of responses to questions received after the publication of his Letter to a Would-Be Mujahid article, which can be found here: Answers to “Would-Be Mujahids.”

1. What is violent extremism? Why is that we seem to be adopting the language the corporate media assigns to people struggling for self-determination in their own countries?

Zaid Shakir: Anyone whose land is invaded and occupied has a right to defend their land, their people, their honor, their resources and that right is universal. But we are not talking about that, no one is labeling those defending their land as violent extremists. But people who put bombs in marketplaces, masjids, and now churches or those who would blow up innocent people in some part of this country that’s not doing anything to liberate anybody’s lands. That’s just in many instances frustration…

Our Islamic terminology is being hijacked by Muslims and others. An example of a real mujahid is Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri he fought the French valiantly but when he saw there no maslaha (religiously counted interest) that could be advanced by continuing to fight, he surrendered. He was eventually exiled to Damascus and during a pogrom of Christians initiated by some Druze, he put his armor and weapons back on and gathered his men to defend the Christians. He said, “Anyone who wishes to harm these Christians because they are weak while our Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) has promised them protection will have to fight me.” Now, that is a mujahid. The town of Elkader in Iowa was named after him.

We are an honorable people and do not murder women and children. According to Ibn Hazm, one the ijma’at (issues of consensus) that the entire ummah has agreed upon is that the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) forbade the killing of women and children.

What about those who say if they kill Muslim women and children that we can kill their women and children as well?

Zaid Shakir: Ijma and Muslim history argues against these claims. Imam Malik in his al-Mudawanna mentioned that if you are confronted on the battlefield by a woman with a weapon that you should try to run around her and go the other way because the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) forbade killing women and it is from him (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) that we derive our principles.

Should Muslims accept employment with U.S. federal government and defense contractors that may target Muslims?

Zaid Shakir: Everyone has to use their independent conscience. There are primarily two arguments, we need conscientious Muslims in these agencies trying to bring an Islamic perspective to the policy and analysis so there will be something to check these agencies from running totally roughshod over the Muslim community. The other argument is that these agencies are infiltrating the Muslims and clearly displaying enmity towards Islam and the Muslim community so we should have nothing to do with them. A person must be mature and weigh both sides of the argument. If they feel they can make a difference they should try and if they feel they can’t make a difference then they should quit. Ibn Taymiyyah in one of his fatwa said, “If you are a Muslim in a minority land where you can do something to check the evil of evildoers against the Muslims then you are obliged to make that effort.”  But the decision should be made on your conscience and we shouldn’t say nay or yea. Remember the hadith, “Righteousness is good character and sin is what causes you agitation in your soul and you wouldn’t want people to know about it.”

FBI Entrapment?

Zaid Shakir: The target is not the Muslims but rather those who see the headlines right at Christmas time. I didn’t elaborate on entrapment because entrapment is clear and well-known. My concern is not the FBI as it takes two to tango. If someone comes to you and says let’s put a bomb out here to blow up innocent people, even if you don’t intend to do anything, what’s going on in your heart and mind to even make you vulnerable to such suggestions? Muslims should not vulnerable to a scheme that’s going to kill innocent people. No ifs, and, or buts…we need to be crystal clear on this that none of us will be involved in any scheme that leads to the deaths of innocent people and which makes it easier to kill innocent Muslims all over this world. This is why I am emphasizing what we have to do.

Feeling guilty about events overseas?

Zaid Shakir: Brothers and sisters, you should not be feeling guilty because Palestine is occupied, Gaza was bombed, and Kashmir hasn’t been liberated, yet. There are one hundred million Muslims surrounding Jerusalem, if they haven’t taken it upon themselves to liberate Jerusalem, what are you guilty of? Allah has put you in a position to educate people and let them know about the injustices that are going on, not to get all worked up and feel guilty about something millions of Muslims haven’t done. You don’t have to do anything but be a responsible Muslim, educate your fellow citizens about what is going on in the world and add your voice to a discourse where our voices are missing.

Muslim Informants?

Zaid Shakir: We have a responsibility for the safety and security of everyone we share this land with. And if we know of anyone who is working to undermine the safety and security of the people we share this land with, Muslim or otherwise, we have a responsibility to stop that person. There’s a hadith, “If you see something wrong change it with your hand. If you can’t, then with your tongue, and if you can’t even do that then hate it in your heart and that is the lowest level of faith.” We have to assume the moral agency and the peripheral details vary on a case by case basis. What’s important is to understand the principle that we must protect innocent people from harm.

Should we be more open in taking a stand against Muslim leaders who take a more radical message?

Zaid Shakir: If anyone is distorting the religion especially in a way that has grave consequences for Muslims then that person should be called out for whatever they are advocating…

Preaching to the already converted, what other effective means of communication can we use?

Imam Magid: It begins here first with open and honest discourse without fear that someone is listening in, which will lead to healthy discussions that address the issues. Even if we use all of the means at our disposal we will never be able to control every single outcome. We need to do whatever we can within our own circles of influence and to emphasize the meta-narrative that represents real Islam and minimize the impact of the alternative narrative of those who seek to justify a violent ideology. We need to discuss issues of foreign policy and issues of concern to Muslims by creating an open platform here and in virtual space.

Zaid Shakir: Never underestimate the power of Allah (ta ala) to convey your words, Ibrahim (alayhi salam) was asked, “Proclaim the pilgrimage amongst the people” He said, my voice can’t reach them all. Allah instructed him to make the call and Allah would make the call reach everyone. So the mountains humbled low and his voice spread to all corners of the earth.  With the tawfiq (blessing) of Allah (subhanahu wa ta ala), the internet, and word of mouth you never know where your words will spread.

Some signs that one may go down the path of violent radicalism?

Zaid Shakir: Keep ears and communication open, some signs may include withdrawal from the mainstream of the community because they condemn them as sell-outs and punks. Beginning to espouse dangerous ideas and this requires engagement with them.  Another sign is disengagement from non-Muslim friends.

Imam Magid: Vulnerability to extremism is not solely a Muslim phenomenon, there are also criminal gangs. When a person becomes isolated or part of a clique they often begin to become secretive, which is a red flag. We have to be able to answer the hard questions and provide a corrective understanding of mistaken interpretations of the Quran to counteract those ideological views. We need to do prevention instead of intervention. We need to engage young people in productive activities. For example, we should have a Muslim Peace Corps so if there is something happening overseas that Muslims here want to contribute to then they can go overseas and help build schools and communities. Bullying in schools and in the media also leads to social isolation and a vulnerability that can be exploited by violent extremist recruiters.

Muslim mainstream has developed an aversion to speaking about foreign policy while more radical voices utilize foreign policy to draw in willing listeners.

Zaid Shakir: If we have any concern for the future viability of this country then we have to speak out…

What can we do?

Zaid Shakir: We need a healthy diverse civic life, if some people wish to engage in civil disobedience that is their right and we should respect that. If some people want to work within the context of a political party to try to advance their interests or do something positive for the Muslims then that’s their right or if some people want to write that is their right. We are a part of a diverse civic community and we don’t all have to march lock-step in one direction to protest or to build and create power to bring our voices to bear in an effective way. We should not forfeit our right to disagree and to civil disobedience. We shouldn’t say those who work in the mainstream are sell-outs as their niyyah (intention) may be greater than our niyyah. And we shouldn’t say that those protesting in the streets are not going to change anything. Every meaningful change in American history started in the streets.  It was the people in the street protesting against slavery and the denial of women’s suffrage that led to emancipation and universal women’s suffrage. It was the people in the streets with Dr. King that led to the civil rights advances that occurred in this country. Politicians understand that. Everyone has a role to play and needs to find that venue and go for it.

Dar al-Harb/Dar al-Islam/Dar al-Ahd?

Zaid Shakir: There is no standard definition for dar al-harb and dar al-Islam, scholars have differed. None of them describe the situation we are in now where Muslims have universal equal citizenship that’s protected by the law. If there are abuses we have legal recourse within the modern nation-state. For these political realities, dar al-Islam/dar al-harb thinking has absolutely no relevance.

Imam Magid: A land where you sign a treaty with a people is considered dar al-ahd, which according to one scholar is any place you are able to live and able to practice your Islam. This land then becomes your land and you have to protect it even if you are a minority.

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Ify Okoye is a Muslim woman, a convert, born and raised in the U.S. She is from New York and her parents are from Nigeria. Despite the petty hassles of work and school, Ify finds time to travel usually for AlMaghrib Institute seminars and to visit beautiful places. Pronunciation primer for her name, say it like this: E-fee O-coy-yeah!



  1. Pingback: Zaid Shakir & Mohamed Magid | Curbing Violent Extremism in the Muslim Community « Ify Okoye

  2. Avatar


    January 27, 2011 at 9:47 PM

    I also attended to this event which should be repeated in every community.
    It was one of the best speeches of Imam Zaid Shakir.


    • Avatar

      Ify Okoye

      January 28, 2011 at 5:40 AM

      I agree, more discussions like this should happen around the country, the masjid was packed, which shows the interest in these issues and where else if not at the mosque can we discuss these issues openly and engage, which tends to produce more fruitful discussion than some of the largely anonymous slanging that happens online.

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    January 28, 2011 at 2:24 AM

    The pseudo-intellectual extremism spewed by Zaid Shakir itself needs to be condemned.

    • Amad


      January 28, 2011 at 4:25 AM

      Because you can’t respond to it?

  4. Avatar


    January 28, 2011 at 6:26 AM

    please zak explain in detail what you mean by psuedo-intellectual extremism spewed by zaid shakir?

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    January 28, 2011 at 7:42 AM

    How do you know the CIA is not commiting these acts of violence and simply blaming them on Muslims?

    • Avatar

      Hello Kitty

      January 28, 2011 at 8:08 AM

      Indeed, how do you even know it’s not Megatron? Or the Big Bad Wolf?

      • Avatar


        January 28, 2011 at 11:00 AM

        Have you ever seen a picture of the Japanese character Hello Kitty? She is drawn without a mouth for a reason…take the hint.

        Just because the Western media says something does not mean it is true. Its funny how Muslims have never killed each other like this but as soon as the U.S. enters Muslim countries you see these random bombings happening. What a coincident.

        • Avatar


          January 28, 2011 at 11:28 AM

          Oh yes, the sectarian killings that have plagued Pakistan in the 1990s were all thanks to the U.S. Groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba were always a U.S. front to murder anyone they deemed to be kaffir.

      • Avatar


        January 28, 2011 at 2:51 PM

        Bravo HK for a great response!

        • Avatar

          Hello Kitty

          January 28, 2011 at 11:16 PM

          Don’t thank me, Kashif thank my son. :-) It would seem that when it comes to fantasy and wild imaginations, some MM posters sure have him beat though.

          Seriously though, I’m the first person to condemn the horrid foreign policies in place throughout much of the western world, re. Muslim countries, and other countries on this planet. US patent law when it comes to life saving pharmaceuticals especially makes me sick–4 people die every minute of every day, just from TB, a disease that’s treatable in most cases, but only if you can afford it. Seriously sick and evil stuff goes down in this world, and a lot of it points straight back at the US, no doubt about it. But plenty points right back in our direction too, and painful as it may be sometimes you have to call a spade a spade.

      • Avatar


        January 29, 2011 at 3:35 PM

        Not everything is a conspiracy, issues such as this are not black and white, rather it should be observed through an objective lens, which unfortunately many fail to see. The US have been directly involved in many acts of terror in the Middle East, including three that takes the cake.

        1) 1985, the car bomb outside a mosque in Beirut that killed 80 people ( mostly women and girls) and wounded 250 others, timed to explode as people were leaving and traced back to the CIA and British Intelligence.

        2) Shimon Peres’s bombing of Tunis, killing 75 people, Palestinian and Tunisian, expedited by the US and praised by Secretary of State Shultz, then unanimously condemned by the UN security Council as a “act of armed aggression”

        3) Peres’s “Iron Fist” operations directed against what the Israeli high command called “terrorist villagers” in occupied Lebanon, reaching new depths of “calculated brutality and arbitrary murder” in the words of Western diplomat familiar with the area, amply supported by direct coverage, total casualties unknown in accord with the usual convention.

        In addition “Swami Aseemanand (Hindu Holy man) allegedly admitted to placing bombs on a train to Pakistan, at a Sufi shrine and at a mosque.

        He has also allegedly confessed to carrying out two assaults on the southern Indian town of Malegaon, which has a large Muslim population.”

        That was not megatron rather a kaffir whose acts were blamed on none other then muslims. Those muslim if you continue to read the BBC article were severely tortured, because who else would construct such attacks but a muslim, right HK?

        • Avatar

          Hello Kitty

          January 29, 2011 at 6:48 PM

          Did you not read where I said yesterday that I’m fully aware that plenty of this stuff leads directly back to the US? Nevertheless, enough of this garbage exists that is fully perpetrated 100% by Muslims that it warrants our attention and dedication to eradicating it. But go ahead and continue playing ostrich, with your head buried in the sand.

          • Avatar


            January 30, 2011 at 11:41 AM

            “Indeed, how do you even know it’s not Megatron? Or the Big Bad Wolf?”

            Well from the sound of this statement it looks like the only grumpy little ostrich here is you, or kat?

            The issue that Im addressing here is that we should not jump into conclusion right away as you seem to do (“enough of this garbage exists that is fully perpetrated 100% by Muslims”) but understand the situation and not impulsively draw a corollary between the attack and Muslims. Considering that majority of the news is reported by a regulated and is disseminated through biased clairvoyants.

          • Avatar

            Hello Kitty

            January 31, 2011 at 2:56 AM

            You’re simply posting nonsense now so you can see your name on the homepage, or some other equally ridiculous reason, because you’re not even saying anything of substance anymore.

            Obviously, if the problem has gathered these particular scholars’ attention, along with numerous other scholars around the world, the problem is real, it exists, and needs to be addressed by Muslims. That’s all I’m saying. No one is saying false flag ops don’t exist, or never happen. But enough real, legitimate, credibly traced back to real live Muslims around the world incidents happen that many have felt the need to speak up and out about them. Unless you’re insinuating that the scholars saying there’s a problem here are all a bunch of ignoramuses, being duped on a constant basis. And that you’re the only person who knows what’s up, and everyone else is just blind, ignorant sheeple. Yeah, right. And I’m the proud owner of a pink and purple talking unicorn . Yep.

          • Avatar


            February 1, 2011 at 1:00 PM

            How is that that Im not saying anything of substance when I provided for you a list of critical evidence towards my argument. From what i’v seen the only thing spewed out of your mouth were childish name calling and some pretty lame sarcasm.

            And then you say that im posting nonsense yet you respond to my nonsense,,,,hmmm….?

            And then somehow you cunningly with your superior academic skills derive from my statements that I am in a way indirectly calling these scholars ignoramasuses. Lol I didnt even mention their names. You must have alot of insecurities to assume such things.

            Please read carefully what i wrote. I understand that muslim have a hand in many acts, but there are still many that are not constructed by muslims, so therefore lets be a little cautious before accusing your brothers.

            ‘Pink and purple unicorn’ really? lol

  6. Avatar


    January 28, 2011 at 12:50 PM

    Amazing points gathered, Ify. It was truly a wonderful lecture by both Imam Magid and Imam Zaid Shakir

    • Avatar

      Ify Okoye

      January 28, 2011 at 3:12 PM

      Rida, thanks for reading! The atmosphere was electric wasn’t it? Actually, made me wish I lived closer to the ADAMS community, so forward thinking in its outlook and management and gives me hope for the future of Islam in America.

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    January 28, 2011 at 2:45 PM

    I find it a bit of an irony and oxymoron that we’re trying to fight “extremism” by focusing constantly on ONE aspect of the picture rather than discussing it from a just and holistic perspective. The “influence of young people” by ‘militant’ personas is a part of the pie of the whole picture:

    other aspects include – NOT dealing with tying the nature of U.S. policy NOT only foreign but domestic in targeting innocent people and jailing them in (ironically) communities such as those in Maryland and Virginia,

    – not discussing the REAL and not washed down aspects of what is al-wala’ wal bara’ (associating oneself and disavowing oneself) in REAL terms and how one can implement it while still being an active and relevant part of one’s society (as was done post-9/11 by the scholarly community – you don’t have to watch too many old videos and recordings of them to make a distinction)
    discussing them practically, with awareness, without a precedent of needing to “change” these aspects of our faith because of ‘environmental’ factors.

    – and finally interestingly enough when we talk about entrapment by certain organizations we
    don’t take into consideration things like this,9171,1129587,00.html

    I hope that these criticisms are taken constructively, as if you ask any real LAY individual

    these one sided “anti extremism” talks are not curbing anyone and the lay people even understand the one sidedness..

    If we cannot be fully just, then there is no obligation for us to address these issues.

    May Allah ta’la guide us to that which is TRULY moderate and just, and guide us to be of benefit wherever we are.

    WAllahu ‘Alam

    • Avatar

      Ify Okoye

      January 28, 2011 at 2:56 PM

      I excerpted portions of each speaker’s main points in the post so one should listen to the audio for a more complete picture as the topics addressed were not at all one-sided. However, it’s not strange for Muslim imams to be primarily focused on what their Muslim congregants do and to try to steer them in one direction or another. Most of us accept this as simple common sense on just about every other issue but in this issue, it often becomes a main issue of contention or criticism.

  8. Avatar

    The Critically Cognitive

    January 28, 2011 at 9:41 PM

    I was there!!

    • Avatar

      The Critically Cognitive

      January 28, 2011 at 9:48 PM

      I can see myself in one of the pictures :-)

    • Avatar

      Ify Okoye

      January 28, 2011 at 10:46 PM

      That’s great! The place was packed.

  9. Avatar

    Ameera Khan

    January 29, 2011 at 9:12 AM

    Jazaakillah khayr, Ify. :) This must have been hard work, writing it down. May you be rewarded for your efforts, ameen!

    • Avatar

      Ify Okoye

      January 29, 2011 at 12:47 PM

      Wa iyyaki, ameen. Most challenging was deciding what to cut out for length considerations.

  10. Avatar


    February 3, 2011 at 5:27 AM

    nice article

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The Box He’s In

free ibrahim

One From the History Books

Sometimes you read a story (casually, not knowing what to expect), only to have that story haunt you. There’s something at the heart of it that won’t let you go. The story of Henry Brown was one of those for me.

It was in 1849, in Louisa County Virginia, that Brown did a series of incredible things. 

First, he used sulfuric acid to burn his hand, because it was the only way he could get some time off of work (he used too much, and burned all the way down to the bone). 

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He then climbed into a small box – three feet by two feet, by two and a half feet high – and had his shoemaker friend nail the top shut. And with only three small holes in the box for air, he sent Brown away by mail. Brown travelled 350 miles in that box, for 27 hours. When he finally reached the address in Philadelphia, a group of waiting friends pried the lid open, and Brown could finally escape, a free man.

You won’t be surprised to hear it, but this was a horrible way to travel. Even though Brown had clearly labeled the box, “this side up with care,” handlers tossed his box around, and he spent hours of his journey traveling on his head. At one point, the pressure had built up so much that Brown felt like the blood vessels in his head would burst, and his eyes would literally pop out of their sockets. He waited silently for the blood to gush out and flow over him. 

But as difficult and dangerous as all of this sounds, it was nothing compared to the agony Brown had endured as a slave. 

Compared to most slaves, Brown himself acknowledged that he had it “good” – a very relative term, of course. In his 33 years as a slave, he had been whipped just once. He had enough food to eat, enough clothes to cover him decently, and the work he was given was never too extreme. But nothing of his was really his own, not even his own person. As a young boy, his mother would take him on her knee, and with trembling voice and tears rolling down her cheeks, she would point at the forest trees and say, “my son, as yonder leaves are stripped from off the trees of the forest, so are the children of slaves swept away from them by the hands of cruel tyrants.”  

And when his first master died, Brown and his parents and siblings were divided as property between this master’s heirs. They were torn in separate directions, never to see each other again. 

Later, when Brown was a young man, he found solace in a fellow slave named Nancy. Brown fell in love with Nancy, and married her, and had three children with her. He did everything in his power to keep her nearby. But Nancy, like Brown, was not her own person. And one day without warning, Nancy and the kids were all sold off by their owner, and Brown could do nothing except watch as his loved ones were taken from him a second time.

And it was this agony – to have his wife and children stripped mercilessly away from him – that Brown could not endure. This was the agony that made him burn his hand, and climb into a wooden mailing box, and suffer in mute silence as he travelled, tumbling on his head, so he could be free. 

Threads of Injustice

I hesitate to draw parallels between this story of Henry “Box” Brown and the story I am about to tell of my own life. The history of slavery in the US is so dark, and so grim, I can think of few  things that compare to that horror. I guess by those accounts, you could say we’ve had it good. “Good” is a relative term, of course. 

But as I picture my husband sitting – trapped – in an ICE detention center in Aurora, Colorado, 1,200 miles away from where I am with our kids, I can’t help but wonder why our country seems so hell-bent on perpetuating those same threads of injustice, so that some form of slavery, some flavor of oppression, will always endure.

My husband, Ibrahim Mohammad, is a political prisoner. The US government will happily label him a terrorist, an accusation he is entirely innocent of. But by all accounts (whether you believe him to be innocent, or guilty of the “crime” on official records) he is meant to be a free man.

I’ve written about my husband before, at some length, in a story that is in a story that is now a decade long

After a fruitless FBI raid on our home in 2011 which turned up no evidence, after my husband then cooperated with the FBI in answering any and all questions on two occasions, after four years of radio silence from them – my husband was suddenly arrested in 2015.

Ibrahim was kept behind bars for almost two and half years after that, simply awaiting a trial that the prosecution kept pushing back.

Then in 2018, Ibrahim took a plea deal. 

It was an excruciating decision for him to make. He had spent countless hours preparing for his own case, sifting through pages and pages of discovery. Ibrahim was ready to go to trial and defend his innocence, when the prosecution (who had shown up in court before unprepared and unable to make a coherent argument) presented him with an offer that was almost impossible to turn down.

The prosecution’s offer was for a 5 year sentence for reduced charges – half of which he had already served – followed by deportation from the country. To go to trial, on the other hand, was to face a necessarily biased jury, and risk a potential life sentence. It was a no brainer. Ibrahim’s lawyer for the case called this deal, “The closest thing to surrender by the Government. The Government did not indict him on life sentence terrorism offenses to have him serve 21 months [after taking the deal].” 

And so my husband took the deal. He admitted to guilt on paper so he could one day walk the earth free again, reunited with the wife and children he was so mercilessly stripped away from.

Unfortunate Crossroads

On February 7th of this year, 2020, Ibrahim completed the remaining days of his sentence.

He was released into ICE custody as the transitional ground between the Colorado prison he was in, and the country he would be deported to (likely India, since my husband is an Indian national). His departure was needlessly delayed, and now, because of COVID-19 and the world crisis we all find ourselves in, he is trapped. Flights out of the country are cancelled or delayed, and India has closed its borders.

“I never should have taken that plea deal,” my husband said recently, and I try, as I have many times before, to console him. 

It’s a resurfacing of an internal struggle Ibrahim has had since the moment he took the deal, trying to reconcile his soul to the decision. He has spent long days worried that by “admitting” even to the lesser charges in the deal, he betrayed himself and his beliefs. He goes back in time often to reject that deal, trusting that God would clear his name. Trusting that the research he put in, and the dedicated lawyer he had, could have easily (easily) stood up to the weak evidence and mumbling prosecution. Maybe, he thinks, he should have risked everything to stand up for the truth, rather than make the slightest concession to tyranny.

But the reality is, Ibrahim never stood a chance at a fair trial, despite his glaring innocence. Terrorism cases of the past have taught us that. A racist President and a country that elected him gave us no reason to hope that this time would be different. 

If you still think it’s strange that my husband would admit to something he didn’t do, that he’d be willing to take on the implication of “terrorist” when he took his plea deal, I want to remind you again of Henry Brown. How he burnt his hand with sulfuric acid and travelled in a nailed wooden shipping crate, risking his life. A good and innocent man, when stripped of his family and freedom, will do desperate things to get them back. 

“If you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was,” wrote Brown, “You cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast.”  

A Looming Disaster

In the wake of COVID-19, my husband is now serving an indefinite sentence.  Everything about his situation is uncertain.

And while his prolonged stay in the ICE detention center may seem like just another inconvenience brought on suddenly by this pandemic – aren’t all of our lives on hold in so many ways? – my husband is in a dangerous situation. He sits in a box, with other men, while the whole world has been flipped on its head. While the rest of us are told to stay home, to stay safe, to keep a distance – my husband and other detainees are in cramped quarters where social distancing is impossible, where disinfectants and cleaners are inadequate, and where all it takes is for one inmate to get sick before the rest of them follow suit.

I shudder to think what could happen to Ibrahim and these other men. I shudder to think how an already overwhelmed medical system – short-staffed and lacking necessary gear and equipment – could even begin to handle this.

Already, in early April, a staff member at my husband’s detention center tested positive for COVID-19, and shortly afterwards, a fever and illness spread among the inmates. There’s no way to know what it was, and the detention center says they did their best to isolate the infected staff member. What if it wasn’t COVID-19? And what if COVID-19 is on its way to them? All it takes is for one person – one delivery driver, one staff member, one detainee– to be infected, and the rest of the center is the perfect breeding ground for this virus.

For Cook County Jail in Chicago, all of this is no longer a “what if.” At the time of writing this, more than 500 detainees and staff at that jail have been infected. Prisoners have started rioting, and more recently going on hunger strike. All across the nation, what has already happened in Cook County Jail will happen at other prisons, because our government is failing to act. The data paints a horrifying picture, and some activists expect that “tens of thousands of prisoners will needlessly die” in the wake of COVID-19. They have labelled this a time “when mass incarceration becomes mass murder.”  

And all of us are culpable if we fail to act

Friends on Either Side

In late March, activists on the ground worked to release a number of prisoners from the Aurora Contract Detention Facility where my husband is being held. A wave of men was released, like a breath of air, to alleviate a humanitarian crisis on the verge of happening.

Ibrahim was not one of those men.

The ICE detention center claims they “probably” cannot release him on house arrest based on his conviction, even though they have complete jurisdiction to do so. 

Despite being a non-violent prisoner, despite having no prior contact with the law before the trumped up charges were brought against him, despite having served his agreed upon sentence, my husband (like other Muslims caught in the crossfire of the US “War on Terror”) wears a scarlet letter in the shape of a “T,” branded onto him as if with a hot iron – without pity and without escape. 

When Henry Brown made his historic escape from slavery, he was aided on either side by friends and supporters. In Virginia, there was his shoemaker friend and another man who was himself a freed slave. And in Philadelphia, it was a group of abolitionists who knew the evils of slavery, and the imperative of helping out a fellow man in need. They took up his cause and fought for him before they ever met him. 

For my husband, he is awaited on the other side of his captivity by a loving, longing family. We have waited for him every day since his release date in February, and long before that in every moment since the moment of his traumatic arrest.

Ibrahim is also aided by loving friends and activists fighting to get him out as we speak. A few weeks ago we filed for an Emergency Humanitarian Parole Request, asking that my husband be released on house arrest until India opens up its borders and he can fulfill the second half of an unjust plea deal, in a case that was always a travesty of justice.

It was denied. ICE gave no reason, but merely wrote a few lines as if to offer some sort of appeasement. 

We now have to put up a fight in the higher courts and file what’s called a habeas corpus in the 10th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Colorado. A habeas corpus, simply put, challenges the court to show reason as to why an individual must remain in custody. In Ibrahim’s case, having served his time, further imprisonment or detention now warrants further review. It’s still a long shot, but worth it for the chance at freedom it gives my husband, and for the sake of not staying silent in the face of injustice.

We do need your help. 

We ask that people who have never met Ibrahim take up his cause and fight for him, because the US government’s misplaced “war on terror” and systems of “mass incarceration” are evils that need to be eradicated. Help Ibrahim (and other prisoners) out of a situation that could needlessly turn into one of mass murder. Help release Ibrahim from the indefinite sentence he is now serving after having completed the unfair sentence he was given. 

Please sign the petition to free my husband, and spread the word:

As we see so many people stepping up during this crisis, as we witness the earth heal and restore aspects of its physical form, it’s time for a moral transformation as well.

Help set a free man free. 

 Brown, Henry. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. Kindle ed., Dover Publications, 2015. 

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#Current Affairs

What We Should Know About The Slaying Of An Imam 10 Years Ago In Dearborn

informant jibril imam Luqman

October 28, 2019 marks 10 years since the tragic homicide of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah who was shot 20 times in Dearborn, Michigan by a special FBI tactical squad. The homicide of Imam Abdullah was the culmination of the FBI spending over a million dollars in a so-called counterterrorism investigation which included rental of a commercial warehouse and freight trucks, the purchase of expensive electronic items and payment to at least 3 confidential informants. The raid on that fateful day in which Abdullah was killed and some of his congregants were arrested had nothing to do with terrorism-related charges, yet the imam and by extension the Detroit Muslim community was smeared in the process.

The FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) claimed that agents were compelled to kill Abdullah because he purportedly shot a law enforcement canine during the arrest raid. CAIR-Michigan filed a lawsuit against the FBI for wrongful death and fraud in this matter because there was no forensic evidence that corroborated that Abdullah had a firearm much less shot an FBI dog, which the bureau considered a law enforcement officer. There were no proofs provided that any gunpowder was on Abdullah’s hand or fingertips which would have existed if he had fired a gun, and none of his DNA nor fingerprints were found on the alleged gun. In fact, there was not even a picture of a gun at the scene nor did the Dearborn Police see any gun. The FBI blocked the Dearborn Police from entering the scene of the homicide for over an hour after the shooting which allowed the FBI special tactical team to leave with the purported firearm. In other words, the shooters of Abdullah, who headed back to DC without even being questioned by the Dearborn Police, are the only source that he had a gun. We believe that the FBI used what is known as a throwaway gun in a coverup when they killed the imam.

To add insult to injury that tragic day when Abdullah was shot 20 times including in the back and groin, law enforcement used their helicopter to fly the injured FBI dog, which was most likely shot by friendly fire, to a veterinarian hospital instead of using it to fly the imam to a close-by hospital. When the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI in Michigan and the Acting US Attorney held a press conference about the incident, it was followed up later with special recognition for “Freddy” the FBI dog while the imam was painted as a type of extremist who wanted to establish sharia in the Westside of Detroit.

To add insult to injury that tragic day when Abdullah was shot 20 times including in the back and groin, law enforcement used their helicopter to fly the injured FBI dog, which was most likely shot by friendly fire, to a veterinarian hospital instead of using it to fly the imam to a close-by hospital.Click To Tweet
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The lawsuit which we filed against the FBI was dismissed not because of the merits of our arguments but due to the federal government during the Obama administration suppressing information. The FBI would not release the names of their shooting squad which forced us to name them as John Does. The DOJ countered that we did not have standing on behalf of the family because we did not name actual persons. When we refiled using the names of the Special Agent in Charge and the head of the tactical team, neither who were actual shooters, the DOJ argued that the statute of limitations ran out in our complaint. We submitted an appeal to the US Supreme Court regarding the coordinated suppression of evidence; however, our appeal was denied. We still hold to this day that the FBI wrongfully killed the imam which was followed up by a systematic coverup.

Since the homicide of Abdullah, we now know that government surveillance against the Muslim community and the suspected terrorist watchlists grew tremendously during the Obama years in comparison to the Bush era. Also, the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) which further targeted the community began under the Obama administration. Government spying and the broad usage of confidential informants, some who act as agent provocateurs, in our community are still concerns of ours. Where Americans pray or who we associate with that may have unpopular political views should not be predicates for FBI surveillance. In many cases, this has led to young American Muslims being criminalized. For Imam Abdullah, it led to his demise.

During the 10th anniversary of this tragedy, I ask us all to recommit ourselves to standing for the civil liberties of all Americans to not be mass surveilled and for none of us to aid and abet any governmental programs that facilitate of the violation of our 1st Amendment rights falsely in the name of public safety and national security. Click To Tweet

As my mentor, the late Ron Scott with the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality said when he stood with us in this case, “We are not anti-police; we are anti-law enforcement misconduct.” It is not our position that law enforcement be completely abolished. We are, however, against the unethical usage of informants which is part and parcel of the prolific history of the FBI in targeting prominent Americans such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, whose religious and political views were viewed as threatening by the status quo. During the 10th anniversary of this tragedy, I ask us all to recommit ourselves to standing for the civil liberties of all Americans to not be mass surveilled and for none of us to aid and abet any governmental programs that facilitate of the violation of our 1st Amendment rights falsely in the name of public safety and national security. We never want to see another homicide such as what took place to Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah due to overzealous actions predicated upon misguided FBI policy.

Photo: Luqman Abdullah, second from left. FBI informant “Jibril,” third from left. Credit: Intercept

21 Shots and the Pursuit of Justice: An Imam (Luqman Ameen Abdullah) Dies in Michigan

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#Current Affairs

Sri Lankan Muslims To Fast In Solidarity With Fellow Christians

On Sunday morning Sri Lankan Christians went to their local churches for Easter services, as they have done for centuries. Easter is a special occasion for Christian families in ethnically diverse Sri Lanka. A time for families to gather to worship in their churches, and then to enjoy their festivities. Many went to their local church on Sunday morning to be followed by a traditional family breakfast at home or a local restaurant.

It would have been like any other Easter Sunday for prominent mother-daughter television duo, Shanthaa Mayadunne and Nisanga Mayadunne. Except that it wasn’t.

Nisanga Mayadunne posted a family photograph on Facebook at 8.47 AM with the title “Easter breakfast with family” and had tagged the location, the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Little would she have known that hitting ‘post’ would be among the last things she would do in this earthly abode. Minutes later a bomb exploded at the Shangri-La, killing her and her mother.

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In more than a half a dozen coordinated bomb blasts on Sunday, 360 people have been confirmed dead, with the number expected to most likely rise. Among the dead are children who have lost parents and mothers & fathers whose families will never be together again.

Many could not get past the church service. A friend remembers the service is usually so long that the men sometimes go outside to get some fresh air, with women and children remaining inside – painting a vivid and harrowing picture of the children who may have been within the hall.

Perpetrators of these heinous crimes against their own faith, and against humanity have been identified as radicalised Muslim youth, claiming to be part of a hitherto little-known organisation. Community leaders claim with much pain of how authorities were alerted years ago to the criminal intent of these specific youth.

Mainstream Muslims have in fact been at the forefront not just locally, but also internationally in the fight against extremism within Muslim communities. This is why Sri Lankan Muslims are especially shaken by what has taken place when men who have stolen their identity commit acts of terror in their name. Sri Lankan Muslims and Catholics have not been in conflict in the past, adding to a palimpsest of reasons that make this attack all the more puzzling to experts. Many here are bewildered as to what strategic objective these terrorists sought to achieve.

Sri Lankan Muslims Take Lead

Sri Lankan Muslims, a numerical minority, though a well-integrated native community in Sri Lanka’s colourful social fabric, seek to take lead in helping to alleviate the suffering currently plaguing our nation.

Promoting love alone will not foster good sustainable communal relationships – unless it is accompanied by tangible systemic interventions that address communal trigger points that could contribute to ethnic or religious tensions. Terror in all its forms must be tackled in due measure by law enforcement authorities.

However, showing love, empathy and kindness is as good a starting point in a national crisis as any.

Sri Lankan Muslims have called to fast tomorrow (Thursday) in solidarity with their fellow Christian and non-Christian friends who have died or are undergoing unbearable pain, trauma, and suffering.  Terror at its heart seeks to divide, to create phases of grief that ferments to anger, and for this anger to unleash cycles of violence that usurps the lives of innocent men, women, and children. Instead of letting terror take its course, Sri Lankans are aspiring to come together, to not let terror have its way.

Together with my fellow Sri Lankan Muslims, I will be fasting tomorrow from dawn to dusk. I will be foregoing any food and drink during this period.

It occurs to many of us that it is unconscientious to have regular days on these painful days when we know of so many other Sri Lankans who have had their lives obliterated by the despicable atrocities committed by terrorists last Sunday. Fasting is a special act of worship done by Muslims, it is a time and state in which prayers are answered. It is a state in which it is incumbent upon us to be more charitable, with our time, warmth and whatever we could share.

I will be fasting and praying tomorrow, to ease the pain and suffering of those affected.

I will be praying for a peaceful Sri Lanka, where our children – all our children, of all faiths – can walk the streets without fear and have the freedom to worship in peace.

I will be fasting tomorrow for my Sri Lanka. I urge you to do the same.

Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ. Surah Maidah

Raashid Riza is a Sri Lankan Muslim, the Politics & Society Editor of The Platform. He blogs here and tweets on @aufidius.


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