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The Day My Husband Fell

MuslimMatters

By Umaima Jafri

Preface

I am alone in the bedroom with our youngest child late one evening, in the Spring of 2017.

If you were to meet our youngest today, you might not guess that he was a late talker, but he was. At two years old, he understood a lot, but his articulated words were few. He answered yes and no to questions, made one-word requests with what vocabulary he had, and loved to make a spitting sound as he stuck his tongue out through his lips, “Pthhhhhh.” He did this in anger, and for fun.

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He is almost four now. He babbles on in full sentences the way a toddler does, parroting his older siblings and adults around him, grammar and pronunciation always just a little bit off.

He does. not. stop. talking.

In Spring of 2017, his speech was just taking off.

That night he was alone with me in the bedroom. He said something that stopped me in my tracks.

“Baba fall garage.”

My heart skipped a beat, and I had to make sure. “Baby, what did you just say?”

“Baba fall garage.”

I couldn’t believe he still remembered.

Scene III

This story starts much earlier- two years ago. It starts in late Fall of 2015, early in the morning—November 5th, to be exact.

We were in our Texas home, where we had moved just three months prior, full of many ambitions and dreams: that six-figure job my husband had landed, an amazing school for the kids, the dream home we were working towards purchasing, and finally, finally being closer to family.

Our youngest was almost two at the time, and inhis father’s lap.

My husband, Ibrahim, was about to take off for work, and I was getting ready to take the other kids to school. There was a rhythm to our days— a familiar, repeating motion. This was how our weekdays started.

Then they came —in fourteen, unmarked cars. FOURTEEN. A single car would have been enough, or two or three, but “enough” is not what any of this is about. There is an element of spectacle to these situations, a display of pomp and power meant to strike fear in the heart. They like to put on a show.

I saw them coming through the open garage door, the descent of vultures into our home. I shouted at our older three to go to their rooms, protecting their eyes from what was happening. I ran out, too hurried, too panicked, to even think about my hijab, there was no time. I took our two-year-old son from Ibrahim. We both knew what this was about. I demanded a warrant. They denied my request at first, but presented it briefly afterwards. They did have a warrant and this was no mistake.

Ibrahim blacked out. He was standing there one minute, listening to the barrage of legalities, instructions given to me by the US Marshalls: which court, what time, what steps to take, which lawyer. On and on, they droned while Ibrahim’s life flashed before his eyes. Would he ever see our four children again? Would he ever get the chance to run around the house with them? Would our toddler even remember him? Would he ever see his own mother?

It was all too much for him, and he came crashing down. My husband is built like a linebacker. Six feet tall, broad shoulders, strong as an ox. And he fell. I cannot recall what I did with our son, but in an instant, he was no longer in my arms and I was at Ibrahim’s side beckoning him to get up. He was sweating profusely. Soaked completely through his clothes. They called the paramedics and went on with business. It was just another day at the office for them, and a never-ending nightmare for us.

The US Marshalls, I admit, were somewhat considerate. They let Ibrahim hug his children goodbye, and they were kind enough not to put cuffs on him in front of the children. But the children saw anyway. They watched from the upstairs window, confused and horrorstruck, unbeknownst to me, as their father was taken in cuffs into the back of an unmarked car. I watched, numb and cold in the heat of a Texas autumn —confused but determined as they drove my husband away.

That was the day my husband fell.

***

 A year and a half passed, between the time our youngest saw it happening and the time he said those words, “Baba fall garage”. He was three when he said it. Half of his then-lifetime had passed before he could tell me about that memory. That’s a long time to hold something in before you can put it into words.

***

Scene I

You might have guessed it by now, but this story starts much earlier. It starts in the Winter of 2011, in the early morning.

We were in our Ohio home. It was December 8th, and (perhaps you are seeing a pattern here) it was just the start to another ordinary day. My husband was getting ready to go to work. I was upstairs on the second floor of our townhouse, getting ready to take the older two to school. Our third child, a 6-month old baby, was lying on the bed, laughing and cooing.

It was then that the ominous knock came—a terrible, loud banging on the front door. I looked out the window and made eye contact with an agent wearing a vest, the letters F-B-I sprawled across her chest. This was our first visit from them. It came without warning, but with everything in me, I knew it was not good.

When you have been a part of the Muslim community in America for as long as we’ve been, living post 9/11, you recognize a surprise visit from the FBI as part of a familiar narrative. It’s like when you’ve read too many Agatha Christie novels: You go from being shocked each time about who committed what crime, in awe of Christie’s writing skills, until you reach a tipping point. A switch flips. You start to recognize the pattern in her writing, and suddenly, you can guess without fail the end to every novel.

It’s the same with these types of FBI cases. If you haven’t seen the pattern yet, it’s only because you haven’t read enough of them.

The FBI authors many cases (which you may have heard about in the news as “terror plots”) \. They are of their own construction. They involve undercover agents, claiming to be sympathetic to a Muslim cause, preying on the sentiments of people who are mentally ill, or alone and vulnerable, or else angry and frustrated with American injustices abroad. The agents seek out vulnerable targets, and then construct a plot so flimsy it could never have taken off anyway. They involve targets in the plot just enough so they can later arrest them, indict them, and convict them of a crime they would never have thought of were it not for the FBI itself. Often there are co-conspirators that the FBI somehow manages to rope into the case because of their association to a target, even if the co-conspirators are clueless about any potential crime. Sometimes these cases are thought crimes — the defendants guilty of nothing their First Amendment rights don’t clearly protect.

Whatever the version of the story it is, the underlying mechanism is the same. The FBI schemes, and then declares itself hero as it foils its own plot. A Muslim, or groups of Muslims, is caught in the crossfire of flimsy evidence. A jury made up of average Americans who are mass-fed fear, already exposed to a narrative of the defendant’s guilt through the media, is expected to weigh in on a genre they know nothing about. They haven’t read enough stories to see the pattern yet.

It is a game the FBI plays and has played for many years now with the Muslim community. When you get a visit from them, you don’t know how they will use you as a pawn in their next best-selling plot, what role they will assign to you, but you can be sure it is not good. So when that ominous knock came on that early December morning, I flew into gear. I don’t know what moved faster: my heart sinking all the way down to my feet, or my feet flying down a full flight of steps just as my husband was opening the front door. I threw myself against the door, shutting it again. They yelled from the other side to open up.

“I can’t,” I said, “I don’t have my scarf on.”

They said to go put it on, but I still had to let them in. Up the stairs I ran. My hands shook as I wrapped a crumpled scarf around my head, just as they were making their own way upstairs. They called out my name at the landing – I was surprised they actually knew my name, that they even pronounced it correctly – and I walked out to meet them.

“We’re not here to arrest anybody.” Those were the first words the agent spoke, and there was instant relief as the blood came rushing back into my body.

I demanded a warrant. I said I had a right to a lawyer. I did all the things I knew I was supposed to do in a situation like that.

Ignoring my request for a warrant, they said absolutely to a lawyer. I fumbled through some old papers in the bedroom. The only lawyer we had at the time was an out-of-state immigration attorney for when we had applied for my husband’s US residency. I had no other numbers, and didn’t know who to call. I feigned calling the lawyer, when in reality I called my dad. I knew he would be able to help, but when he didn’t pick up, I called the immigration lawyer anyway and left a message for him.

I demanded a warrant again. The agents ignored me as they entered my bedroom to begin their search there.

I was feeling all sorts of emotions. Confusion about what was going on, fear creeping in on me, but mostly I was angry. I asked them point-blank what was going on, and they said something about structuring.

What?

Ibrahim is a structural engineer, and I was utterly confused as to how his job could get him into any sort of trouble. I asked them to elaborate. A female agent said this was about structuring of funds. I looked her straight in the eye and laughed.

“You really need to come up with something more original than ‘structuring of funds.’ That’s all you guys ever try to blame on people like us,” I said.

She turned beet red, as did the other FBI agents.

I grabbed my 6-month-old baby and went downstairs. I found my husband with other FBI agents sitting on the sofa. I looked him in the eye, told him to shut his mouth and not open it no matter what. We still didn’t have a warrant. They separated us and took my husband into the dining room while I stayed on the living room sofa with our three children.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you there were dozens of them. A few dozen agents inside our home, and another dozen or so stationed outside, too many for me to actually count or keep track of. They searched everything: drawers, cabinets, the inside of cereal boxes and cookie jars, everything they could possibly find. They even opened up the fridge and started looking, like we could be hiding something dangerous in there. I don’t know, a carton of expired milk, maybe? They crawled all over our home like a horde of ants, seeping into every nook and crevice, invasive and unwelcome, impossible to get rid of.

I still had my phone at this point because I was waiting to hear back from the lawyer. I picked it up, saying I had to call him again. I called my dad. He finally picked up. Speaking in Urdu, words pouring out of my mouth in a rush, I told him there were people in the house— he needed to act fast. My dad understood immediately.

So did the translator standing behind me who I had not seen. They came and took my phone away. I protested, anger punctuating my every word, but they kept it, saying they would return it to me.

Feeling angry and trapped —my communication with the outside world, with anyone who could help us —now snatched away, I sat there with the kids, trying to occupy them with coloring and cutting paper. The agents searched on.

Again and again, I demanded a warrant, and again and again I was denied.

Three hours later, a lawyer showed up at our home.

Through a series of phone calls my dad had made, he finally got in touch with one. It was another immigration lawyer, a friend of a friend of a friend. This was not his area of expertise and he was not comfortable taking the case, but he came as a tremendous kindness on his part to help us when we were most in need. Ibrahim was done with their questioning by this time. He was sitting next to us on our living room couch. The agents released us into the lawyer’s custody, giving him permission to take us out of the house. They continued searching.

Sitting in the lawyer’s car, we told him what happened detail by detail that morning. It was a long and excruciating ordeal to go through, and I have saved you from most of the details. Apparently, the lawyer told us, this kind of search was going on in other Muslims’ homes in Dearborn and parts of Detroit, Michigan, as well. These guys were on a roll, their pattern of play clear and on display for anyone who cared enough to look into it.

We drove away with the lawyer; stopping by my husband’s work to explain his absence, stopping by McDonald’s to get the kids some treats. It’s what you do as parents, isn’t it? You go through the most traumatic experience of your life, and in the midst of your own confusion, you carve out a moment of normalcy for your kids. You try to put them in a bubble of warmth and safety, signaling to them that everything is ok, or will be ok, and inside you, all the while, is a non-stop reel of all the horrors and worst-case scenarios your mind can dream up.

A couple hours later, the agents called our interim lawyer saying that they were done. They were gone by the time we came back home. This should have been a comfort, but walking in through the unlocked front door, I felt like I had been physically violated. Our house was a mess. Everything was all over the place, thrown out and strewn around the house. It looked like ruffians had ransacked our home – isn’t this the kind of thing you call the authorities to report? So whom do you turn to when it is the authorities who’ve done this to you? They raped our home, leaving us to pick up the pieces, to trace their steps and count the things that were missing. They took all of our electronics: laptop, external hard drives, old computers I had from work. They took a bunch of CDs we had of religious lectures, things that were mainstream and standard in Muslims homes at the time we bought them. Anything that looked remotely electronic was gone. The only thing I really cared about was a hard drive with all our children’s pictures since the moment they were born.

I am still waiting to get back those pictures of my babies.

***

Do you see how things escalated? In December of 2011, I flew down a flight of steps at the sound of a knock, threw myself against an opening door, used my headscarf as a way to buy us a few extra seconds before our home and our lives were turned upside down. In November of 2015, almost four years later, there was no knock against a closed door (even that token gesture of seeking permission was taken away), there was no time to spare, and I left behind a headscarf I had worn religiously for eighteen years as I flew to my husband’s side.

***

Scene II

I know you are wondering what happened in those four years between the raid on our Toledo home and my husband’s arrest in Dallas.

I should mention, first, that we finally got our search warrant. The head agent in the 2011 raid gave it to our interim lawyer when he showed up, something about a condition on the warrant saying they didn’t have to present it until after their search was done.

They also presented my husband with a subpoena. Within a week, he was set to stand trial before a grand jury in Cleveland, Ohio. If you know anything about grand juries, you know that indictment is guaranteed once you are, in front of one. The defendant shows up in court without a right for defense, prosecutors bombard him with a sundry of accusations, 99.9% of which are untrue and which he will not be formally charged with. There’s a catchphrase in the legal world that you can indict a ham sandwich. They don’t look for proof of guilt; they merely look for what the government tells them to do.

Needless to say, it was a week of panic and intense prayer. We went everywhere looking for lawyers until we found a David Klucas in Toledo through a friend. David spoke with prosecution and they surprisingly offered a reverse proffer, a chance for my husband to speak to them outside of the courtroom and offer them information they might be looking for. Ibrahim proffered twice at the FBI office in downtown Toledo. They asked him a series of questions and he answered.

Here is where I tell you that nothing happened in the four years between the Toledo raid of our home and my husband’s arrest in Dallas.

After the proffers, there were no court dates and no charges brought against him. Ibrahim never stood in front of a grand jury; he was never indicted. The FBI never approached my family again. For four years, they disappeared.

We went on with our lives, guardedly at first, and then more and more freely.

In the winter of 2013, we moved to Michigan for the kids’ school, while my husband continued his work in Toledo.

In August of 2015, we moved to Dallas. I’m a Houston girl myself, and the Midwest was always too cold for me, always too far away from family. Dallas was a promise of a better job and better schools, and being that much closer to home.

We checked with our lawyer every step of the way. Somewhere in those four years, my husband even applied for his US citizenship. We talked to our lawyer to make sure moving out of state wouldn’t be a problem. We opened a bank account with our social security numbers, we acquired utility accounts, we lived our lives in the way people do when they have nothing to hide.

But three months after moving to Dallas, and four years after the raid, they showed up again. Only this time they had a warrant, and this time they had an indictment. This time, the arrest and charges were all too real.

***

When Ibrahim was arrested, he was extradited back to Toledo, where all of this began. The “evidence” brought against him, if you are inclined to call it that was not something he said or did or participated in during the four years the FBI left us alone. Instead, it is behavior of allegedly criminal intent dating back to the years of 2005-2009. This was many, many years before the arrest, and several before the raid itself.

Why the sudden change? Did moving to Texas somehow take us out of their jurisdiction; did they miss having us close by? Or was it because the old prosecutor had moved on to a career in DC, while some new hotshot, eager to clear out old files and play hero, decided he needed to add a “foiled terror plot” to the pages of his developing resume?

***

Intermission

I know you are still wondering what all of this is about. Most days, I wonder the same thing, too.

In 2015, Ibrahim (along with three other Muslim men) was charged with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Search his name, and you can read the whole 72 page indictment if you like.

You would think those pages contained mountains of evidence for the prosecution’s claim, clear exhibits of crime or attempted crime, but they don’t. They’re filled with buzzwords like al-Qaeda. They have snippets of email conversations between the defendants expressing unpopular political opinions that are protected by First Amendment rights, and (hold your laughter), evidence that they shared and listened to the popular nasheed, “Ghurabaa.” There is evidence of irresponsible behavior from one of the defendants, nothing I can elaborate on, as the case is still pending, but nothing that showed a conspiracy to commit acts of terror.

The crux of the prosecution’s argument pivots on the name “Anwar al-Awlaki,” who was killed in a US drone attack in September of 2011, less than two months before the raid on our home. The CDs they took during the raid included some of his lectures from years before. The emails exchanged between defendants show that they sometimes mentioned his name. The indictment opens with several pages of Awlaki quotes and excerpts from his blog, citing his later views on jihad – no evidence that the defendants shared those views or were even aware of all of them. In many ways, it is really an indictment of Awlaki himself, a man who they already killed.

What the indictment conveniently leaves out is that Awlaki was a household name within the Muslim community for many years, that his lectures were mainstream and non-controversial. We bought his CDs and shared them; we mentioned his name and quoted his words at a time when it was not a crime to do so. The fact that the FBI had him under surveillance, that they studied his movements and changing ideology under a microscope for many years, does not mean that the Muslim community was privy to that knowledge within the same time frame.

When it became clear that Awlaki’s views in his later life had turned radically extreme, by and large the Muslim community distanced themselves from those views. It was one thing to criticize the US for its foreign wars and illegal occupations, another thing entirely to encourage indiscriminate attacks on civilians, or the betrayal of trusts extended to us as civilians by the country we lived in, and loved, and called home.

My husband’s trial is about many things, but mostly, it is about his First Amendment rights, and this sick and unethical game the FBI plays with the Muslim community and with the hearts of the public. Somewhere, an FBI agent, a state prosecutor, a higher up in Washington DC writes these cases down on his resume, a plume in his hat, a shining star ascending in his career. He moves up the ladder by stepping on some family’s life, spreading fear in the hearts of citizens while claiming to protect them.

***

If you search the internet for my husband’s name, be sure to search it as Ibrahim Zubair Mohammad, and maybe include the word “Toledo,” or you will have trouble finding the right Ibrahim. There are thousands of men in the world with that name, but only one of them is the man I know as my husband. What you find out there will doubtless be damning, news articles reporting on the charges and quoting the prosecution, telling a one-sided story in as sensational terms as they can. Remember that the FBI has played this game before  – using media is a part of their pattern – and remember that they are experts at selling fear.

***

Scene IV

Ibrahim is currently being held on the sixth floor of the Lucas County jail in Toledo, a concrete structure where he has no access to fresh air or the sun. I remind you that it has been two years since he was arrested. He has not been convicted of any crime.

We await a trial that has been postponed and rescheduled at least four times already, anticipating his return every day. Every day I answer questions from our children about when Baba will be home, who took him away, why they took him away. Our now nearly four-year-old remembers what the others never saw, “Baba fall garage,” that one detail about his father I desperately pray that he forgets.

He thinks we go to “Baba’s house” during visits. Our “visits” are nothing more than video chats through hazy screens in a loud jailhouse lobby, my husband sitting upstairs somewhere in front of another hazy screen. This is our contact: nothing physical, no visits behind glass, just this rudimentary video chat where I take one child per week for 30 minutes, max. Ibrahim has watched his children grow from behind this screen. He has seen them only through the eyes of a camera in the pictures I am able to send him.

We moved back to Toledo as soon as we could after the arrest, leaving behind the Dallas life we were beginning to love, in favor of being with him. Ibrahim is so close to us, yet so impossibly far away. For almost two years, I have raised our children as a single parent, surrounded by old friends who have known Ibrahim and our family for over a decade. They stand by my side relentlessly, giving their unconditional support. They love our children like their own. These are people who have known Ibrahim for so many years as a friend, a successful engineer, a Qur’an teacher, a philanthropist who never shied away from helping others in the community, and a man who was obsessed with his family.

We were that typical American family who cleaned out the garage when it was warm out, who washed their cars on the weekends, who went biking around the neighborhood, who went to Costco just to try the samples. Ibrahim was the husband who woke up early on the weekends so I could sleep in, made his famous omelets for the kids (four different types for four picky eaters – five, if you count me), sat down with the children and read Qur’an with them, prayed with his family at home, helped me with chores and dinner, and my favorite: put the kids to bed. They loved his bedtime stories. The ones that had adventures galore and lessons to be learned, the ones I thought were far too long. After these nearly hour-long bedtime stories would be our turn. Chai and cookies, and just us.

These days, our days consist of the same breakfast (only one type of egg for four picky eaters), the mundane routine of school, homework, and me counting down the minutes until bedtime. There are no bedtime stories, no imagination left for me to conjure up anything, nothing that will ever come close to matching Baba’s adventures. After putting them to bed, I head to our bedroom, alone, no chai or cookies, no us. Nearly two years of going to bed alone, dreaming about Ibrahim and then waking up alone. Two years of being mom and dad, discipliner and comforter. Two years of waiting, fighting, and more waiting. Two years of being emotionally and physically drained.

Two YEARS. And he’s still not home.

***

In the last two years, we’ve moved for bond twice, backed by the moral and financial support of the Toledo Muslim community we lived in for many years before Ibrahim’s arrest. Both motions were denied, this last one, according to the prosecution, “based on the facts of the case.” The same “facts” that led to a raid but no charges several years after the “evidence” was in their hands. The same “facts” that let Ibrahim live as a free man, carrying on with his normal life for FOUR years after the raid. If he was such a threat to society, then why did they “endanger” the public by letting him stay free for so long? Is the argument that they were carefully watching him all those years? And if he is innocent, or at least presumed innocent until proven guilty as the law allows, then why can’t he await trial with us on bond, at home, under the careful watch of the State, while he makes omelets and tells bedtime stories and watches with love as his own children grow?

***

Here is a fun fact. If you go to the Toledo Zoo, you might see many things: giraffes with long necks, a brown bear taking a bath, an octopus in a dark display in the aquarium. You might also see elephants in an enclosure. That enclosure was something Ibrahim worked on once. Ibrahim Zubair Mohammad: my husband and father of our four children, family man and community volunteer, structural engineer and designer of elephant enclosures.

***

Scene V

It is here that I come to the end of telling a story that is still unfolding. It was kind of you to listen in for so long, to follow the thread of so many moving parts. These are words I have held in for a long time.

Ibrahim, as I write this, is still awaiting trial, our family’s life is still in limbo, we are still holding on to the hope of bond until said time. How things turn out in the near future, how they turn out eventually, at what point any of this comes to an “end” is known by Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone. In the meantime, we carry on, doing our best and fighting the good fight.

It is here that I invite you to take a part in things, to pick up a proverbial pen and start writing with us:

    1. We created an online petition titled “Justice for Ibrahim Mohammad.” Please sign this petition, and spread it far and wide.

  1. Here are the names and numbers of Ohio Representatives.
  2. Share your ideas below, anything you can suggest or help with will be greatly appreciated.
  3. Use the hashtag #FreeIbrahimNow to spread awareness about this injustice
  4. Brothers, write a letter to Ibrahim.
    Ibrahim Mohammad
    Lucas County Correctional Center

Do you know what our youngest child said the other day

I spilled a drop of yogurt on the counter, and followed it with an audible, “Oh, darn.”

“It’s ok,” said our little one, “Baba does that, too.”

I like how he speaks as if Baba is still here. He keeps saying that Baba is out of prison already. I wonder if he dreams about him, too, and if in those dreams he sees what I pray every day to see: Baba finally home, wiping up that spilled yogurt, with his baby boy in his arms.

 

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    #Current Affairs

    Open Letter To Muslim Activists And Organisations In The US On Engagement With The Structures Of Policing

    Recently, I have been messaged privately by a number of activists in the US, who are concerned about the ways in which prominent Muslim institutions in America engage with various forms of law enforcement, whether it might be the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, or even with programmes within the rubric of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Although based in the UK, I have had the privilege of being involved in the legal and political defence of those detained in the US as victims of the global War on Terror. This has led to a journey of understanding the role that is played by law enforcement agencies in the construction of these cases, but also within a wider security industrial complex. 

    I write this letter because I want us to think about the ethics of engagement with law enforcement. When it comes to the policies and practices of the global War on Terror, the extent of cross-fertilisation between the UK and US is profound, making their pathology of securitisation one that requires us to learn lessons in resistance collectively. 

    In the US, even more than the UK, there exists a violence within policing that is almost unparalleled. This violence does not uniquely impact Muslims, but has a long history that is tied to the ways those outside of the white majority in society are deemed ‘Other’, and is most manifestly apparent in its anti-Black racism. If we start from the premise that the law itself, and the administrators of the law, the police, prosecution services, judges and indeed juries, all play a role within the structure of racism and discrimination, then to what extent can we actually seek to engage with that system? 

    Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

    MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

    The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

    As Muslims, what is our own positionality in relation to the work that we do? For those of us who claim to be involved in the work of defending Muslims and Islam, we must recognise that we are not doing anyone any favours by doing this work. This is a unique opportunity and blessing that we have been privileged with, one that any number of other people could have been invited to do. Furthermore, we do not own this work or our institutions, the collective body does, and so we are answerable for all that we do, at all times. Expectations of trust without scrutiny are unwarranted, as we cannot claim to represent the interests of our communities, without first holding ourselves open to being held to account. Whether it is money, engagements, positions, or whatever the matter might be, we have an obligation to answer the concerns of the community when they are being raised because we cannot claim to represent them while there are doubts over us. We do not own this work, we are responsible to it. 

    There are arguments that are often made by those who seek to build relationships with law enforcement, that ultimately without engaging, there won’t be any chance for changing the system. Thus, they claim that meetings with the FBI and DHS serve the purpose of correcting the flaws within the system. I want to think through the efficacy of these interactions, because ultimately, I think this is where many disagreements may exist. I hope to capture the usual arguments that are made, and to provide brief responses that I pray can help us think more acutely about the problem, and the solution.

    • “The police are necessary; they keep us safe.”

    Before we take on any other subject, we need to think about policing, and the claim that it is a necessity, that it keeps us safe from those who might wish us harm. Largely, police do not stop crime from taking place, as much as they are part of a process of criminalisation after crimes have been committed. Keeping society safe requires addressing the root causes of crime, a prospect that goes well beyond the notion of policing – in fact, particularly within the context of the US, it could be argued that the structurally racist system of policing and punishment has only served to increase levels of disenfranchisement. Saying that we need the police to keep us safe, is akin to passing the buck, it means that we are less interested in doing the hard work that needs to be done for the whole of society to become safer. Resorting to the police, only serves to solidify its structure as a necessity. My own organisation CAGE has been attempting to provide some leadership in this regard, and our work has shown that there can be ways of reducing the threats to society as a whole, that exist beyond surveillance policing.

    • “Some law enforcement institutions are safe to work with, while others are dangerous.”

    When thinking of the institutions that are responsible for policing, we need to consider their functions, and the way in which they fundamentally approach communities. The FBI, as just one example, has spent incredible resources in undermining what it deems to be subversive activities since the inception of COINTELPRO. Coming into the War on Terror, that programme found its way into every aspect of policing Muslim communities, but particularly through the use of entrapment. For those who make a favourable distinction between the way the FBI operates as opposed to other institutions like the CIA, then they only need to speak to my colleague Moazzam Begg and many others who have related the ways that the FBI have been entirely complicit in programmes of arbitrary detention and torture

    The above only begins to touch on the functions that other institutions serve, particularly in the post 9/11 period. Perhaps the most galling example of an institution created for the purpose of securitising Muslims is the DHS, which in its conception, inception and practise, has legally discriminated against Muslims whether citizens or not. It is important to remind ourselves, despite our own normalisation of the harm, that nearly every single profiling stop whether coming into or leaving the US or UK, is an act of racism – even if they provide you with a sandwich or prayer rug to ‘soften’ the experience. Yes, the system is the way that it is, but we suffer a daily collective amnesia that results in us normalising the systemic discrimination we are forced to endure.

    • “A more diverse or culturally aware police force that includes Muslims will improve the system.”

    As in the UK, we’re told feel-good stories about the non-Muslim community police officer who is willing to fast a day in Ramadan and even to break fast with the community at Iftar time. The thing about this token police officer, is that he really has no ability to overturn the structure that he is a paid up member of. Three roads away, his colleagues are profiling young black men on the streets, but equally worrying,  his colleagues are placing pressure on some of those same black men and other congregants in the mosque to spy on the community in order to extract information. The point is, that attempting to normalise relations with institutions that fundamentally not only mistrust us, but are actively involved in harming us is not engagement, it can only be seen, at its most generous, as pacification. Yes, maybe that individual officer you engage with might think twice before brutalising a member of the community, but think of what we give up in that moment too…we hand them the excuse that they (institutionally) have met with us, and heard our concerns. 

    • “CVE exists to tackle all forms of extremism!”

    With increasing calls for the defunding of policing taking root, this opportunity should not fall short of pushing towards abolition of the security, military and prison industrial complexes. These structures reinforce one another in the way that they understand the communities they primarily focus on. In that sense, we have already seen a shift towards the marketing of Countering-Violent Extremism (CVE). This is a programme that is rooted to a DHS narrative of securitisation – in both its conception and practise, it is about Muslims. There is a stark difference, between those who are structurally racialised and marginalised feeling aggrieved, as opposed to those, within the majority of society, whose disenfranchisement is supported as a narrative within all the institutions of power. The source of White supremacy is mainstream. 

    Claims that CVE is there to tackle all forms of ‘extremism’ are simply a marketing tool, otherwise every single racist statement that was ever uttered by a conservative or liberal would be covered. When it comes to white supremacy, the bar for what is considered to be unacceptable, is effectively at the point of violence. With Muslims, the structure of CVE operates at the point of belief or overt markers of ‘Muslimness’. This is important, because the idea that CVE funding can be flipped so that Muslims can do good with it is nonsense and should never be opened for discussion by any Muslim individual or organisation that claims to represent the rights of Muslims. 

    • “Muslim cooperation with law enforcement is about harm reduction.”

    Ultimately, engagement is a calculus of risk that is being made by those who are engaging. The claim that they are working with law enforcement suggests that the specific and limited needs they are hoping to raise or change, are worth the normalising of relations with these violent structures. This is often presented as a benefit over harm calculation, that in the minds of those engaging, there will be a tangible benefit that emerges from the interaction. The question is, however, for who? From my working life and many studies that have been conducted on law enforcement, there has never been any reversal of policy that has been so significant as to justify such a relationship – the system largely remains the same, and in fact it is normalised and built upon further with the next piece of legislation or policy. 

    • “Are you suggesting engagement is always wrong?”

    The point of this call is not to claim that there is never any point in engagement, but rather that any engagement should take into account the structural violence that is taking place, and so the calculus of risk should be based on discernible change, rather than limited to brokering understanding and good feeling. Increasing understanding might help to make a single law enforcement officer, or a few others potentially less hostile in their interactions, but they are still part of the system. 

    Recommendations on transparent engagement: 

    1. What I would propose in terms of interacting with the state, is that any interaction should only ever take place with those who have the ability to actually implement a structural change at a policy level, if it is to ever happen at all. 

    This should only ever take place with policymakers and legislators, and my suggestion is not with anyone within law enforcement itself while the structures remain as they are. The reason I say this, is because the greatest harm is in the structure of legislation and policymaking, not within the carrying out of the duties that have been imposed. At the very best, working with law enforcement might ameliorate the conditions of a small minority, but it is the structure that turns us all into second class citizens. So ultimately, this is a call for a radical approach of total non-engagement with law enforcement officials, and a call to unite towards more meaningful approaches of change. 

    1. Communications should be made in writing to accompany any meeting, and the response should also be given in writing – this is to ensure that the communities we claim to represent are aware of our interactions, and the interactions that are being made are transparent. 

    The process of transparency with the community is crucial, because it will inevitably keep us honest in our approach and hold us up to the scrutiny and ethics of our entire communities. It will also provide a necessary barrier with any representative of the state if they should ever try and use divisive colonial tactics of preferential treatment of one group over another, as they attempt to maintain their hold of power over us. Furthermore, for those who are most harmed by the violence of the state, they will understand better why an individual or organisation has chosen to interact with a structure that harmed them, and so will be able to make a better informed judgement on whether any engagement might normalise the harm they previously or continue to suffer. 

    1. While transparency is important, it is crucial that before any engagement takes place, that those with expertise in these areas are consulted. Communities have a wealth intellectual resources and well-informed critical voices – these voices should be consulted by any community leader, imam or organisation prior to any communication with authorities. As mentioned in point B, victims and survivors bring their own lived experience of being impacted by these institutions, and so consulting them too will always be crucial to providing a human insight into how policies and laws are harmful. Without consulting those who have been impacted most heavily, we risk losing the nuance of the ways in which harm can occur. 
    1. A final recommendation for those who claim to represent the interests of Muslims, but have a background that was part of the system of violence against us: they must make their current position in relation to their previous work clear, and do it publicly themselves. This is integral to their claim to transparency, and therefore to their credibility. While forgiveness and growth are important in the work we do, trust and confidence are both far more important. Without being able to trust those who represent us fully, the community will always feel undermined by the system, and those involved in its defence. It is possible for someone to have worked in projects that were harmful and then to change their mind or opinion, but they must also make clear what they were involved in, and publicly state its wrongfulness. Expectations of trust without clarity, are unreasonable. 

    Ultimately these points can be summarised into: transparency, consultation and accountability.

    Concluding remarks 

    As discussed throughout this letter, the first premise that we need to challenge, is one that thinks of policing (in particular) as existing in a benevolent or neutral space. We need to appreciate that in its identity and creation, the very function of surveillance policing is not to keep society safe, but rather the function of policing is as a form of disciplining society, through arrest and ultimately prosecution. Considered at its most fundamental level, our relationship to policing should start from a position of questioning the practise and ideology it is built on.  

    As Muslim individuals and organisations seeking to assist the oppressed, there is a duty that comes from being in this space that means any claims of representation cannot take place in the absence of understanding how our decisions have an impact in the complete structure of oppression. Small wins for one town or local community are meaningless while people continue to be arbitrarily detained, tortured and even killed. The oppression that is taking place is a structure, and without centring our responses to the entire edifice, we will continually risk normalising this system by reaching for small changes that only serve to temporarily make us feel less hostility from the state in the course of its violence. 

    Finally, I pray that these words are taken in the spirit they have been written, from a brother who has benefited a great deal from the long history of activism and radical thinking that has emerged from the US. Inshallah I hope that we can all advise one another towards what is better based on our knowledge and experience, but chiefly, that we can work with one another in order to protect all those who are oppressed, ameen. 

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    #Current Affairs

    Racism And The Plagues of Egypt – Coronavirus And Racism: America’s Two Pandemics

    Introduction

    The fight against anti-Blackness has once again hit the global stage, and American Muslims have a central role to play in the movement of racial justice. The spiritual history of America is a history of Black Muslim voices. Mansa Abubakari, a West African King, landed in South America almost 200 years before Columbus began the massacre of the indigenous population.[1] The biggest migration of Muslims to America was the slave ships where scholars fought to teach Islam to their enslaved communities. Modern Islamophobic attacks such as the Muslim Ban of 2016 are not just Islamophobic, but also deeply racist because it denies the humanity of the previous generations of Muslims. Black Muslims have carried the mantle of preserving Islam in America and have fought for racial justice for last four centuries. The immigrant Muslims who arrived during the last 50 years were a direct result of the civil rights movement that allowed immigration from Muslim majority countries. The fight for racial justice is a Muslim fight. We owe it to the generations of Muslims before us to continue their work.

    The 400 years of struggle for racial justice in America can be compared to the Children of Israel’s fight for emancipation from Pharaoh’s Egypt 3000 years ago during which the country was hit by a number of plagues. Sheikh Mendes and Imam Dawud Walid have recently referenced the story of Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), whose demand to Pharaoh to, “Let my people go[2]” is well known in many religious circles fighting for racial equality in America. [3] The Quran discusses of the plagues of Egypt in the story of Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) in Surah Al-A’raf. “So We sent upon them the flood and locusts and lice and frogs and blood as distinct signs, but they were arrogant and were a criminal people.” [7;133] The plagues of Egypt are similar to the current coronavirus pandemic in that they made systemic oppression clear for all to see. The goal here is to explain the relationship between the coronavirus and racism epidemics.

    First, the name of the surah will be discussed. Then, the story of Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will be put into context with the story of the other prophets mentioned in the surah. The events leading up to the Plagues of Egypt are explained and compared to the current American pandemics. Finally, there are recommendations for how to make our community spaces antiracist. A few Black scholars have been quoted throughout as to elevate their voices, and to provide some much-needed groundwork for readers who might be unfamiliar with these great American Muslim scholars. For further reading, Dr. Kayla Renée Wheeler compiled a far more exhaustive list of Black Muslim narratives in the BlackIslamSyllabus.

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    To put this verse into perspective we must first reflect on Surah A’raf as a whole, and I encourage everyone to read and contemplate the surah in depth. The A’raf, mentioned in ayah 46, are an elevated place on the Day of Judgement where people of no consequence get stuck. They watch as others are sorted towards Heaven or Hell. The people of the A’raf are not evil, but they also would not leave their comfort zones to actually commit to righteousness. Their comments to the people of Paradise and the people of the Fire are mentioned in the Surah, but do not earn a response because they are then, as they are now, people of no consequence.

    The surah begins by telling Prophet Mohamed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) to not feel distressed by forcing people out of their comfort zones, and warns of previous peoples who were destroyed as they slept in their heedlessness. And how many cities have We destroyed, and Our punishment came to them at night or while they were sleeping at noon. [7;4] We cannot go back to the previous norm when Black people were suffering alone, while non-Black people could comfortably enjoy their lives whilst ignoring—and even benefiting from a system built on—the suffering of their Black brothers and sisters. A critical mass of people must refuse the continued oppression and the suffering of others for the current system to change. American Muslims should do more than give lip service to their Black brothers and sisters.

    Anti-Blackness in Human History

    The first prophet mentioned in the surah is our father Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), whose name indicates his dark black skin. And We have certainly created you, [O Mankind], and given you [human] form. Then We said to the angels, “Prostrate to Adam”, so they prostrated, except for Iblees. He was not of those who prostrated. [7;11] [Allah] said, “What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?” [Satan] said, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from mud.” [7;12] Satan hated our father Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) for the form Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gave him, which included dark black skin. Anti-Blackness is as old as humanity itself. Dr. Bilal Ware has spoken extensively about the satanic nature of racism. Claims of superiority based on a birthright are rampant throughout human history. Egyptians claimed superiority over the Children of Israel based on where they were from centuries before. Jahili[1] Meccan society claimed superiority based on lineage. The American system claims superiority based on proximity to whiteness. These are characteristics determined at birth and are beyond any human being’s control. Such claims of superiority are counter to the Islamic ethos that sets the value of individuals based on their relationship with God alone. And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.” [7:172] Many other prophets and their specific fights against the oppressive power structures are referenced in the surah, which illustrates the continuity of the struggle between the children of Adam and Satan.

    A series of prophets (peace be upon them] are briefly discussed with striking similarities in the messages they delivered to their people. All the prophets teach their people about the Oneness of God and called them to rectify the vices that were specific to their society. The mala’a, or the elites, in each of their societies were mentioned as those who fought the prophets. They did so to maintain their chokehold on power, not because of a theological difference. The elites in Meccan society did not fight Prophet Mohamed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) until he began publicly preaching. They did not care that he prayed differently from them. They feared that his message would make them equal to people they belittled and disparaged. Similarly, it was the elites in Pharaoh’s court who demanded he increase the torment of the Children of Israel. This was a direct result of the magicians publicly declaring their belief and turning public opinion against Pharaoh’s magic, one of the pillars of his power. Similarly in America, the institutional structures of racism need to be dismantled.

    Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)

    The story of Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) begins with the demand mentioned in the introduction, “so send with me the Children of Israel.” [7;105]. Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) shows Pharaoh and his elites the signs Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has sent him with. So Moses threw his staff, and suddenly it was a serpent, manifest. [7;107] And he drew out his hand; thereupon it was white [with radiance] for the observers. [7;108] They refuse his message and demand a public contest with magicians in hopes of spinning the narrative in their favor. They fail miserably when the magicians recognize the truth and publicly declare their belief in the Lord of Prophet Haroon 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) despite Pharaoh’s threats of torture. Pharaoh said, “You believed in him before I gave you permission. Indeed, this is a conspiracy which you conspired in the city to expel therefrom its people. But you are going to know.” [7:123]

    This now leads us to the discussion of the plagues, and how they came about. After that public humiliation, the elites around Pharaoh demanded that he increase the torment of the Children of Israel. [Pharaoh] said, “We will kill their sons and keep their women alive; and indeed, we are subjugators over them.” [7;127] Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a book specifically addressing how the White supremacist system feared a successful Black presidency and responded with an increased level of racism. As a spiritual response to this heightened oppression, Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) preached patience during the struggle because he knew Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) would deliver them.  The people of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) complained about the increased pain they were now experiencing as they had been suffering for years before a messenger was sent to them. Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) asked them to develop their spiritual strength and prepare themselves for a time when they would be empowered and would need spiritual discipline. Shaykha Ieasha Prime has recently called on the ummah to be increasing its spiritual strength as they organize against anti-Blackness.

    The Economic Downturn

    Then Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) tested the people of Pharaoh with an economic downturn. “And We certainly seized the people of Pharaoh with years of famine and a deficiency in fruits that perhaps they would be reminded.” [7;130] These circumstances are very similar to the economic recession of 2008, and as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Whenever something good would happen, the people of Pharaoh would claim credit for it, and whenever something bad happened, they would blame Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and his people. But when good came to them, they said, “This is ours [by right].” And if a bad [condition] struck them, they saw an evil omen in Moses and those with him. Unquestionably, their fortune is with Allah, but most of them do not know. [7;131] And they said, “No matter what sign you bring us with which to bewitch us, we will not be believers in you.” [7;132] This rhetoric is very similar to the wave of nationalism that took over the world in the last few years. It is used by nationalist political leaders, who blame marginalized groups for the economic recession. However, the oppression of those marginalized communities was a preexisting condition that was exacerbated and exploited by nationalist leaders.

    The Plagues

    Then Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) sent them the plagues, “the flood and locusts and lice and frogs and blood” [7;133]. These were such overwhelming tests for Pharaoh. He was a man that claimed to be a god, but the True God was now sending him something that destroyed the riches he had built and could not be blamed on someone else. It revealed all of his lies. The plagues sent to Pharaoh were specific to the land of the Nile that depended on the production of agriculture and built imposing monuments. It is difficult to look grand when your fields are flooded or consumed by locusts, your water turns to blood, and you and your monuments are covered in lice and frogs. Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic exposed the faults in our health care system, the shortcoming of our food supply, the fragility of the economy, and the deep racism that is embedded into the entire system. The people who were deemed essential to work were treated as sacrificial and were forced to choose between paying for food and rent or risking exposure. They were offered empty platitudes that did not include the protective equipment they needed, increased financial compensation, or health care if they were to fall ill.

    Coronavirus attacks the body’s ability to breathe, and it has been widely reported to have affected communities of color far harder than any other group. Black Americans are far more likely to have asthma due to highways going through their neighborhoods, and therefore more likely to die from Covid-19. This is a direct link to a racist system of redlining and highway construction that took away their ability to breathe. Black Americans are imprisoned at disproportionally high rates where social distancing is impossible. There are many false assumptions about the imprisoned population. The truth is that more than 90% of all cases never go to trial, and an accused person’s ability to defend themselves is almost impossible with exorbitant amounts of money. Many Muslims now claim affiliation to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), may Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) have mercy on him. Covid-19 could be killing the next Malcolm X in prison this very moment. All that without even discussing the economic impact of coronavirus on communities of color that if left unchecked will widen the racial wealth gap. The scarcity of food and resources that were created by the plagues undoubtedly affected the Children of Israel and not just their oppressors; however, the end result of plagues was justice for the oppressed.

    From Eric Garner to George Floyd, Black Americans have been fighting to breathe in America. The Arabic word nafs which is usually translated to a soul/self has the same root word as nafas, which means a breath. So, a more accurate translation of nafs is actually a breathing soul. Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a nafs (breathing soul) unless for a nafs or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he/she had slain humankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he/she had saved humankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors. [Surah Al-Ma’idah; 32] American Muslims have tended towards the medical profession as a means of fulfilling the above verse in saving people. We should be focusing the same level of energy at saving populations by fighting both the coronavirus and racism epidemics.

    Naming the Oppression

    The coronavirus epidemic and the recent public murders of Black Americans created a tipping point that did not exist before. Former NBA player and prolific author, Kareem Abdul Jabbar said, “it feels like hunting season is open on blacks.” The murder of George Floyd was so egregious that groups dedicated to preventing police accountability called for Derek Chauvin to be held accountable. America was force to collectively acknowledge the murder of a Black man at the hands of a police officer. Corporations who peddled in racism were issuing apologies when they saw the tide of public opinion turn. The murder of George Floyd made America look the ugliness of racism in the eye. Of course, police brutality and racism did not begin with George Floyd nor did it end with him. Many more people lost their lives at the hands of the police during the protests. For every name we know, there are countless others we do not know. Police brutality is a leading cause of death for Black men in America. Even if we do not know their names, every victim leaves behind a family to mourn their loss while knowing that the murderer not only walks free, but wears a uniform that allows him to continue to kill without consequence. May the brave young woman who took the video receive Divine reward and healing for her bravery. May the burning in the heart of every mother who lost a child be granted Divine patience and healing.

    In Surah A’raf, the people of Pharaoh also acknowledged their oppression of the Children of Israel, and they vowed to stop oppressing them. And when the punishment descended upon them, they said, “O Moses, invoke for us your Lord by what He has promised you. If you [can] remove the punishment from us, we will surely believe you, and we will send with you the Children of Israel.” [7;134] We know that the people of Pharaoh reneged after the plagues were lifted. But when We removed the punishment from them until a term which they were to reach, then at once they broke their word. [7;135] So We took retribution from them, and We drowned them in the sea because they denied Our signs and were heedless of them. [7;136] Pharaoh in his arrogance witnessed all of the signs Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gave Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) including the staff, his hand, and the plagues. He then witnessed the Red Sea split, and still he followed Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) into the sea until he was drowned. His hatred blinded him, and his racism killed him.

    America is now at the same moment of realization. Of course, Black Muslims have never been unaware of racism. It is a privilege for non-Black Muslims to learn about systemic racism rather than experience it firsthand. The ability to see right from wrong is not guaranteed for us. Arrogance can blind us as it has blinded Pharaoh and his army. I will turn away from My signs those who are arrogant upon the earth without right; and if they should see every sign, they will not believe in it. And if they see the way of consciousness, they will not adopt it as a way; but if they see the way of error, they will adopt it as a way. That is because they have denied Our signs and they were heedless of them. [7;146] The ability to see the racism is a mercy from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). May we be protected from spiritual blindness. No Muslim in America should be able to claim a lack of awareness of systemic racism any longer. No should they continue to favor their comfort zones over our love for our Black brothers and sisters and assume they will be forgiven. And they were succeeded by generations who, although they inherited the Scripture, took the fleeting gains of this lower world, saying, ‘We shall be forgiven,’ and indeed taking them again if other such gains came their way. Was a pledge not taken from them, written in the Scripture, to say nothing but the truth about God? And they have studied its contents well. For those who are mindful of God, the Hereafter is better. ‘Why do you not use your reason?’ [7;169]

    Fighting the Oppression

    Pharaoh claimed to be god, and White supremacy is the false god of our time. It is built into our psyches, our financial systems, and our power structures. Statues were erected to idolize those who upheld it. White supremacy is a system where lighter skin makes people smarter, more trustworthy, and more beautiful. We know this is a lie on its face, and yet it breads anti-blackness that is deeply engrained into everyday life. Fighting anti-blackness is a spiritual struggle, and we should make sincere intentions to fight it in all its forms. We must stand with the people of righteousness who fought for the abolition, civil rights, and an end to colonialist exploitation.

    White supremacy in America is in a housing system that segregates people and exposes them to pollutants in their air and their water. It is in an education system that funds or defunds schools based on that segregated housing, and uses the police as an extreme punishment for a child’s infractions. It is in a judicial system that criminalizes poverty and imprisons those who cannot afford bail. It is in a prison system that forces people to work without financial compensation and is protected by the Thirteenth Amendment. Plans to fight the coronavirus pandemic were halted because communities of color were more likely to be affected in yet another disturbing attack. White supremacy is so deeply engrained that it leads some to harm themselves by bleaching their skin and burning their hair in hopes of appearing more like their oppressors. It is everywhere including our spiritual spaces.

    Muslims often quote ayah 48:13 and the last sermon of Prophet Mohamed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) with pride that the tradition stands firmly against racial injustice. While Islam itself does, Muslims often unfortunately do not. One of my community members recently shared a story about entering a masjid in hijab, and being asked if she was Muslim. What was even more egregious is that after a discussion, the family that asked concluded that because of her black skin, she was in fact NOT Muslim despite praying in a masjid. Many of the non-Black Muslims were shocked to hear this, but the truth is that I have never met a Black Muslim who did NOT have a racism in the masjid story. Ask the Black Muslims in your circle about their experiences, and the flood gates will open. You will also see the hurt and betrayal in their eyes for having to endure racism inside their places of worship. Apologize to them for not listening sooner and thank them for being willing to teach you and trust you to want to be better despite their trauma.

    Call to Action

    It is not enough for anyone to not be racist; we must be anti-racist. Acknowledge the anti-blackness you have internalized within yourself and have those difficult conversations with your family members. Ustadha Zaynab Ansari speaks about the pathological ideologies of how black bodies are viewed in America.  Join and support organizations like the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and the Muslim Alliance of North America. Embrace a Black Muslim ethos of viewing Islam as a theology of liberation. Support Black scholars and the Black masajid. Invite them to speak not just about anti-Blackness, but on their areas of expertise in Islam, history, community development, etc. Demand that the immigrant masajid be antiracist. Black Muslims should be on the Board of Directors and on the Zakah committee to ensure the equity of those spaces. Hire a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion expert to have a difficult conversation about race in your organization. If the Black Muslims do not share their experiences of racism in the masjid, it is not because they did but happen, but because they do not trust the community to care to change it. Build that trust and build coalitions of communal healing to end the segregation of masajid into Black and immigrant masajid in the first place. The way out of the pandemic is to take care of those who are most vulnerable. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “You are given rizq sustenance based on the most vulnerable among you.” Communities who have turned the tide have done exactly that. Learning to be anti-racist is one of many steps we can take to lift the difficulty our communities are facing. We need at least be as non-discriminatory as the virus that only sees a human body.

    Anyone who is not Black has benefited from the theft and subjugation of generations of Black Americans. We should not meet Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) having sided with an oppressor. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) says, “Oppression is layers of darkness on the Day of Judgement.” We can choose to follow the prophetic path, or we can choose to let our racism destroy us. And for every nation is a [specified] term. So when their time has come, they will not remain behind an hour, nor will they precede [it]. [7;34] There will be an accounting for our society as a whole, and there will be an individual accounting. Those who follow Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will enter eternal gardens and those who follow Pharaoh will enter an eternal fire. And the people of no consequence, those who choose to do nothing, will sit on the A’raf.

    [1] This story is mentioned in West African oral histories

    [2] “Let my people go.” (Exodus 5-1: NIV)

    [3] The plagues of Egypt are discussed differently in the different Abrahamic faiths. “The Christian and Jewish traditions discuss the angel of death taking the life of the first-born son from every family in Egypt except those who left a marking on their doors so the angel of death could pass over them.”

    [4] Jahili is a Quranic descriptor for Pre-Islamic Arab society. It is derived from a root word meaning ignorance.

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    #Life

    Mental Health & COVID-19: Light, Guidance, & Much Love | Part 1

    Insha’Allah, you and your loved ones are safe & healthy. May Allah swt protect us all from COVID-19, Ya Hafidh, and open the way for our spiritual growth, Ya Fattah Ya Rabb. No doubt, we are living in very challenges times, and many in our community are suffering. As such, my intention for this two-part series is to provide some beneficial perspectives and practical strategies that will make your emotional journey safer & easier, insha’Allah.

    And a journey it surely is. We are on a very long hike up a very steep mountain. And we have only two choices about HOW we approach this challenge: unskillfully or skillfully. If we wear flip-flops, and fail to pack water and snacks, we will have a very difficult time reaching the summit. And if we do, we will be in very bad shape. If we wear good socks, sturdy hiking boots, and our backpack is well-stocked, not only are we likely to reach the summit, but reach it in great shape. This is what I want for our beloved community, insha’Allah.

    As Muslims, it is crucial to remember that the ultimate summit is the hereafter. Truly, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is our goal and pleasing Him is our aim. Truly, everything we do or fail to do here has an impact there. For many people, this haqq is much more difficult to remember and actualize when their day-to-day challenges are daunting. This is why historically and traditionally, in times of crisis, Muslims have always sought the nasiha of wise elders. Imam Muhasibi, the father of Islamic Psychology, developed this crucial, beautiful science in response to the human needs of his students. Sadly, the loss of these teachings as a widespread living tradition has contributed in large part to the widespread mental-health problems that have been plaguing our community for a very long time, which have now been exacerbated by COVID-19.

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    Here’s a good metaphor. The science of nutrition teaches us about our body, the properties of different foods, what to avoid to prevent disease, and the vital nutrients we MUST ingest to attain optimum physical health. Likewise, the science of mental health teaches us about our heart and mind, the impact of specific activities, what to avoid to prevent disease, and the vital psychological nutrients we MUST ingest to attain optimum mental health. Lack of knowledge about Islamic Psychology and the absence of the vital psychological nutrients have taken a huge toll on our community. The stories I hear would probably shock you. They would certainly break your heart. Especially the stories of our young people, who are my top priority. Insha’Allah, the wake-up call of COVID-19 propels us to reclaim en masse this lost part of our spiritual heritage, so we can reclaim our vitality and nobility as the Ummah of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

    To continue with the metaphor. Working one-on-one with an experienced nutritionist is very different than reading a book about nutrition. With the former, your nutritional program is specifically tailored to your particular problems, challenges, habits, and temperament. The same is true when it comes to mental health. So I must manage your expectations honestly and honorably by saying that it is not possible for me to do in two articles for the general public what I do one-on-one in my private practice as a psychotherapist, life-coach, and spiritual mentor. Truly, there is a palpable, powerful, fitrah-based alchemy that can only happen when two human hearts link-up in real time. That said, in the same way that reading and learning about nutrition is very beneficial, so too reading and learning about mental health, especially now.

    Working Skillfully with Difficult Emotions

    No doubt, COVID-19 has unleashed a wide range of very difficult emotions. People are struggling with tremendous anxiety, uncertainty, fear, sadness, loneliness, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, anger, frustration, confusion, grief, despair, and in some cases, a full-blown crisis of faith. So let me explain a little bit about emotions and how to work with them skillfully  

    One of the foundational principles of cognitive-behavioral psychology is called ‘reframing.’

    It is the process of deliberately thinking differently about our situation. Reframing it. The fact is, the lens through which we view our circumstances makes all the difference in the world insofar as how we feel. Thoughts are like the front wheels of the car and feelings are like the back wheels. We must be in the driver seat, steering intentionally. Whichever way the front wheels turn, the back wheels follow. So paying attention to our thoughts moment by moment, and making sure they are aligned with the Qur’an and Sunnah, is crucial. The mind is a like a muscle that MUST be trained through specific exercises, and our tradition is rich in the techniques for doing so. Truly, we must hit the spiritual gym regularly. The heavy lifting of muhasiba (self-reckoning) and muraqaba (mindfulness/meditation) are not optional. If these are not already a consistent part of your spiritual practice, NOW is the time to take them up. You will be so happy you did!

    Here’s a good metaphor. If you are a longtime couch potato, even a flight of stairs leaves you huffing and puffing. If you are in good shape, you’re able to jog around the block easily. If you’re in great shape, you’re able to leap over the hurdles like a gazelle. For many, COVID-19 has been like asking a couch potato to run a marathon. So we need to get in the best spiritual shape possible as quickly as possible. To that end:

    The Centering Exercise 

    Every time you notice that you are feeling sad, anxious, fearful, angry, hopeless, helpless, impatient, frustrated, confused, or depressed, here’s what to do.  

    • Turn off your devices and put them in another room.
    • Close your door and put a “Please do not disturb.” sign on the doorknob. Lay down.
    • Close your eyes. Turn your attention to your heart. Remember the Hadith Qudsi, “Heaven and earth cannot contain me but the heart of my faithful believer is where I reside.” Truly, Allah is closer than our jugular vein. (50:16)
    • Take some slow-deep breaths. On the out-breath, silently recite “La illaha.” On the in-breath, silently recite “il Allah.” After a few minutes, notice the shift in your state. Notice the deep connection between ‘self’ and ‘breath’, not just experientially, but also etymologically. They both derive from the same Arabic root, transliterated nfs.   
    • When you are centered, mentally review what you had been thinking about that gave rise to the difficult emotions.  Then do a ‘search and replace,’ deliberately and intentionally replacing your dark thoughts with the Light of The Qur’an or Hadith. Here is one example: Search: “I’ll never get through this.” Replace: “Allah never burdens a person with more than he is well able to bear.” (2:286)

    As individuals, we each have our own particular dark thoughts. NOW is the BEST time to fix them. I lovingly encourage you to get a blank journal, so that each time you do The Centering Exercise, you can make note of what you observed, what you learned about yourself. Write down each dark thought and then write down each Rx of Light from The Qur’an or Sunnah. Having a personal journal gives you a concrete means of reinforcing your new thought patterns. 

    We know from our neuroscience that the human brain possesses ‘neuroplasticity’, which is the capacity to be shaped, molded, changed. As such, the more often you do The Centering Exercise, the more your thinking patterns will change. This is how Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) created us, mash’Allah! It’s really quite amazing to realize that the Qur’an we’ve been given provides Light upon Light from The Lord of The Worlds. And the Sunnah is that Light fully actualized to perfection, mash’Allah. The fact is, no matter how dark a room may be, if we light just one candle, it illuminates the space. Mash’Allah!

    Parents, once you get the hang of The Centering Exercise, please please teach it to your children! Insha’Allah, make it the new normal in your household, transforming discord and upset into harmony and peace.

    Say “Ameen!”

    Divine Reminders

    Insofar as reframing COVID-19 in the broader sense, I offer you this lens, this Divine Reminder, with much love. May it shift your state from embittered to empowered. My beloved sisters and brothers, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is our Rabb, our Teacher, and COVID-19 is the Test we’ve all been given. Every single human being on the planet. We all woke up one day, walked into the classroom of Life, and got handed a pop quiz. The purpose of which is to show us the places where we weren’t prepared. This is great! Because the trumpet is absolutely going to sound, and we surely want to be ready. As long as we’re breathing, we have time to prepare. This is great!

    Say “Ameen!” 

    Beloved ones, we have the incredible privilege of being students of The One Who Knows Everything, including The Future and The Unseen.  It is very bad adab to question the teaching methods of our Teacher or to complain that we don’t like the Test.

    This was the fatal mistake of Bani Israel that we are reminded 17x/day not to emulate. On the contrary, what we want to be asking ourselves is: “What must I do to pass this Test with flying colors, to ace this Exam?” Our beautiful Qur’an teaches us: “Not without purpose did We create heaven and earth and all between.” (38:27)  This pandemic is not some random event. It has a divine purpose. There is deep meaning in it. 

    There is also enormous rahmah in it. Our beautiful Qur’an teaches us: “…My mercy embraces everything.” (7:156) The Divine Physician has dispensed this bitter medicine to heal us. To heal the whole world from its longstanding imbalances and injustices. Surely, it is no accident, the timing of COVID-19 vis-à-vis the murder of George Floyd and the global response it has galvanized.  Surely, every human being wants to and deserves to breathe.

    COVID-19 is a wake-up call for the whole world. Ours to do as students is to be fully present in each moment, to practice mindfulness (muraqaba), so we can be deeply receptive to the Lessons we are meant to learn (muhasiba). Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (13:11) Beloved ones, NOW is the time for global tawbah (repentance). As the Ummah of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), this is our Divine Assignment, individually, collectively, institutionally. 

    My vision and personal commitment is that we wind up stronger and better-than-ever on the other side of this, insha’Allah. I can say this with great confidence because first and foremost, I know that COVID-19 or no COVID-19, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is not out of business! The presence of The Presence, the power of the Names & Attributes, are as robust as ever. 

    We are being summoned to recognize our hubris and turn our hearts in humility toward The One Who Is In Charge, The One Who Calls The Shots, to The One Whose Decree we surrender. Humbly. Readily. Insha’Allah, NOW is the time to actualize the last part of Hadith Jibreel about qadr. The fact is, what’s happening around us is what’s happening, and this is always in the hands of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). HOW we respond to what’s happening is entirely up to us.

    What I want for our community is the best possible response, the most skillful and beautiful response, the response that will be of maximum benefit here & hereafter, insha’Allah.

    I can also say this with great confidence because time and again, working with Muslim refugees who have been through horrific trauma, I have seen with my own eyes how absolutely amazing human beings are. How resilient. How courageous. How creative. How capable of transforming sorrow into joy, lemons into lemonade, compost into roses. This is what I want for you, my beloved sisters and brothers.

    No doubt, on any long and arduous journey, in addition to having the right equipment and supplies, having an experienced trail-guide makes all the difference. There is dangerous terrain you want to avoid, and beautiful vistas you don’t want to miss. In my experience over decades, I have observed that human beings thrive when we are given the right tools and the loving encouragement to master them.  So let me give you now some very practical guidelines to help you navigate skillfully, so you can extract from these precious days of your life what is meaningful & transformational. 

    Practical Strategies

    When it comes to protecting our physical health from the pandemic, there are certain steps we MUST take. Likewise with our mental health. As such, here are some practical strategies, culled from thousands of pages of research and decades of experience. My focus is on parents, whose job has never been more difficult. And with the new school year right around the corner, this guidance is extremely timely. 

    Boundaries: Set clear boundaries regarding where and when devices can be used. This applies to everyone in the household, kids and parents alike. Parents, as your elder who loves you, I am reminding you that YOU are the CEO of your home. YOU are the policy maker. YOU are in charge. NOT your kids or their devices. So take charge!

    • No devices for kids 0-3. These guidelines are from the American Pediatric Association. 
    • No devices at the dinner table* or in the bedrooms.
    • No devices until after Fajr. Better yet, after breakfast.
    • All devices put away 1-2 hours before bedtime. Plugged in in the kitchen to recharge.
    • Limit on-line entertainment and socializing to 1 hour/day MAX.
    • Schedule tech fasts ½ day weekly, and 1-2 full days monthly, on a weekend.
    • An occasional family-time movie is fine on the weekend. Choose something meaningful, uplifting, thought-provoking, heart-opening. Pop some popcorn. Make tea. Engage in a special time afterward to really talk together about your experience. *Getting in the habit of real-time-face-to-face conversations is crucial. If you start when your kids are young, it will lay a strong foundation for their teenage years, when they desperately need wise, trustworthy, caring adults who really know how to listen from the heart.

    Nature: Spending time in nature is the very best thing you can do for yourself and with your family. There are reams of data about the stress-reducing effects of being outdoors, especially in the woods. There are also reams of data about the benefits of exercise, not only for physical health, but for mental health. Given all the extra sitting everyone is doing during COVID-19, regular exercise is not optional. 

    Furthermore, if your kids are schooling from home and you are working from home, everyone will surely need some breathing room, some physical and emotional space from one another, some time every day in solitude, unplugged from their devices. Spending alone-time in nature is the perfect solution. 

    For family-time activities, unplug from your devices and enjoy these delightful experiences. They will engender tremendous awe (khushu’) and deepen your heart-connection with your Rabb, The One Who Created you and all the beauty around you. Subhan’Allah.

    • Take a 15-30 minute family-walk every night after dinner before homework.
    • Go hiking, biking, rollerblading, kayaking, kite-flying, or camping on the weekend.   
    • Set up bird feeders in your yard. Learn their names and identify their songs.
    • Go out nightly to look at the stars. Learn the names of the constellations.
    • Watch as many sunrises & sunsets, moonrises & moonsets as you can. 

    As Muslims, our worship is guided by the natural cycles Allah put in place. The sun is our clock. It tells us when to pray. The moon is our calendar. It tells us when the new month begins. Sighting the moon is an act of worship, mash’Allah.

    Divine Reminders

    Our beautiful Qur’an teaches:“We will show them Our Signs (ayat) in the universe and in their own selves, until it becomes clear to them that this (the Qur’an) is the truth.” (Fussilat 41:53)

    In this ayah, we are taught the two beautiful gateways into the sacred: the macrocosm of the universe, and the microcosm of the self. Both of these gateways open into the direct experience of Allah’s presence. 

    As Muslims, we have been invited to spend time in this dunya in the company of The One Who is Love (al-Wadud). The One Who is Strength (al-Aziz). The One Who is Peace (as-Salaam). And on & on. What could be more beneficial during this time of crisis? Alas, calling upon our Rabb by His most Beautiful Names, with urgency & sincerity, is one of the Lessons we must learn from COVID-19.  My prayer for our community is that people do not squander the opportunity to connect in a deep, meaningful, intimate way heart-to-heart with Allah because they can’t put their phone down or turn their computer off. Insha’Allah, I will address the subject of digital addiction in the second article, as it plays a huge role when it comes to mental health issues.

    Closing Du’a

    Ya Habibi Ya Allah. Please grant us oceans of fortitude and mountains of strength Ya Sabur Ya Aziz. May we be dutiful beautiful students who strive with all our might in jihad al akbar to pass this test with flying colors, to ace this exam. May we, the Ummah of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), love one another like he loves us, and strengthen one another every step of the way. May we wind up stronger and better-than-ever on the other side of COVID-19, reclaiming the standard of Insan Kamil as the Index by which we measure our lives. Ya Dhal Jalali wal Ikram.

    Say “Ameen!” 

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