It was the night of March 16th, 2000. That day had been Eid, the holiest day of the year for West End’s Muslim community. Prayers were held by Imam Jamil Al-Amin, the soft-spoken, bookish Imam, who was famously known in the civil rights movement as H. Rap Brown prior to his conversion to Islam. That night, police officers pulled up to the Imam’s convenience store with a warrant for his arrest. The police saw a man and asked him to put his hands up: 5’8”, gray eyes, and 170 pounds, as eyewitnesses would later tell.
Asked to put his hands up, that man would instead pull out a handgun. A shootout between the man and two police officers would ensue. The man would then go to his trunk and pull out a lightweight, semi-automatic carbine Ruger Mini-14 with an extended clip housing 40 .223 caliber rounds of ammunition. Using military grade weapons, this man would murder one police officer and injure another. This man, Otis Jackson, would eventually confess to committing the crime.
Eventually, Imam Jamil Al-Amin would be charged for this crime. Neither Jackson’s confession of the crime nor his matching the description of the shooter would be included in Al-Amin’s trial. For the jury, this evidence was nonexistent.
Eyewitness testimony claims that the man who killed the police officer was not only 5’8” and 170 pounds with gray eyes but also that he suffered gunshot wounds. While Jackson fits this description, Imam Jamil Al-Amin is 6’5”, lanky, has brown eyes, and did not suffer a single wound. A 911 call also claimed that the shooter was bleeding out and walking around West End looking for a ride.
Otis Jackson was on parole at the time of the shooting for a previous crime he had permitted. He told his parole officer he had a shift working at a local diner at the time. When the officers told him to put his hands up, he felt the handgun in his pocket. Violating his parole and possessing an illegal weapon, Jackson knew that he would be sent back to jail. Aware of this, he decided to shoot at the police officers instead of putting his hands up.
That night, Jackson went home and received a call from Sentinel Company, which provided the monitoring for his ankle bracelet. The Sentinel representative asked where Jackson was, to which he replied that he was at work. The representative then told Jackson that this would be marked down as a violation, to which Jackson agreed and quickly ended the conversation.
He then had female friends who were nurses come and treat him for his wounds. He told them that he was robbed. Jackson called a friend named Mustapha Tanner, and ask him to get rid of Jackson’s vast arsenal of weapons: three Ruger Mini‐14 rifles, an M16 assault rifle, a .45 handgun, three 9mm handguns and a couple of shotguns. He also informed his parole officer that he was involved in a “situation” but left out any details. Police later searched Jackson’s house and found rounds of Mini‐14, .223, 9mm, and M16 ammunition. His bloody clothes and boots from the shootout were left untouched in a closet.
His parole was revoked and he was sent to jail in Nevada. There he would confess to the crime and even be visited by an FBI agent by the name of Agent Devon Mahony. Jackson’s confession was documented by Mahoney on June 29th, 2000. But nothing was done after that. Jackson’s confession was also not included in Jamil Al-Amin’s trial in March of 2002. In the midst of government surveillance on civil rights leaders and post 9/11 Islamophobia, Imam Jamil Al-Amin would be sentenced to life without parole for the crime of murdering a police officer.
Al-Amin has an appeal on May 3rd in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that could potentially allow for a retrial. Through this retrial, it is possible that evidence that was previously left out of the court, such as Otis Jackson’s testimony, could allow for Al-Amin to establish his innocence.
Arrest and Trial
Following this shooting, Imam Jamil Al-Amin would be put on the FBI’s most wanted list, and 100 FBI agents would be deployed on a manhunt to find him. Al-Amin would be arrested in White Hall, Alabama four days later. As he was arrested, FBI agent, Ronald Campbell kicked him and spit on him. It is important to note here that Imam Jamil Al-Amin was a 55-year-old religious leader. One would wonder what sort of hatred led an FBI agent to engage in such behavior towards a middle-aged clergyman.
Eventually, an officer would also find guns in the woods adjacent to where Al-Amin was found. Despite decades of FBI surveillance, there was absolutely no evidence linking Al-Amin to the guns. There was not a single fingerprint or Al-Amin’s DNA on the guns or ammunition found. The guns were also not hidden or concealed in any way. So under the state’s argument, Al-Amin meticulously cleared the weapons of his DNA and fingerprints but did not do anything to hide the weapons.
Many have suggested that it was actually Agent Campbell, the FBI agent who physically assaulted and spit on Imam Jamil Al-Amin, who planted the guns. In 1995, Campbell had been accused of shooting Glenn Thomas, an African American man, in the back of the head in Philadelphia. In that case, too, a fingerprint-less gun was found next to the man’s dead body.
In addition, Agent Campbell first claimed that he was with other police officers when he crossed the fence into the woods and found the guns. But he later, in cross-examination, claimed that he was alone. Such contradictory information and the fact that the weapons could never be proved to belong to Al-Amin makes one wonder how this could function as any sort of evidence.
It is also important to note that Al-Amin went to trial in March of 2002, less than six months after 9/11. At a time when hatred against Muslims in the United States was at an all-time high, Al-Amin showed up to court wearing a kufi. He even said to the judge and jury: “I invite you to Islam. Be Muslim and receive two rewards [i.e. That of this life and the next].”
But even in this time when hatred of Muslims was at an all-time high, the idea of this soft-spoken Imam committing a crime was still strange to so many. The New York Times wrote that “Some could not believe that the man who spent the last 25 years as a nonviolent Muslim cleric in the West End of Atlanta would explode in a seemingly unprovoked blaze of violence.”
Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s Muslim faith was also attacked by the prosecution. They told the jury “Don’t stand up for him,” in reference to Al-Amin’s religiously-based decision to not stand for the court, for which the court granted him permission to do.
The court ruled Al-Amin guilty and he was sentenced to life without parole. Following this, the prosecuting attorney for the state said, “After 24 years, we finally got him.” In order to understand the context of this remark, one must understand the Cointelpro program that Al-Amin was targeted by before his conversion to Islam when he was H. Rap Brown.
Rap Brown and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
In his late teens, H. Rap Brown joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committing (SNCC). SNCC (Pronounced “Snick”) used the tactics of nonviolent direct action in order to bring about civil rights for Black Americans. Prominent in the American South, SNCC members studied Gandhian tactics of nonviolence from James Lawson, who was then a graduate student in theology at Vanderbilt University. Future Congressman and then-SNCC Chairman, John Lewis would mentor H. Rap Brown.
In 1965, the young H. Rap Brown rose up in the organization and eventually became chairman of the Nonviolent Action Group, the Washington DC affiliate of SNCC. As head of this organization, Brown entered into an infamous White House meeting with President Lyndon B Johnson. President Johnson told Brown that SNCC’s all-night demonstration had prevented his two daughters from sleeping that night. Brown replied that he was sad for the one night his daughters were disturbed, but that “Black people in the South had been unable to sleep in peace and security for a hundred years.” He asked what the President planned to do about that, and anticipated that this issue was what this meeting was about.
Following John Lewis’ tenure as chair of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael then became chair in 1966. Inspired by the works of Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, Carmichael understood nonviolence not as a principle, but as a tactic. He introduced the phrase “Black Power’ to the organization, and began to speak out on international issues, introducing SNCC’s opposition to the American war in Vietnam.
FBI Surveillance on H. Rap Brown
In 1967, H. Rap Brown, at the age of 23, was elected Carmichael’s successor as chairman of SNCC. Brown would take the nonviolent out of the name of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, renaming it the Student National Coordinating Committee. He lamented that “Violence is as American as cherry pie…We will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression, if necessary. We will be free by any means necessary.” It was also under his leadership that SNCC entered into a working alliance with the Black Panther Party, giving Brown the honorary title of Minister of Justice of the Black Panther Party alongside being Chairman of SNCC.
That year, the FBI contacted Brown’s wife, Karima Al-Amin, in an attempt to get her to spy on her husband for the FBI and provide reports on him to them. At this point, SNCC was being targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which aimed at surveilling, discrediting, and disrupting political organizations that fought for the rights of Black Americans. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program called for H. Rap Brown and other prominent black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr and Stokely Carmichael to be “neutralized.”
It was through this program that J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, discovered that Martin Luther King Jr was having extramarital affairs. Attempting to use the tactic of public humiliation, Hoover wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr attempting to coerce him into suicide, lest he wants the world to know of his infidelity.
In December of 1969, two Black Panthers in Chicago fell victim to this neutralization after a 14-man police raiding force collaborated with the FBI. The police murdered 21-year-old, Fred Hampton and 22-year-old, Mark Clark, two members of the Black Panther Party in a pre-dawn raid in their Chicago homes.
In a meeting with President Lyndon B Johnson, FBI Director Hoover said, in reference to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, “We wouldn’t have any problem if we could get those two guys fighting; if we could get them to kill one another off.”
This FBI campaign of neutralization caught up to H. Rap Brown. After giving a speech in Cambridge, Maryland in July of 1970, he was grazed with bullets from police while walking a young woman home. That night, fires occurred in the city. Brown would be accused of arson and inciting riots in the city. Later evidence would show that Brown had no relation to such fires, and they actually came from the inaction of the Cambridge Fire Department, which had a hostile relationship with its Black community. But the head of the Cambridge Police Department pinned the charge on Brown, accusing him of “a well-planned Communist attempt to overthrow the government.”
Congress would then pass the “H. Rap Brown” law in his name that would make it illegal to cross state lines in order to incite a riot. Then Governor of Maryland and soon-to-be Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew stated that “I hope they pick him up soon, put him away, and throw away the key.”
Like many leaders in the movement such as Angela Davis, Brown would be placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and run away from the authorities spending time in Africa, before eventually being brought back to Maryland in 1970 for trial. It was there that he would be sentenced to 5 years at Attica Prison in New York City.
In his time in prison, H. Rap Brown accepted Islam and took the name, “Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin.”
Conversion to Islam and Reinvention as Jamil Al-Amin
Following his release from prison in 1976, Al-Amin traveled to India, Pakistan, and West Africa to study Islam. He then embarked travel to Makkah for the Hajj pilgrimage before moving to Atlanta to establish a Muslim community in the impoverished and crime-ridden West End neighborhood.
In West End, the former radical firebrand reemerged as a pious, soft-spoken, and bookish Muslim scholar concerned about the spiritual and social resurrection of the neighborhood. He preached Islam to drug dealers and prostitutes in the neighborhood and sought an intense anti-drug campaign.
In the West End Mosque, they called the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, out loud five times a day, so that the whole neighborhood could hear it. Al-Amin was of the belief that change of society could only come after people had changed themselves through the act of prayer.
Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid, the current Muslim Chaplain at Harvard University who grew up in Imam Jamil’s West End community, mentioned in his Ph.D. dissertation:
“He would retain his devotion to changing the prevailing system and worked to teach his community to cultivate an alternative way of living that is not indicative of token social justice programs. He taught the importance of the five pillars of Islam and revolutionary ‘technologies of the self’ that, when actualized at the communal level, transform the society into a better one. He still remained non-violent but still dedicated himself to teaching social revolution through a revolutionary approach to Islamic practice.
“The mission of a believer in Islam is totally different from coexisting or being a part of the system. The prevailing morals are wrong. Western philosophy…has reduced man to food, clothing, shelter, and the sex drive, which means he doesn’t have a spirit. In Islam, we’re not talking about getting the poor to vote. We’re not talking about empowering poor people with money. We’re talking about overturning that whole thing.”
He preached and wrote about the understanding of the centrality of prayer, charity, diet, pilgrimage, family, and struggle as the core elements of person and by extension social change. His book entitled, Revolution By The Book, published in 1994, is the first American Muslim liberation theology manifesto. Whereas much Christian liberation theology centralizes its attention on social concern for the poor and liberation of the oppressed, Imam Jamil’s Revolution By The Book begins with the individual turning inward to correct decadent ways and through reform of the self, one may then begin to look outward at institutions that are also in need of reform. He explains that,
“When you understand your obligations to God then you can understand your obligations to society. Revolution comes when human beings set out to correct decadent institutions. We must understand how this society has fallen away from righteousness and begin to develop, Islamically, the alternative institutions to those that are in a state of decline around us. But, we must first enjoin right and forbid wrong to ourselves. That is the first step in turning this thing around: turn yourself around!”
Many who had known him pre-conversion to Islam spoke of how much Al Amin had changed from the H. Rap Brown that once was.
A former SNCC colleague, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, commented on Al Amin’s speech at the funeral of former SNCC Chairman, Stokely Carmichael. The talk included numerous other pillars of the civil rights movement such as John Lewis and Diane Nash. Thelwell stated:
The only real departure and my only surprise came when Imam Al-Amin spoke. What he delivered in tribute to his old friend was a thoughtful, Islam-inflected reflection on the nature of oppression and the moral duty, the religious imperative, of the faithful to resist. Liberally adorned with Koranic quotations, it was, as I recall, an erudite, elegantly constructed, finely reasoned explication of the categories and nature of oppression, and the moral dimensions and complexities of struggle as expressed in the prophetic poetry of the Arabian desert some 1,400 years earlier. In any terms–culturally speaking–it was scholarly. I found it startling in a curious way: It did not quite fit either stylistically or culturally with what had gone before, yet was completely appropriate.
As he spoke, I remember thinking: Ah, so this is what a serious Islamic sermon sounds like, huh? Rap really takes this calling seriously. The brother is indeed an Islamic scholar, an imam. (I took in the hang-jawed look of astonishment and dawning professional respect that crossed Minister [Louis] Farrakhan’s face as he listened to be confirmation of my impression..”
In an article titled “Growing Up West End,” Masood Abdul Haqq wrote about being a member of Imam Jamil Al Amin’s West End community.
When my family and I first moved to Atlanta in the fall of 1992, the West End Muslim scene unfolded like some sort of Black Muslim Utopia. A soulful adhan was the soundtrack to Black children of all ages in kufis and khimars playing with each other on either side of the street. The intersecting streets near the masjid gave way to a large covered basketball court, on which the game in progress had come to a halt due to the number of players who chose to answer the melodic call to prayer. Overlooking this scene from the bench in front of his convenience store, like a shepherd admiring his flock, was a denim overall and crocheted kufi-clad Imam Jamil.
Before I heard him utter a single word, it was obvious to me that I was in the presence of a transcendent leader.
The early 1990’s was an exciting time to be in Atlanta. However, one of the unfortunate undercurrents of our booming urban economy was the inevitable rise of the drug trade. Reagan had been out of office for a full term, but his crack epidemic and trickle down economics were still very prevalent in inner city neighborhoods across the country. The West End was no exception. At the intersection of Holderness Street and Lucille Avenue, just 100 yards from my childhood home and four city blocks from the West End Masjid, stood a notorious motorcycle club and corner store. Both businesses were knee deep in the interests of prominent local drug dealers and it wasn’t long before that corner earned the reputation as a “million dollar block.”
One might think living so close to such a dangerous corner would make for a tale of hard knocks, peer pressure, and intimidation. For the Muslim kids, that was the furthest thing from our reality. Instead, we ran around that neighborhood with impunity. When the dope boys saw us coming, they would step out of our way, offer to buy us snacks from the store, or just whisper to each other about us being “Big Slim’s folks.” Sometimes they called him Rap. Or the Imam. The bottom line was, they may have pulled the usual dope boy tricks of recruiting and terrorizing kids within the neighborhood, but us Muslim kids were off limits.
There was an honor associated with being a member of Imam Jamil’s community, a VIP hood pass that made us immune to the usual ills of this sort of environment. This street credibility from outside the Muslim community stemmed from Imam Jamil’s days as H. Rap Brown, a revolutionary fighting for Black rights. It evolved when he demonstrated the ability to bridge gaps between young and old, Muslim and non-Muslim. People respected that his entire life revolved around salat at the Masjid. This made him accessible and dependable. Five times a day, the adhan was called and Imam Jamil would either lead or appoint someone to lead the prayer. Afterwards, no one would leave unless he raised his hand for permission and got the nod from the Imam. After finishing his dhikr and du‘a, the Imam would ask, “Is there anything anyone would like to bring out?” Brothers would bring forth questions, concerns, and news from around the neighborhood, and the Imam would address it or tell the person to meet him after salat. The drug issue was at the forefront. Slowly but surely, prayer by prayer, the million dollar block was abandoned. Miraculously, after efforts to clean up the neighborhood around the million dollar block, now stands the West End Islamic Center, a beacon of hope for sustaining the community.
FBI Perception of Al Amin Post-Conversion to Islam
Despite such transformation of self that led to the transformation of the West End community, Al-Amin still remained the object of government spying that went back to the Cointelpro days. The FBI compiled a 44,000-word file on Al-Amin and his Muslim community, attempting to pin a crime upon him. Because his entire life was dedicated to praying five times a day at the mosque, developing his community, and stopping drugs and crime, the FBI could not find a single crime that Al Amin had committed.
After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Al Amin was interrogated by the FBI as to whether he played a role.
Al Amin’s brother, Ed Brown stated that:
“Y’know…something happens. Say the first attempt to bomb the Trade Center, right? They feed their infallible profile into their computer. Muslim…radical…violent…anti-American, whatever, who knows. Anyway, boom, out spits the names, H. Rap Brown prominent among them. Next thing the Feds come storming into the community and haul Jamil in. This actually happened. Of course, it’s stupid. And every time they have to let him go. But how do you stop it? A goddamn nightmare, they never quit.”
Two years following that, Al-Amin would be arrested by a joint force of the FBI, local police, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives after a 22-year-old, William Miles, was shot in the leg. One must wonder why the FBI was concerned about a non-fatal shooting that hit a young man’s right leg. But even in this case, Imam Jamil Al-Amin was found not guilty and cleared of any wrongdoing.
It was found that between 1992 and 1997, authorities investigated Al-Amin “in connection with everything from domestic terrorism to gunrunning to 14 homicides in Atlanta’s West End.”
While driving in Marietta, Georgia in May of 1999, Al-Amin would be pulled over in his vehicle for driving with a drive-out tag, which allows a vehicle to drive without a license plate for 30 days. Eventually, Al-Amin would be searched, and an honorary police badge, given to him by the mayor of White Hall, Alabama, would be found in his wallet. Al-Amin was charged with impersonating a police officer, driving a stolen car, and driving with expired insurance. In 2002, a Georgia judge would rule that this warrantless search violated Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s fourth amendment rights. The mayor of White Hall also wrote to how he had gifted Al-Amin this badge. Due to a snowstorm, Al-Amin’s court date for this case was canceled— and never rescheduled.
It was this traffic stop that would lead to the arrest warrant. It was from that warrant that police officers would eventually be shot and killed by Otis Jackson, who would confess to the crime and match the description of the shooter. Despite this, it would be Imam Jamil Al-Amin who would go to jail.
Al-Amin’s Time in Prison
In addition to being there for a crime that he claims he did not commit, Al-Amin has faced many violations of his rights in jail. He has been unable to attend Friday prayers and has spent the bulk of his time in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Between June and August of 2003, the federal government was also caught reading his mail, in violation of Al-Amin’s fourth amendment rights.
Despite his solitary confinement, word got around that Imam Jamil was imprisoned. Prisoners in Georgia also asked for Al-Amin to be their unified Imam “because of his credibility as a leader prior to incarceration,” in an act that was not initiated by him. This led to an FBI investigation and report titled “The Attempt to Radicalize the Georgia Department of Corrections’ Inmate Population” which established Al-Amin as the leader of this radical Muslim kingpin operating in prisons. The report failed to link Al-Amin to any extremist Muslim organization and also failed to establish how Al-Amin could lead such an extremist cell while being in solitary confinement.
Without notifying his family or legal counsel, Al-Amin was forcibly transferred by federal authorities in July of 2007. He was chained inside a vehicle for 6 hours in the 92-degree heat, while being deprived of his blood pressure medicine. Because he was unable to stand, Al-Amin was hospitalized for a night, before being transferred to the ADX prison facility in Florence, Colorado. He was then transferred to the United States Penitentiary in Arizona, a high-security federal prison for male inmates. In August of 2007, the Georgia Department of Corrections said Al-Amin was sent to federal prison because “Al-Amin’s high profile presents unique issues beyond the state prison system’s normal inmate.” It was never explained what these “unique issues” are.
Appeal on May 3rd and Potential for Retrial
Allen Garrett is a lawyer who has been working pro-bono on Al-Amin’s case since 2007. He has “discovered retaliatory actions on the part of prison officials against Al-Amin.” Moreover, he has been granted the possibility for an appeal on May 3rd, in which the court will decide whether Al-Amin can be granted a retrial for the crime he was found guilty of in 2002.
With new evidence not included in the trial such as the confession of Otis Jackson, and Agent Campbell’s lying about being alone and previous planting of fingerprint-less guns, Al-Amin has the potential to clear himself of such charges and establish his innocence. America too has changed drastically since Al-Amin was put on trial in 2002. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter have brought to light the injustice of programs such as COINTELPRO which targeted Al-Amin and other civil rights activists. The Trump era has also highlighted the irrationality of the brazen Islamophobia that aided Al-Amin’s guilty verdict.
Al-Amin’s membership in the Black Panther Party was symbolic and resulted as a result of an alliance between the Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he was chair of. But despite his limited affiliation, in today’s context, the Black Panthers do not have the same stigma attached to them. The movie, Black Panther, ends in Oakland, California, in an allusion to where the Black Panther Party was founded. Beyonce wore Black Panther outfits at the Super Bowl. And even Democratic Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, hardly a symbol of radicalism or even progressivism, has stated that she was inspired by the values of the party.
I spoke to Kairi Al-Amin, Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s son. He was 14-years-old when his dad was imprisoned. Since then, Kairi, now 31, has become an attorney, with the goal of freeing his dad of this crime that he did not commit. He spoke of the importance that there is in getting public opinion on the side of his father as this appeal approaches. Should the court rule in favor of this appeal, a retrial could allow for evidence previously left out to be introduced. He has created a website called https://whathappened2rap.com/, which has a fact sheet on the trial, with information on how people can be better involved.
With the public watching, it is possible that on May 3rd, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will rule in favor of Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s retrial, and that he can finally be given the opportunity to present the full case and be exonerated of this crime.
Zahra Billoo Responds To The Women’s March Inc. Voting Her Off The New Board
Earlier tonight, I was voted off the Women’s March, Inc. national board. This followed an Islamophobic smear campaign led by the usual antagonists, who have long targeted me, my colleagues, and anyone else who dares speak out in support of Palestinian human rights and the right to self-determination.
The past 48 hours have been a spiral of bad news and smear efforts. Part of the smear campaign is motivated by opponents of the Women’s March, because the organization has traditionally challenged the status quo of power and white supremacy in our country. However, much of the campaign is driven by people who oppose me and my work challenging the occupation of Palestine, our country’s perpetuation of unjust and endless wars, and law enforcement operations targeting the American Muslim community.
The Women’s March, Inc. is an organization I once held dear. I spoke at the first march, spoke at regional marches every year after, spoke at the convention, participated in national actions including the original Kavanaugh protests, and worked to mobilize Muslim women for their efforts.
During the past few years right-wingers, from the President’s son to the Anti-Defamation League and troll armies, have targeted the Women’s March, Inc. For so long, I’ve admired their resilience in speaking truth to power, in working together, and in never cowering. Over and over again, the co-founders of Women’s March, Inc. put their lives on the line, winning power for all women in all of our diversity. The Women’s March, Inc. that voted me off its board tonight is one that no longer demonstrates the strength that inspired millions of women across the country.
To see and experience its new leaders caving to right-wing pressure, and casting aside a woman of color, a Muslim woman, a long-time advocate within the organization, without the willingness to make any efforts to learn and grow, breaks my heart. This isn’t about a lost seat, there will be many seats. The Women’s March, Inc. has drawn a line in the sand, one that will exclude many with my lived experiences and critiques. It has effectively said, we will work on some women’s rights at the expense of others.
To be clear, anti-semitism is indeed a growing and dangerous problem in our country, as is anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia, ableism, sexism, and so much more. I condemn any form of bigotry unequivocally, but I also refuse to be silent as allegations of bigotry are weaponized against the most marginalized people, those who find sanctuary and hope in the articulation of truth.
In looking at the tweets in question, I acknowledge that I wrote passionately. While I may have phrased some of my content differently today, I stand by my words. I told the truth as my community and I have lived it, through the FBI’s targeting of my community, as I supported families who have lost loved ones because of US military actions, and as I learned from the horrific experiences of Palestinian life.
In attempting to heal and build in an expedited manner within Women’s March, Inc., I offered to meet with stakeholders to address their concerns and to work with my sisters on the new board to learn, heal, and build together. These efforts were rejected. And in rejecting these efforts, the new Women’s March, Inc. demonstrated that they lack the courage to exhibit allyship in the face of fire.
I came to Women’s March, Inc. to work. My body of work has included leading a chapter of the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization for over a decade, growing it now more than six-fold. In my tenure, I have led the team that forced Abercrombie to change its discriminatory employment policies, have been arrested advocating for DACA, partnered with Jewish organizations including Bend the Arc and Jewish Voice for Peace to fight to protect our communities, and was one of the first lawyers to sue the President.
It is not my first time being the target of a smear campaign. The Women’s March, Inc., more than any place, is where I would have expected us to be able to have courageous conversations and dive deep into relationship-building work.
I am happy to have as many conversations as it takes to listen and learn and heal, but I will no longer be able to do that through Women’s March, Inc. This action today demonstrates that this organization’s new leadership is unable to be an ally during challenging times.
My beliefs drive my work, and I am not seeking accolades or positions of power. These past few days have been the greatest test of that. My integrity, my truth, and my strength comes from God and a place of deep conviction. I will continue my work as a civil rights lawyer and a faith-based activist, speaking out against the occupation of Palestine and settler-colonialism everywhere, challenging Islamophobia and all forms of racism and bigotry in the United States, and building with my community and our allies in our quest to be our most authentic and liberated selves.
Onward, God willing.
The Duplicity of American Muslim Influencers And The ‘So-called Muslim Ban’
As we approach the beginning of another painful year of the full enforcement of Presidential Proclamation 9645 (a.k.a. ‘the Muslim ban’) that effectively bars citizens of several Muslim majority countries from entering into the United States, the silence remains deafening. As I expected, most of the world has conveniently forgotten about this policy, which thus far has separated over 3,000 American families from their spouses and other immediate relatives. In June 2019, the Brennan Center of Justice notes that: The ban has also kept at least 1,545 children from their American parents and 3,460 parents from their American sons and daughters. While silence and apathy from the general public on this matter is to be expected— after all, it is not their families who are impacted— what is particularly troubling is the response that is beginning to emerge from some corners of the American Muslim social landscape.
While most Muslims and Muslim groups have been vocal in their condemnation of Presidential Proclamation 9645, other prominent voices have not. Shadi Hamid sought to rationalize the executive order on technical grounds arguing that it was a legally plausible interpretation. Perhaps this is true, but some of the other points made by Hamid are quite questionable. For example, he curiously contends that:
The decision does not turn American Muslims like myself into “second-class citizens,” and to insist that it does will make it impossible for us to claim that we have actually become second-class citizens, if such a thing ever happens.
I don’t know— being forced to choose exile in order to remain with one’s family certainly does sound like being turned into a ‘second-class citizen’ to me. Perhaps the executive order does not turn Muslims like himself, as he notes, into second-class citizens, but it definitely does others, unless it is possible in Hamid’s mind to remain a first-class citizen barred from living with his own spouse and children for completely arbitrary reasons, like me. To be fair to Hamid, in the same article he does comment that the executive order is a morally questionable decision, noting that he is “still deeply uncomfortable with the Supreme Court’s ruling” and that “It contributes to the legitimization and mainstreaming of anti-Muslim bigotry.”
On the other hand, more recently others have shown open disdain for those who are angered about the ‘so-called Muslim ban.’ On June 6th, 2019, Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, a Senior Faculty Member at Zaytuna College, Islamic scholar and the founder of the Lamppost Education Initiative, rationalized the ban on spurious security grounds. He commented that,
The so-called Muslim ban, of course, has us on edge about his potential. But, to be fair, a real Muslim ban would mean that no Muslim from any country should be allowed in the US. There are about 50 Muslim majority countries. Trump singled out only 7 of them, most of which are war torn and problem countries. So, it is unfair to claim that he was only motivated by a hatred for Islam and Muslims.
First, despite how redundant and unnecessary this point is to make again, one ought to be reminded that between 1975 and 2015, zero foreigners from the seven nations initially placed on the banned list (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) killed any Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and zero Libyans or Syrians have ever even been convicted of planning a terrorist attack on U.S. soil during that same time period. I do not think these numbers have changed over the last 4 years either. If policy decisions are supposed to be made on sound empirical evidence and data, then there is even less justification for the ban.
Second, Bin Hamid Ali comments that ‘the so-called Muslim ban, of course, has us on edge about his [Trump’s] potential.’ Whoa… hold on; on edge about his potential? For the millions of people banned from entering the United States and the thousands of Muslim families connected to these millions of people, this ‘potential’ has been more than realized. To reduce the ‘so-called Muslim ban’ to just targeting ‘war torn and problem countries’ is to reduce our family members—our husbands, wives, and children—to (inaccurate) statistics and gross stereotypes. Are spouses from Syria or Yemen seeking to reunite with their legally recognized spouses or children any less deserving to be with their immediate family members because they hail from ‘problem countries’? How can one be concerned with stereotypes while saying something like this? Is this not the exact thing that Abdullah bin Hamid Ali seeks to avoid? Surely the Professor would not invoke such stereotypes to justify the racial profiling of black American citizens. What makes black non-Americans, Arabs, and Iranians any different when it comes to draconian immigration profiling? From a purely Islamic perspective, the answer is absolutely nothing.
More recently, Sherman Jackson, a leading Islamic intellectual figure at the University of Southern California, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity, also waded into this discussion. In his essay, he reframed the Muslim ban as a question of identity politics rather than basic human right, pitting Muslim immigrants against what he calls ‘blackamericans’ drawing some incredibly questionable, nativist, and bigoted conclusions. Jackson in a recent blog responding to critiques by Ali al-Arian about his own questionable affiliations with authoritarian Arab regimes comments:
Al-Arian mentions that,
“the Muslim American community seemed united at least in its opposition to the Trump administration.” He and those who make up this alleged consensus are apparently offended by Trump’s so-called Muslim ban. But a Blackamerican sister in Chicago once asked me rhetorically why she should support having Muslims come to this country who are only going to treat her like crap.
These are baffling comments to make about ‘Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.’ Jackson creates a strawman by bringing up an anecdotal story that offers a gross generalization that clearly has prejudiced undertones of certain Muslim immigrants. Most interesting, however is how self-defeating Jackson’s invocation of identity politics is considering the fact that a large number of the ‘blackamerican’ Muslims that he is concerned about themselves have relatives from Somalia and other countries impacted by the travel ban. As of 2017, there were just over 52,000 Americans with Somali ancestry in the state of Minnesota alone. Are Somali-Americans only worth our sympathy so long as they do not have Somali spouses? What Jackson and Bin Hamid Ali do not seem to understand is that these Muslim immigrants they speak disparagingly of, by in large, are coming on family unification related visas.
Other people with large online followings have praised the comments offered by Abdullah bin Hamid Ali and Sherman Jackson. The controversial administrator of the popular The Muslim Skeptic website, Daniel Haqiqatjou, in defense of Jackson’s comments, stated:
This is the first time I have seen a prominent figure downplay the issue. And I think Jackson’s assessment is exactly right: The average American Muslim doesn’t really care about this. There is no evidence to indicate that this policy has had a significant impact on the community as a whole. Travel to the US from those four countries affected by the ban was already extremely difficult in the Obama era.
What Haqiqatjou seems to not realize is that while travel from these countries was difficult, it was not as ‘extremely difficult’ as he erroneously claims it was. The US issued 7,727 visas to Iranian passport holders in 2016 prior to the ban. After the ban in 2018, that number dropped to 1,449. My own wife was issued a B1/B2 Tourist visa to meet my family in 2016 after approximately 40 days of administrative processing which is standard for US visa seekers who hold Iranian passports. On the other hand, she was rejected for the same B1/B2 Tourist visa in 2018 after a grueling 60+ day wait due to Presidential Proclamation 9645. At the behest of the Counselor Officer where we currently live, she was told to just finish the immigration process since this would put her in a better position to receive one of these nearly impossible to get waivers. She had her interview on November 19, 2018, and we are still awaiting the results of whatever these epic, non-transparent ‘extreme vetting’ procedures yield. Somehow despite my wife being perfectly fine to enter in 2016, three years later, we are entering the 10th month of waiting for one of these elusive waivers with no end time in sight, nor any guarantee that things will work out. Tell me how this is pretty much the same as things have always been?
What these commentators seem to not realize is that the United States immigration system is incredibly rigid. One cannot hop on a plane and say they want to immigrate with an empty wallet to start of Kebab shop in Queens. It seems as if many of these people that take umbrage at the prospects of legal immigration believe that the immigration rules of 2019 are the same as they were in 1819. In the end, it is important to once again reiterate that the Muslim immigrants Jackson, Bin Hamid Ali and others are disparaging are those who most likely are the family members of American Muslim citizens; by belittling the spouses and children of American Muslims, these people are belittling American Muslims themselves.
Neo-nationalism, tribalism, and identity politics of this sort are wholly antithetical to the Islamic enterprise. We have now reached the point where people who are considered authority figures within the American Islamic community are promoting nativism and identity politics at the expense of American Muslim families. Instead of trying to rationalize the ‘so-called Muslim Ban’ via appeals to nativist and nationalist rhetoric, influential Muslim leaders and internet influencers need to demonstrate empathy and compassion for the thousands of US Muslim families being torn apart by this indefinite Muslim ban that we all know will never end so long as Donald Trump remains president. In reality, they should be willing to fight tooth-and-nail for American Muslim families. These are the same people who regularly critique the decline of the family unit and the rise of single-parent households. Do they not see the hypocrisy in their positions of not defending those Muslim families that seek to stay together?
If these people are not willing to advocate on behalf of those of us suffering— some of us living in self-imposed exile in third party countries to remain with our spouses and children— the least they can do is to not downplay our suffering or even worse, turn it into a political football (Social Justice Warrior politics vs. traditional ‘real’ Islam). It seems clear that if liberal Muslim activists were not as outspoken on this matter, these more conservative voices would take a different perspective. With the exception of Shadi Hamid, the other aforementioned names have made efforts to constrain themselves firmly to the ‘traditional’ Muslim camp. There is no reason that this issue, which obviously transcends petty partisan Muslim politics, ought to symbolize one’s allegiance to any particular social movement or camp within contemporary Islamic civil society.
If these people want a ‘traditional’ justification for why Muslim families should not be separated, they ought to be reminded that one of al-Ghazali’s 5 essential principles of the Shari’a was related to the protection of lineage/family and honor (ḥifẓ al-nasl). Our spouses are not cannon fodder for such childish partisan politics. We will continue to protect our families and their honor regardless of how hostile the environment may become for us and regardless of who we have to name and shame in the process.
When I got married over a year prior to Donald Trump being elected President, I vowed that only Allah would separate me from my spouse. I intend on keeping that vow regardless of what consequences that decision may have.
Photo courtesy: Adam Cairns / The Columbus Dispatch
Obituary of (Mawlana) Yusuf Sulayman Motala (1366/1946 – 1441/2019)
Monday, September 9, turned out to be a day of profound anguish and sorrow for many around the world. In the early morning hours, news of the death of Mawlana* Yusuf Sulayman Motala, fondly known as “Hazrat” (his eminence) to those who were acquainted with him, spread. He had passed away on Sunday at 8:20 pm EST in Toronto, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier.
A master of hadith and Qur’an. A sufi, spiritual guide and teacher to thousands. A pioneer in the establishment of a religious education system. His death reverberated through hearts and across oceans. We are all mourning the loss of a luminary who guided us through increasingly difficult times.
Monday, September 9, turned out to be a day of profound anguish and sorrow for many around the world. In the early morning hours, news of the death of Mawlana* Yusuf Sulayman Motala, fondly known as “Hazrat” (his eminence) to those who were acquainted with him, spread. He had passed away on Sunday at 8:20 pm EST in Toronto, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier. (May the Almighty envelope him in His mercy)
His journey in this world had begun more than 70 years ago in the small village of Nani Naroli in Gujarat, India, where he was born on November 25, 1946 (1 Muharram 1366) into a family known for their piety.
His early studies were largely completed at Jami’a Husayniyya, one of the early seminaries of Gujarat, after which he travelled to Mazahir Ulum, the second oldest seminary of the Indian Sub-Continent, in Saharanpur, India, to complete his ‘alimiyya studies. What drew him to this seminary was the presence of one of the most influential and well-known contemporary spiritual guides, Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi (d. 1402/1982), better known as “Hazrat Shaykh.” He had seen Mawlana Zakariyya only briefly at a train stop, but it was enough for him to understand the magnitude of his presence.
Mawlana Yusuf remained in Saharanpur for two years. Despite being younger than many of the other students of Shaykh Zakariya, the shaykh took a great liking to him. Shaykh Zakariya showered him with great attention and even deferred his retirement from teaching Sahih al-Bukhari so that Mawlana Yusuf could study it under his instruction. While in Saharanpur, Mawlana Yusuf also studied under a number of other great scholars, such as Mawlana Muhammad ‘Aqil (author of Al-Durr al-Mandud, an Urdu commentary of Sunan Abi Dawud and current head lecturer of Hadith at the same seminary), Shaykh Yunus Jownpuri (d. 1438/2017) the previous head lecturer of Hadith there), Mawlana As‘adullah Rampuri (d. 1399/1979) and Mufti Muzaffar Husayn (d. 1424/2003).
Upon completion of his studies, Mawlana Yusuf’s marriage was arranged to marry a young woman from the Limbada family that had migrated to the United Kingdom from Gujarat. In 1968, he relocated to the UK and accepted the position of imam at Masjid Zakariya, in Bolton. Although he longed to be in the company of his shaykh, he had explicit instructions to remain in the UK and focus his efforts on establishing a seminary for memorization of Qur’an and teaching of the ‘alimiyya program. The vision being set in motion was to train a generation of Muslims scholars that would educate and guide the growing Muslim community.
Establishing the first Muslim seminary, in the absence of any precedent, was a daunting task. The lack of support from the Muslim community, the lack of integration into the wider British community, and the lack of funds made it seem an impossible endeavour. And yet, Mawlana Yusuf never wavered in his commitment and diligently worked to make the dream of his teacher a reality. In 1973 he purchased the derelict Aitken Sanatorium in the village of Holcombe, near Bury, Lancashire. What had once been a hospice for people suffering from tuberculosis, would become one of the first fully-fledged higher-education Islamic institutes outside of the Indian-Subcontinent teaching the adapted-Nizami syllabus.
The years of struggle by Maulana Yusuf to fulfil this vision paid off handsomely. Today, after four decades, Darul Uloom Al Arabiyya Al Islamiyya, along with its several sister institutes, also founded by Mawlana Yusuf, such as the Jamiatul Imam Muhammad Zakariya seminary in Bradford for girls, have produced well over 2,000 British born (and other international students) male and female ‘alimiyya graduates – many of whom are working as scholars and serving communities across the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Portugal, the US, Canada, Barbados, Trinidad, Panama, Saudi Arabia, India and New Zealand. Besides these graduates, a countless number of individuals have memorized the Qur’an at these institutes. Moreover, many of the graduates of the Darul Uloom and its sister institutes have set up their own institutes, such as Jamiatul Ilm Wal Huda in Blackburn, Islamic Dawah Academy in Leicester, Jami’ah al-Kawthar in Lancaster, UK, and Darul Uloom Palmela in Portugal, to just mention a few of the larger ones. Within his lifetime, Mawlana Yusuf saw first-hand the fruit of his labours – witnessing his grand students (graduates from his students’ institutes) providing religious instruction and services to communities around the world in their local languages. What started as a relationship of love between a student and teacher, manifested into the transmission of knowledge across continents. In some countries, such as the UK and Portugal, one would be hard-pressed to find a Muslim who had not directly or indirectly benefited from him.
Mawlana Yusuf was a man with deep insights into the needs of Western contemporary society, one that was very different from the one he had grown up and trained in. With a view to contributing to mainstream society, Mawlana Yusuf encouraged his graduates to enter into further education both in post-graduate Islamic courses and western academia, and to diversify their fields of learning through courses at mainstream UK universities. As a result, many ‘alimiyya graduates of his institutes are trained in law, mainstream medicine, natural medicine and homeopathy, mental health, child protection, finance, IT, education, chaplaincy, psychology, philosophy, pharmacy, physics, journalism, engineering, architecture, calligraphy, typography, graphic design, optometry, social services, public health, even British Sign Language. His students also include several who have completed PhDs and lecture at universities. His vision was to train British-born (or other) Muslim scholars who would be well versed in contemporary thought and discipline along with their advanced Islamic learning, equipping them to better contribute to society.
Despite his commitment to the establishment of a public good, the shaykh was an immensely private person and avoided seeking accolade or attention. For many decades he refused invitations to attend conferences or talks around the country, choosing to focus on his students and his family, teaching the academic syllabus and infusing the hearts of many aspirants with the love of Allah through regular gatherings of remembrance (dhikr) and spiritual retreats (i’tikaf) in the way of his shaykh’s Chishti Sufi order.
During my entire stay with him at Darul Uloom (1985–1997), I can say with honesty that I did not come across a single student who spoke ill of him. He commanded such awe and respect that people would find it difficult to speak with him casually. And yet, for those who had the opportunity to converse with him, knew that he was the most compassionate, humble, and loving individual.
He was full of affection for his students and colleagues and had immense concern for the Muslim Ummah, especially in the West. He possessed unparalleled forbearance and self-composure. When he taught or gave a talk, he spoke in a subdued and measured tone, as though he was weighing every word, knowing the import it carried. He would sit, barely moving and without shifting his posture. Even after a surgical procedure for piles, he sat gracefully teaching us Sahih al-Bukhari. Despite the obvious pain, he never made an unpleasant expression or winced from the pain.
Anyone who has listened to his talks or read his books can bear testimony to two things: his immense love for the Messenger of Allah and his love for Shaykh Mawlana Muhammad Zakariya Kandhlawi (may Allah have mercy on him). It is probably hard to find a talk in which he did not speak of the two. His shaykh was no doubt his link to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) in both his hadith and spiritual transmissions.
Over the last decade, he had retired from most of his teaching commitments (except Sahih al-Bukhari) and had reduced meeting with people other than his weekly dhikr gatherings. His time was spent with his family and young children and writing books. His written legacy comprises over 20 titles, mostly in Urdu but also a partial tafsir of the Qur’an in classical Arabic.
After the news of his heart attack on Sunday, August 25, and the subsequent effects to his brain, his well-wishers around the world completed hundreds of recitals of the Qur’an, several readings of the entire Sahih al-Bukhari, thousands of litanies and wirds of the formula of faith (kalima tayyiba), and gave charity in his name. However, Allah Most High willed otherwise and intended for him to depart this lowly abode to begin his journey to the next. He passed away two weeks later and reports state that approximately 4,000 people attended his funeral. Had his funeral been in the UK, the number of attendees would have multiplied several folds. But he had always shied away from large crowds and gatherings and maybe this was Allah Most High’s gift to him after his death. He was 75 (in Hijra years, and 72 in Gregorian) at the time of his death and leaves behind eight children and several grandchildren.
Mawlana Yusuf educated, inspired and nourished the minds and hearts of countless across the UK and beyond. May Allah Almighty bless him with the loftiest of abodes in the Gardens of Firdaws in the company of Allah’s beloved Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) and grant all his family, students, and cherishers around the world beautiful patience.
Dr Mufti Abdur-Rahman Mangera
Whitethread Institute, London
(A fortunate graduate of Darul Uloom Bury, 1996–97)
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