By Dr. Suad Abdul Khabeer
It’s been almost two months, yet 11:08 pm on September 21, 2011 will be a moment powerfully etched in the collective memories of many. In the last few months, weeks, and days that led to the execution of Troy Davis, it seemed that just about everyone was, finally, taking notice. Unknown everyday people and international leaders alike were chanting, “I am Troy Davis.” Yet amid this extraordinary uproar for justice, the silence of the alphabet soup of U.S. Muslim organizations and prominent public intellectuals was deafening.
The idea that these organizations and opinion leaders should respond to the Troy Davis case might cause some readers to pause. After all, Troy Davis was not a Muslim. Thus, his cause was tangential at best to the missions of these groups and individuals. This line of reasoning, so typical it’s almost banal, is shortsighted, insular, and just plain wrong.
Firstly, as Muslims we value life. As Minister Louis Farrakhan explained (in one of only two public statements made by prominent American Muslim leadership): “Every life is precious with Allah—the life of the policeman that was killed and the life of Troy Davis.” Minister Farrakhan’s statement is undoubtedly a reference to the Qur’anic verse that declares: “[…] whoever saves one [life]—it is as if he had saved mankind entirely […]” (Qur’an 5:32). This, ironically, is the same verse that is repeated over and over in the litany of press releases that condemn terrorist acts by Muslims, far and near, alleged and proven.
Troy Davis was one life. Yet, where was the press release for him? This would have been as appropriate or, some might argue, even more fitting than public statements against terrorism or demands that the U.S. government censure tyrannical governments abroad.
Secondly, the decision, benign or intentional, conveniently ignores Muslims in the prison system. Like our honorable predecessor Al-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X), many black men have found Islam in prison. Still others, as in the case of Imam Jamil Al-Amin, have found themselves imprisoned through questionable forms of “due process.” So if it is Troy today, it may very well be Tahir tomorrow.
Thirdly, the conditions of state surveillance and discrimination under which more and more US Muslims find themselves are directly linked to the state-sponsored killing of Troy Davis. We live in a state system of injustice where certain segments of the population are the disproportionate victims of state violence. They are criminalized by what makes them “different”, which, in the U.S., is always understood as non-white and non-elite as well as, oftentimes, non-Christian. Within this system, the state watches, monitors, and targets these “different” people because of the supposed threat they pose to the nation. However, in reality, “different” people do not threaten the nation; they threaten the status quo upheld by the nation’s elites.
These conditions of surveillance and discrimination were true for our enslaved ancestors, for our grandparents and parents who struggled against Jim and Jane Crow and for our sisters and brothers, Muslim and otherwise, targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), just as they are true today for young men and women of color, particularly African Americans, and the multi-ethnic Muslim communities across the nation.
So why did not Troy Davis at least warrant an email blast?
A well-worded press release or other form of a public statement can be one important mode of support. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) chose that approach the day following Troy Davis’s execution by releasing a statement calling for a moratorium on the death penalty. At the very least, this press release educated CAIR’s constituency about Troy Davis and the larger issue of racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Yet, at its root, my call for a press release should be read tongue-in-cheek. Press releases alone do not change the world. Nor do they seem to have much effect on hearts and minds—the tides of anti-Muslim bias seem to rise at rates only matched by American Muslim condemnations of terrorism. Rather, I invoke the symbol of the “press release” to challenge the lip-service given by prominent American Muslims about how “American” we American Muslims are. Indeed, the evidence marshaled by said leaders—stories of enslaved African Muslims and the like—stands as indubitable proof as to how rooted the Muslim experience is in the story of this nation. Yet are we, the community of today, really Americans, when it counts? When the most vulnerable of our countrywomen and men are under attack, are we really Muslims when it counts? Do we respond? Do we stand with them because they are us? Or do we sit back in silence, while pondering, painfully oblivious to the irony, why some of our fellow Americans still rail at us to “go back home”?
Unfortunately, the tragic events of September 21, 2011 cannot be undone. But as Troy Davis himself said, the struggle does not end with him. There is still work to be done; to be Americans and Muslims when it counts. This begins by taking part in the broader struggle against systemic inequalities that continue to make America’s claims of democracy ring hollow. This will require thinking and acting with a sense of history in order to trace parallels in experience as well as patterns of de facto and de jure repression. This will mean that American Muslims, individuals and organizations—known around the world or just around the neighborhood—must heed God’s message of the sanctity of all life—not only the lives of those who look like us or those who pray like us.