The Trouble with Our Criminal Justice System

Documentary Teaser for Prison Blues by Mustafa Davis.

MuslimARC organized a panel on Muslims and the New Jim Crow, a standing room only event where over 200 people ended the event with a direct action. The deaths of Black, Latino, and Native Americans by police or in police custody has raised attention to the problem in our criminal justice system. Here is an article that I’ve written on criminal justice reform:

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African-American father of six, was killed by a police chokehold and nearly a year later, New York City settled a lawsuit by his family for $5.9 million. Over the past year, protests erupted in Ferguson, MissouriNew York,Baltimore,Los Angeles, and numerous other cities where black people have been brutalized by police. Live tweets, live streams and pictures highlighted the militarization of law enforcement. The outrage against police brutality has galvanized activists, community leaders and concerned citizens across the country, and has spurred Muslim coalitions such as Muslims for Ferguson and Muslims Make It Plain. Activists Carmen Perez,  Linda Sarsour, and Tamika Mallory, along with 100 protesters completed a nine-day  #March2Justice from New York to Washington, D.C., in April to highlight the problem of police oppression.  But their long journey reflects the difficult challenge that we, as Americans in general and as Muslims in particular, have in addressing the real problems of policing in this country.

If the Muslim community is going to truly deal with policing, then we must address the criminal justice system as a whole. We must delve deep into the issue and make abuse and oppression in our criminal justice system our issue. We must allow our faith to inform us into peaceful action by engaging with others and calling for action and reform where it is needed.

Certainly, Muslim-American communities have made inroads into conversations about these abuses. However, stumbling blocks remain. Often Muslims will argue that law enforcement is getting a bad rap. In one news story, a relative of a Muslim woman, who was rescued by police after an arson, argued that police officers have the worst job in the world. He said, it was because “people hate you, but when they get in trouble you’re the first person they call.”

In one off-the-record meeting at a Muslim community center with the FBI, a non-black Muslim community leader compared law enforcement with Muslims, saying that both are stereotyped because of the actions of a few.  Many Muslim national organizations and advocacy groups have issued statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter protesters. When the Islamic Society of North America issued a statement about the escalation of violence during the Baltimore uprising, activists and organizations pointed out that ISNA’s focusing on the destruction of property downplayed the role of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

The controversy over ISNA’s statement about Baltimore demonstrates how social media has helped to shape conversations about police brutality and the justice system. Muslim media platforms and national organizations are beginning to engage when previously, only a few urban-based organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America and Inner City Muslim Action Network, addressed the justice system and programs for the formerly incarcerated. But times are changing.

For example, the 15-year-old murder conviction of Adnan Syed, which was detailed in a podcast “Serial,” has sparked the imagination of people across the country, as well as South Asian and Arab Muslims. These same Muslims  raised over $100,000 to support his appeal. Syed’s narrative of being a child of immigrants, a model minority youth wrongfully convicted with thin evidence because of Islamophobia continues to captivate the country. Many people, who follow this story often fail to link Syed’s fate with that of many Latino and black people, who have also been wrongfully convicted.

The Innocence Project has exonerated numerous men, who served decades in prison, and some of them only getting their names cleared long after their executions. Yet, some people still believe that justice is blind and support a kind of Muslim exceptionalism when it comes to how members of the Muslim community are treated by the criminal justice system.  In contrast, when a black Muslim is accused of a crime, many Muslims will distance themselves from the case.

For black Muslims, systemic racism and Islamophobia intersect in the most powerful ways in state surveillance, law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Some recent cases highlight this reality, such as the killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah, who was shot 20 times by federal agents during a raid at a warehouse in 2009; the case of Usaamah Rahim, who was killed by police while waiting at a bus stop in June; the case of Marcus Dwayne Robertson, who was arrested and jailed on tax fraud and illegal gun possession and about to be accused of terrorism based on his e-book collection but eventually set free for time served for previous charges. These men were all black and Muslim. Yet most Muslim leaders and organizations didn’t give these cases the full court attention afforded to non-black Muslims affected by law enforcement or the prison system. This implicitly extends such mainstream racism well into the Muslim community.

The same implicit bias that causes officers to be more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than a white person also leads to racial disparities in the viewing, prosecution and sentencing of cases. Studies have shown that race also factors into the severity of the punishment, and even skin color and phenotype play a factor, considering that dark-skinned people receive longer and harsher sentences.  Such a stark reality is also underscored by the fact that Dylann Roof, a white man who murdered nine African-Americans attending church in Charleston, South Carolina, was later apprehended alive and then taken to Burger King; while African-American Usaamah Rahim was shot to death at a bus stop without having committed any crime.

Moving beyond the headlines and the latest hot spots, the Muslim community must address police misconduct as part of a larger broken system. This entails addressing policies and practices.   In the book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander demonstrates how communities of color are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, and activists such as Mariame Kaba have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about racial injustice in the criminal justice system.  The prison industrial complex  (PIC) is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry to use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. Prison abolition activists argue that the PIC perpetuates the flawed belief that imprisonment is the solution to social problems such as substance abuse, homelessness, illiteracy and mental illness.   Further, the “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push low-income children out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Schools are more likely to punish young black boys and girls more severely, charging them with crimes and sending them into the juvenile court system than their white counterparts for the same offenses. Our society is more apt to invest in prisons rather than education or preventative measures, such as substance abuse or rehabilitation programs.

The Sentencing Project estimates there are 2.2 million people in American prisons. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. Over the past three decades, the population has increased over 500%. Many people are in prison for nonviolent offenses. More people are coming to see these policies as costly and ineffective. Reflecting this changing tide, on July 13, President Barack Obama cut the sentences of 46 drug offenders.  In his speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Obama said, “We spend $80 billion to keep people in prison.”

For more than 20 years, I have heard Muslims cite the Hadith, “Feed the hungry, visit the sick and set free the captives.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Hadith 552) America’s incarcerated community is held captive, and former offenders often suffer from a lifetime of stigma and discrimination.

Our communities, however, are often hands-off when it comes to prison populations. They limit support to distributing prison dawah (proselytizing) while leaving rehabilitation and reentry programs cash strapped.   The Muslim community, as a whole, has done little to advocate for progressive reform of the criminal justice system.

There are exceptions. We can look to local efforts as models and amplify their work. For example, the Latino Muslim Association of America (LALMA) and Islah LA worked with faith-based community organizers, LA Voice, to help pass Proposition 47,  which reduced nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors in California.

Our national Muslim advocacy organizations and lay people across the country should support current criminal justice reform efforts. One place to start is by supporting the Ban the Box campaign, which seeks fair employment for people with past convictions. As individuals, we can donate our time or resources to help build capacity for organizations working on police brutality and the criminal justice system by taking part in faith-based organizing, joining multiethnic coalitions or supporting organizations doing grassroots work.

Muslim Americans, as a community, cannot allow for injustice to fester in our justice system and expect to receive justice for ourselves. Whether calling for criminal justice reform, supporting prisoners’ rights or advocating for changes in policing, our faith must inform our actions.

 

Read the original  published at Islamic Monthly.

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Letter to Imams

Muslim Anti-Racism Coalition launched this week and many joined the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #BeingBlackAnd Muslim. My Storify of the event explains the idea’s conception, the lead up and phenomenal response. AlJazeera’s The Stream covered and summed up conversation. In her article Being Black and Muslim, Hind Makki, one of the founders of MuslimARC  wrote:

I’ve often said that the three largest challenges facing American Muslim communities are misogyny, racism and sectarianism, which is why I’m proud to be one of the founding members of Muslim ARC.

Like Hind Makki, I’m so honored to work with Muslims of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, denominations, and orientations  of faith came to address racism. This Black History Month, we hope to deepen our conversation with three more hashtags. In addition, on Feb. 20 Twitter Talk with African American Muslim leaders, Dawud Walid, Amin Nathari, Amina Wadud, and Donna Auston.

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And reflecting our move from social networking activism to a grassroots movement, we are asking you to help us by appealing to our imams and khateebs to dedicate at least one khutbah (Friday Sermon) dedicated to intra-Muslim  racism. MuslimARC is focusing our anti-racism khutbahs on Friday Feb. 21st, the anniversary of the iconic Black American Muslim leader Malcolm X. Please share  our letter to imams with imams, khateeb and  local communities. You can email the letter to your local community leader from the website or download a pdf here.  Here is our letter below. Please share widely.

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

February 14, 2014

Assalaamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakatuh

We are contacting you on behalf of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC)[1] with a khutbah request for Black History Month. From the time of our Noble Prophet ﷺ‎, anti-Black and anti-African racism has plagued Muslim societies and communities. As you are aware, these beliefs go against the messages that are at the heart of our Holy Qur’an and Prophetic traditions.

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.

—Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, The Last Sermon.

One way that we can raise awareness regarding anti-Black racism today is by continuing to educate ourselves and others. If you have not already, would you please consider speaking about Black Muslim history and anti-Black racism in the ummah during your khutbah on Friday, February 21st? As an imam, you are a central figure in many Muslim communities and are thus specially positioned in your community to address these important topics and begin a conversation in your city about an issue that is often not thoroughly addressed. We ask that you take this opportunity to highlight our ethical responsibilities as Muslims to challenge ethnic chauvinism and tribalism.

In the interest of strengthening our brotherhood, we are providing you with a list of topics that we think merit particular attention given what we have observed in our ongoing conversations on social media and with Muslim organizers and activists across the country.

Among the topics that can be explored are as follows:

  • How the Prophet ﷺ specifically dealt with incidents among Sahabah (examples: the hesitancy of some companions to follow Usamah bin Zayd into battle, the Prophet’s ﷺ suggesting the marriage of Usamah to Fatimah bint Qays, and the refusal of Abdur Rahman bin ‘Awf to marry his daughter to Al-Miqdaad bin “Al-Aswad” but Bilal later marrying the sister of bin ‘Awf)
  • Reminding the believers that the use of racial slurs and name-calling are prohibited in Islam (today, in many Islamic schools and other segments of Muslim society, terms like “abeed”, “akata”, “adoon”, “jareer”, and/or “kallu” are frequently used to refer to Black individuals [2])
  • Muslim viewpoints on standing for justice, against oppression, and the duty to strive to rectify any wrongs we see being committed (for example, to speak out when we hear a racial slur being uttered)
  • Our strong tradition of standing with the most marginalized members of society, and reflecting upon how anti-Black racism continues to marginalize Black Americans [3]
  • Bringing attention to issues currently impacting Black Muslims both in the US and abroad, and including these Muslims in your dua (examples: police brutality and the frequency of extrajudicial killings of Black Americans in the United States,[4] including that of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah,[5] and the grave injustices faced by Black Muslims in the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Somalia)
  • The importance of practicing what we preach with regards to community unity and participation (examples: non-Black Muslims welcoming Black Muslims as potential spouses for themselves and their children; ensuring that all Black Muslims feel welcome and included in our masjids; and guaranteeing equal opportunities and treatment in our leadership positions)
  • Analysis of and reminders regarding the Prophet’s ﷺ Last Sermon
  • Our responsibilities towards challenging the nafs and examining where we may improve our adab and akhlaq when it comes to racist tendencies
  • Influential Black Muslims in Islamic history (examples: Luqman the Wise, Bilal (RA), or other lesser known Sahabi and Tabi’een)
  • The work of influential contemporary African or Black American Muslims such as Imam Warith Deen Mohammed
  • Lessons from the struggles of African Muslims brought as slaves to the Americas, such as Omar Ibn Said, Ibrahim Abdur Rahman , or the 19th century community of Muslims on the Sapelo Islands

Lastly, we would like to note that February 21 is the day El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) was assassinated in New York City, NY in 1965. As he noted in his Letter from Mecca after completing Hajj, “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.”[6] His life left a profound mark on American society and continues to inspire Muslims around the world. Still today, nearly 50 years after his death, Muslims of all backgrounds note the role his words have had in calling them to Islam and/or strengthening their imaan.
Thus, giving a “Black History Month Khutbah” is a beautiful way for Muslims nationwide to explore and discuss – together – the legacy of Africans and African American Muslims and their contributions to the ummah. We humbly request that you join us in this initiative so that we are better able to hold fast to the message of unity and brotherhood in Islam.

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.—The Holy Qur’an, Surat Al-Hujurat, 49:13

Please do not hesitate to contact MuslimARC if you have any questions or to let us know that your congregation will be participating. We are also more than happy to provide you with resources for your khutbah. We encourage you to record your khutbah, if able, and to send a copy or link to the recording to info@muslimarc.org so that others may benefit from your words.

JazakAllah kheir,

MuslimARC,
The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative

Email: info@muslimarc.org
Website: http://www.muslimarc.org
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/muslimarc
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/muslimarc
Tumblr: http://muslimarc.tumblr.com


[1] MuslimARC is an organization working to find ways to creatively address and effectively challenge racism in Muslim communities. Online at http://www.muslimarc.org.
[2] Dawud Walid, “ Intra-Muslim Racism: Confronting Ethnic Slurs and Racism Among American Muslims” January 19, 2014 from http://www.altmuslimah.com/b/mca/4893/.
[3] 11 Facts About Racial Discrimination, http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-racial-discrimination.
[4] Rania Khalek, “Every 28 Hours an African American is Extrajudicially Executed in the U.S.” April 15, 2013 http://raniakhalek.com/2013/04/15/every-28-hours-an-african-american-is-extrajudicially-executed-in-the-u-s/.
[5] Dawud Walid, “Year Anniversary of Imam Luqman Shooting Today” October 28, 2010 from http://dawudwalid.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/year-anniversary-of-imam-luqman-shooting/.
[6] Malcolm X, “Letter from Mecca” April 1964 from http://www.malcolm-x.org/docs/let_mecca.htm.