Media coverage of the mass shootings of Sandy Hook and Aurora Colorado theatre should make Muslims worldwide aware of the proliferation of guns and the culture of violence in America. These tragic events have sparked a national dialogue about gun control, the culture of violence, and mental health. But the American Muslim voice is surprisingly absent from the gun control debate. Muslims often think that they are immune to the problems in broader society. This has led to a magical thinking about our children’s safety and lack of support for policies that could curb gun violence.
Muslim youth in the inner city are just as vulnerable to street violence as non-Muslims. But, outside of honour killings and hate crimes, the issue of gun violence and its effects on inner city Muslim communities are rarely talked about. Most African American Muslims know a friend or family member who has been injured or killed in gunfire. Last semester, my young African American Muslim student asked me to excuse her absence so that she could help her family make arrangements for her brother’s janazah. The 19-year-old had been shot following a verbal altercation in West Philadelphia, an all too frequent occurrence. My cousin Ara Hayward, who is also Muslim, recounted the story of her husband who survived getting shot four times in front of her house. Their stories, as well as the many janazahs I have attended while working in the Philadelphia Muslim community, have raised my awareness that gun violence is a problem. As mums, we have to stop thinking that Arabic names, hijabs, and kufis will shield our children from danger.
According to the Philadelphia Police Department, there were 331 homicides and 1232 shooting victims in 2012. Although the police reports do not indicate the religious identities of the victims or perpetrators, it is clear that there are many Muslim names on both lists. In order to understand the effects of gun violence on the Muslim community, I began to survey Muslims and contact hospital chaplains and masajid. Several respondents to my survey stated that they know of as many as 10 to 15 Muslims killed since 2001. One mother has created QAAMS Hajj foundation, to help facilitate the Hajj for Muslim youth in honour of her son, Qa’id Ameer Abdul- Majeed Staten. He was gunned down in 2003. In the past five years in Philadelphia, I have seen a number of Muslim families devastated by gun violence. Some victims are caught in crossfire like Qa’id, including the young mother of four, Hafeezah Nuri-Deen or the 18 year old Shakuwrah Muhammad who had plans to attend college to become a forensic scientist. There are others who were shot in robberies, such as the newlywed from Morocco, Quadii Soulimani, who was shot just outside the masjid doors on his way to the morning prayer and the 40 year Egyptian America old store clerk, Mustafa Shaker.
Patterns of street violence are not limited to American inner cities or African Americans. Media reports have shown that South Asian and British Muslim gangs exist, scholars have pointed to the rate of Muslims in French prisons, and some Australian reports claim that Muslim immigrants are five times more likely to be involved in crime. Perhaps we need to look at the problem of disaffection of our youth, globally.
Sometimes the magical thinking results in parents overlooking their children getting involved in crime. Aliya Khabir, author of the Islamic Urban fiction novel, Just Be Still, points out that inner city Muslim communities are not addressing gun violence. She observed, “We walk around like it doesn’t exist. We pretend like we’re not the perpetrators either.” She noted, “Looking at my third grade class picture from Clara Muhammad School, only four out of all the guys in a class of 33 have never spent any time in jail.” Muslims have been involved in robberies, cop killings, and even one child kidnapping. Some parents restrict their daughters, but they are much more permissive with their boys. Mums forget how persuasive popular media and peer pressure can be. Many of our youth are not involved in crime or gangs, but because they want to be accepted they may find themselves in harm’s way by hanging out with gang members. This is why we have to be vigilant about our children’s peer groups, regardless of gender.
Our communities also have to move beyond magical thinking. Many inner city mosques are located in areas of high frequency gun violence and crime. Some Muslim leaders have taken a stand against violence, participating in interfaith peace walks. But some of our communities have developed an insular approach and assumed that these are the problems of the kuffar. Collectively, communities have not developed programmes to make streets safer for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Instead, we long for the good old days when wearing Islamic garb would protect Muslims from harm. However, Muslims earned that respect from their commitment to developing the community and living exemplary lives. Our failure to address the social decay and blight surrounding our masajid in the past two decades has been the greatest blemish on our record.
We have to begin to think of programmes that can affect positive change in our communities, including economic development, neighbourhood watches and youth programming. This is where we need to think about programmes such as Cure Violence, which has been featured in the documentary The Interrupters. Ameena Matthews has courageously stood on the frontlines, positively impacting her community. Her work demonstrates that curbing violence is not simply pushing legislation, but also transforming the culture and communities in which we live. And this is the work we have to do to ensure the safety of our children and those who come after them.
Margari Aziza Hill is an adjunct professor, freelance writer, blogger and editor who resides just outside of Philadelphia.
You can read the full article and other great pieces in the May edition of SISTERS magazine.