Category: Politics


Usaamah Rahim: A Mother’s In-Depth Interview


On June 26, 2015 The Islamic Monthly (TIM) posted an in-depth interview with Rahima Rahim, mother of Usaama Rahim. Sister Rahima recounts the events of her son’s demise, and delivers a riveting and thought provoking account of her family’s experience dealing with the recent tragedy. She recalls her family’s historical legacy of contributions to American culture as she lays bare the duality of being Muslim while navigating the African American experience. As this mother of six laid her youngest child to rest, she and her family are still left with many unanswered questions.

Usaama Rahim, a 26-year-old African-American Muslim male and Boston native, was shot and killed by officers of the Boston Police Department (BPD) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). These two organizations work together on a Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). According to BPD; Usaama had been under surveillance by the JTTF for the past 2 years. On June 2, 2015 Usaama was approached by members of the JTTF. During this encounter; Usaama allegedly pull out a knife and lunged at the officers. Both the BPD and the FBI have separate ongoing investigations into the shooting.

Sister Rahima Rahim’s interview with TIM humanizes her son and provides viewers with a perspective of the family and incident not told by many media outlets. Please take the time to view this video and leave your comments.


To the President’s Left: Some Reflections on the White House Iftar

By Faatimah Knight

A couple of weeks ago I began reading Dreams from My Father after watching a talk the President had given right after the book was published almost 20 years ago. Even though my mother had bought copies around the time Obama was campaigning and she joined his campaign in Harrisburg, I had never until two weeks ago picked up the book with serious intent to read it. But there was something in that younger Obama talking about his roots and his young adulthood and his passions that mesmerized me. There was something familiar in his skin tone and in his spirit that pulled me in.

It was in that moonlight that I got the invitation to attend the White House Iftar.

I had passed up an earlier opportunity to speak with the President because I was not comfortable with the implications of such a meeting or confident that I could deliver. I sought advice from elders, and sat heavily and still reflecting on what mattered to me, hoping it might matter to him based off the little I had gathered from his memoir. In the end, I did not go. In hindsight, I think that more intimate gathering would have been the better space for me to meet the President. Simply put, I am an introvert. I would usually rather observe than participate, rather listen than speak, rather write than preach. Like a lot of introverted folks, I come alive in intimate conversations with a few people and very little pomp and circumstance.

I was anxious and hesitant and worried which probably made me the least excited person to meet the President. In fact, one of my peers commented on my aloof demeanor. It was not that I didn’t want to meet him, but rather that I didn’t know what meeting him meant.

I respect people who boycott and those who would not touch the White House with a four-foot pole, so to speak. However, there are others who see benefit in wrestling with the forces that be to draw out some good.

Those were the kinds of people I met, Muslim White House staffers who by their own accounts did not foresee working so closely with the President when they started out. They still maintain their autonomy and their own opinions — some of which differ from the President’s, but they also stand by him for the work that he has done and the work he promises to do with their help. I think that last part is important- with their help– because as the saying goes “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It’s not only that these staffers are sitting at the table, but they also have their hand in choosing the restaurant.

It does worry me sometimes how quickly we can scratch people from our lists of those who matter. Or the ways in which we tyrannically dictate to others how they should behave and whom they should associate with. I think it’s wrong to treat our government or our President just like we would any other foreign government we deem to be pushing a bad agenda. This is ours. Our country. Our President. I’m not willing to throw him away. How do you ever exhaust a person? At what point do you decide that someone is no longer malleable?

I think there are some who see boycotting this administration as especially hard-core activism because the President is Black. I could see how there might be more street credibility in claiming to not care that he’s Black. I actually care a little bit more because he is Black. It softens me just a little. It softens me because I identify with him as a Black person, because I admire him as a Black father, and I recognize his struggle in the larger Black struggle. As my father likes to say: “Obama can’t even breathe right to some people.” For Muslims, we might benefit from taking a historical look at how previous (and current) Muslim communities have been able to influence the government. Take the Mongol invasion of Muslim lands and the later conversion of the Mongols, for example.

Unlike some Muslims, my interests are not exclusive to Muslim needs. I care deeply about the collective fate of Black children in this country. I wrote about the suicide of Kalief Browder, a young man from the Bronx who was handcuffed for a crime he did not commit, had his bail set at an amount his parents could not afford, imprisoned for three years at Rikers and while detained suffered physical abuse at the hands of guards and other inmates, suffered from mental health issues on account of it and tried to kill himself at least five times to escape the torture that had become his life.

I know the President cares about the fate of Black children as well. That’s why he started My Brother’s Keeper to address opportunity gaps for young boys that block them from reaching their full potential. For me, that’s an area where my interests align with the administration’s interests. It’s an opportunity to get involved. Of course it does not overshadow the administration’s problematic foreign policy, but it is a vehicle through which we can connect and make a social impact.

As Muslims we must acknowledge that many of the issues we have are not because of anyone but ourselves. Yes, persistently negative media attention does hurt us, but so do masjids that don’t let women on the board.

Mistreating and misinforming those who embrace the faith anew hurts us. Overly strict interpretations of the religion and domineering attitudes when forcing those interpretations on others hurt us.

There was nothing controversial about the people I sat with at the President’s table. Each young person I sat with was doing amazing work that should make all of us proud. From education initiatives for girls in East Africa, health services to displaced peoples in Gaza, re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated youth and political freedom for Rohingya Muslims in Burma. I am motivated by them to do more for others with the blessing that is youth. I walked out of those interactions with a palpable sense of urgency, like winds were pushing me forward.

I think it’s consequential for a student (or any representative) from the first Muslim liberal arts college in America to meet the first black president. We should not exist in different worlds, not when both claim to be working on behalf of the best interests of America and it’s people. It is at the very least, symbolically potent.

I feel confident when to the President’s right sat Batoul Abuharb, a Palestinian American who has done more for her people than most. If she can sit to the President’s right on Monday and go home on Tuesday to organize and bring more aid to Palestinians abroad then there is no need to think that disengaging from the government necessarily means you care more about your people. People like myself can talk a big talk about Palestine, but people like Batoul actually do something about the plight of the Palestinian people.

I’m fortunate to have people who protect and advise me and know the world better than I do. Yet, I wanted this to be something that I experienced for myself and then judged based on my personal observations and not based on someone else’s. Now that I have some insight, I hope to have more opportunities to engage the government on matters close to my heart. I can’t possibly give up before I’ve really tried. So I say to the President: It was a pleasure and an honor.

eJjLyVWAFaatimah Knight is pursuing an MA in Religious Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College. An earlier version of this post appeared on UmmahWide. 


Kalief Browder and Black Suicide

By Faatimah Knight

(Photo via pinpicsnow)

(Photo via pinpicsnow)

Kalief Browder committed suicide this past Saturday in his home after losing a battle against depression that intensified during years of abuse inflicted upon him by guards and fellow inmates at Rikers Prison in New York. Kalief was twenty-two and he had never been convicted of a crime. His story first gained national attention when Jennifer Gonnerman of the New Yorker reported it in 2014. The abuse Kalief endured has been verified with video evidence. But even if there was no video evidence, the fact that he was imprisoned for three years without conviction speaks for itself. His case was finally dismissed in 2013, after three years, for lack of evidence and no witnesses.

For the past year there have been public debates in the media and the courtroom about the criminal justice system and police brutality. The face of these conversations is increasingly a video—an instance caught on camera of a young black man being inflicted with traumatic blows and bullet wounds by police officers. Sometimes the young black man is a teenager like seventeen-year-old Trayvon Benjamin Martin and the police officer is not a police officer at all, but a neighborhood watch volunteer like George Zimmerman. There have been talks about the need to institute better policing reform and about what constitutes excessive force on the part of police officers.

But Kalief’s death is a story America is not familiar with—a twenty-two-year-old young black man hangs himself from the window of his home. We are not used to the story of a vulnerable black man suffering from depression. Suicide inspires an empathy that is often missing in discussions on the media about black men. It does not fit into the many archetypes and tropes mainstream media is invested in perpetuating. As far as we can tell, Kalief was driven to this end by the abuse he suffered in prison and the psychological damage that accompanied it. In an interview in 2013 he said he tried to commit suicide at least five times while in prison and that he asked corrections officers to see a psychologist, but they ignored him. He said that he was punished for trying to hang himself, officers inflicted him with blows and kicks to his body.

Sometime after being released, he enrolled in community college in the Bronx and worked quite hard to receive a 3.5 GPA. No amount of overcoming the odds, however, could rid him of the suspicion that the police were after him, the nightmares that recalled solitary confinement and physical abuse and the persistent thought that death was his only escape.

A recent New York Times article showed that the rate of suicide among black children has increased substantially over the years. In contrast, the rates of suicide among white children has decreased, researchers suggested that the difference may lie in black children being more likely to be exposed to “violence and traumatic stress.” Kalief was exposed to violent and traumatic stress from the moment he was handcuffed for a crime he did not commit, to the time his parents could not afford his bail, to his unjustified imprisonment, to the physical abuse he suffered and the mental health resources he was denied. When we think about the kind of world we want our children and ourselves to live in we should not forget about Kalief Browder; his life and the circumstances of his death challenge us to reimagine and recreate a world in which this tragedy does not repeat itself.

eJjLyVWAFaatimah Knight is pursuing an MA in Religious Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College. An earlier version of this post appeared on First Things. 


A View from the ‘Hood: On the Roots of the Baltimore Uprising

By Siddeeqah Sharif Fichman

When protests began in our city several weeks ago over the death of Freddie Gray – a young man from my neighborhood who swept my street weekly, I hoped that all would go smoothly. “Baltimore’s population is not one that you would want to anger,” I recall telling several friends from abroad. Then after several weeks of peaceful protests went largely ignored by the media, police and politicians alike, my neighborhood erupted. But, I was not surprised. I’m actually quite surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner.

Photo By Siddeeqah Sharif

Baltimore is one of the most racially and economically segregated cities that I’ve ever spent time in; and I’m pretty well traveled having lived in 5 different countries. The rich never have to encounter the poor. Whites and blacks have very few opportunities to engage one another. Blacks may frequent predominantly white areas like Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill for night life – but blacks and whites never have to actually interact there. And, the areas mentioned previously are almost purely salt with a few shakes of pepper sprinkled in for good measure, but they are not by any stretch of the imagination mixed. I personally never attended school with any white children until I went to high school. There are absolutely no wealthy, upscale, predominantly black areas in the city that could rival those areas that I mentioned previously comparable to U Street in DC or 125 St. in Harlem. Baltimore has an apartheid feel. The kind of feeling that Steven Biko described by saying “ Smart or dumb, if you are black in South Africa you are born into this (speaking of the situation of blacks in Soweto), and smart or dumb you will die in it.” I relocated back to Baltimore after living ten years in the Netherlands and 1 year in Israel. In all of my travels I have never encountered a city quite like Baltimore. I was born in the house that I live in now, which is located in a part of the city called Sandtown, the area that exploded during the riots.

My father was born in this house as well, and now my youngest daughter was born here as well.  My father grew up in a very different Sandtown than I did. He grew up in an affluent-ish black middle class area with families that consisted of a working mother and father. Grandparents lived with their children and grandchildren. People dressed incredibly well. Stores were owned by mostly Jewish people who sold their businesses to blacks after the riots of 1968. Residents scrubbed their marble steps every Saturday as  I did growing up. My father was one of the very few educated, industrious men who stayed in the area after drugs hit Baltimore hard in the 90’s. He was dedicated to the community, providing employment and a sense of family for the youth in the area. He frequently took neighborhood boys, who had largely never left the city, on camping trips with our family. He’s still known and loved in my neighborhood.

The Sandtown I grew up in however, was full of old people and single parent homes. Many children lived with either just their mother or their grandparents. No one knew this part of the city until “The Wire” started showing on HBO, but no one in Baltimore actually wanted to know it.  Mom and Pop grocers were owned by blacks and Koreans owned the carry outs. Children still played outside and scrubbed their steps on Saturday. Still, in my Sandtown police acted with impunity, knocking men and women’s head into walls, smashing their faces into the ground, cursing and humiliating them. Helicopters circled overhead with search lights illuminating my third floor bedroom at night. Drug usage and trade took over the area. Violence followed. My youth was punctuated by the deaths of friends, acquaintances, and family members resulting from the violence of drug culture. That experience still very much shapes who I have chosen to be as an adult.

My children’s Sandtown is the one that the world saw erupt on television two weeks ago. It is the Sandtown that was born out of decades of drugs, violence, poverty and neglect. The youth here are the children of my generation and younger. They are raising themselves. Their parents are often on drugs, in jail, or so stressed out from trying to make the American dream work for them that they lash out on the ones that they are working so hard for. Our youth are resourceful, tenacious, brave, and brilliant but they are also ruthless, misguided, angry and devoid of hope.

Photo by Author

The world saw the aftermath of the riots and indicted our youth for “destroying their own neighborhood”. They saw block after block of boarded up houses, trash strewn all over the street, and made the assumption that the residents of Baltimore were destroying the city. Sandtown has definitely been destroyed, along with many other poor black areas of Baltimore City. But Sandtown was not destroyed by the residents two weeks ago in “riots” where people stole toilet paper and baby formula. Sandtown was destroyed slowly over decades by neglectful opportunist politicians who ignored the needs of our existing residents while creating campaigns to bring new residents to Baltimore, and slum lords who have amassed a great deal of wealth and property by  allowing half of the city to remain vacant and fall into ruin because they purchased properties solely for tax breaks without any intention of developing viable housing. Nearly every block in Sandtown has at least one or two boarded up houses, and it’s not uncommon to see entire blocks boarded up with one or two occupied houses sandwiched between the vacants.

Sandtown has been destroyed, make no mistake, but not by those few hours of rioting. Sandtown looks the same now as it did the day before the riots. If I hadn’t personally known which three or four stores had been broken into, I would have assumed that those looted stores were just another vacant store front adding to the ugliness of our neighborhood.

Photo2bySideeqahSharifThe ugliness here is not lost on its  residents, especially the youth. Why else would we be so angry? We have watched our city dump hundreds of millions of dollars into Canton, Hampden, Pigtown, Highlandtown, and Federal Hill all formerly poor and working class white areas, transforming them into gleaming models of the new migration of whites back into cities all across America. We have seen their formerly vacant houses all shined up and outfitted with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and exposed brick walls while our vacants grow trees inside them and crumble to dust. Business developers are given a welcome mat to invest in white areas creating walkable communities with outdoor eating areas, bike lanes, retail shopping, cafes and night-life while our areas are given a shabby looking CVS and Burger Kings neither of which are ever fully staffed.

It is very easy to see the disparities here in Baltimore, both racial and economic. 90% of the children who attend the elementary school zoned for my area receive breakfast and lunch subsidies because they cannot afford to eat otherwise. There is absolutely nothing to look forward to in our area. There is nothing beautiful  to look at here; and there is no one here who has “made it” to give lessons on how it’s  done. Our youth feel a hopelessness and a justifiable sense of anger that bubbled over into a riot because no one was listening.  Our youth are asking: why should everyone else eat while I go hungry? Why should anyone feel safe when I feel unsafe (here) every day?

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” ~Frederick Douglass

Siddeeqah SharifSiddeeqah Sharif Fichman is a recent returnee to Baltimore after living 10 years in Europe and the Middle East. She currently lives in West Baltimore. Siddeeqah is a Coordinator for the Holistic Life Foundation where she runs a Mindfulness Program teaching yoga and meditation as a positive intervention at a public high school in an underserved area of Baltimore City.