Controversy over ISNA statement on Baltimore Uprising - updated 5/3/15

Controversy over ISNA statement on Baltimore Uprising

by Sheila Musaji


The ongoing Baltimore Uprising came in response to the death in police custody of a young African-American man named Freddie Gray.  This most recent in a long series of cases of police brutality requires responses from religious and political leaders.  ISNA issued a statement that was very different from a previous statement after the shooting of Michael Brown ISNA Disturbed By The Continuation of Police Profiling, Brutality, and Violence Against African Americans: Welcomes Federal Investigation of Recent Police Shooting of Unarmed African American Teen.

The Islamic Society of North America released ISNA Disturbed by Escalation of Violence in Baltimore:

Plainfield, IN 4/28/15) The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is disturbed over the escalation of violence and rioting shortly after the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African American male who died nearly two weeks ago in police custody.

In the past few days, what began as peaceful protests, have grown into wanton destruction, thievery, looting and arson, as well as uncalled-for attacks on first responders.

Such actions undermine and distract from the real issues that need to be addressed, namely police brutality, profiling and lack of accountability.

It is our hope that the rioters cease their destructive behavior, and that the Baltimore Police Department and the community that it serves, come together to resolve these issues in a constructive, peaceful manner.

Our condolences go out to the family and loved ones of Freddie Gray during this unfortunate time.

Last summer, ISNA had issued public statements on Ferguson and the problem of police brutality toward African Americans. Former ISNA President Imam Mohamed Magid also participated in a nationwide conference call with the former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on the situation in Ferguson.

This statement immediately provoked a flurry of responses on social media and in print.  If only they had first read the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative’s #BlackLivesMatter Toolkit for Muslims before publishing this, they might have saved themselves a lot of embarrassment.  This ARC resource included a letter To:  Muslim Communities and Leaders:

Our Noble Prophet ﷺ said, ”Help the oppressed and guide those who have lost their way..” (Book 41, Number 4799: Sunan Abu-Dawud).

A verified study reports that in 2012, a Black American was shot or killed by law enforcement, vigilantes, or security guards on average every 28 hours.  This statistic includes women and children.  It includes the killings of Black American Muslim men Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah and Amadou Diallo. Today, this reign of terror against Blacks continues, only to be met with unjust and defective response by our judicial systems.  As a result, the tumultuous times we live in invoke strong emotions.  As Muslims, we know that the Qur’an is clear in respect to the sanctity of life:

“Whoever kills a soul except for a soul or grave corruption in the earth, it is just as him killing all of humankind”  ( 5:32). 

This sanctity applies to every life and every people.  Islamic adab (etiquette) is rooted in empathy, and as Blacks continue to be targeted unjustly, our responses should be empathetic. Muslim leadership should be visible in guiding our communities, and our youth in particular, in standing up for justice. 

We call on Muslim community leaders to unite and take a stand for police accountability and racial justice. This is an important juncture in our history for freedom struggles. Protests are rippling across the country in response to the failure of grand juries to indict Darren Wilson in Ferguson for killing Michael Brown, Daniel Pantaleo in New York for killing Eric Garner, or Sean Williams in Ohio for killing John Crawford III.  These extrajudicial killings are not isolated events. They reflect a systemic racism in which social, economic, educational, and political forces and policies foster discriminatory outcomes against Black people. Given that race is inextricably tied in with these events, we must unequivocally affirm the egalitarian nature of Islam in which the Qur’an and Sunnah clearly condemn racism not just in the form of individual actions, but as a structure that marginalizes people.

As Muslims, we should draw upon our strong tradition of standing for a just society as Allah instructs us to in the Qur’an:

“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted“ (4:135)

Standing for justice in this country entails confronting the embedded racial inequalities of our society.  As American Muslims, we must not fall into apathy, but instead put our faith into action and take a stand against oppression, whether by seeking to remove it with our hands, speaking against it, or hating it in our hearts. 

As part of our work in calling upon our Islamic traditions to foster thriving communities, we ask that American Muslim leaders and organizations be part of the solution.  The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is introduced in the Qur’an, “And We have not sent you forth but as a mercy to mankind” (21:107). As a community, we must help create the conditions to restore the dignity and human potential to our people. 

Allah tells us in the Qur’an, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11). This includes commitments for moral reform and social change.  Given this moral imperative, American Muslims must take the lead in addressing the broader forces in society that disempower Black communities in general, and our communities in particular.  We are calling on our brothers and sisters to stand, speak, and act.

A list of suggested actions for individuals, organizations, and communities to take in their work to address racial injustices is located at http://www.muslimarc.org/blacklivesmatter in the MuslimARC Toolkit.

On the same day as the ISNA statement, MPAC released a statement MPAC Statement on Baltimore Uprising:

Our deepest condolences go out to the loved ones of Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody. We are incredibly disheartened by the news out of Baltimore and are calling for a calm dialogue to address the concerns.

The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and now Freddie Gray, among countless others, are symptoms of underlying issues we must address in America. These isues include, police brutality, ineffective community policing, racial disparities, and the lack of opportunities for poor communities. All of these lead to disenfranchisement and a feeling of hopelessness, which left unaddressed, could create grave consequences.

MPAC is distressed by any and all violence and urges all parties to exercise restraint. We look forward to a day when there is no “us” versus “them” attitudes between law enforcement and communities, and where a healthy attitude of mutual respect and service reigns.

This MPAC statement was much more well thought out, but for some reason did not get as much attention.

The controversy continued to increase on social media, and on 4/30/2015, ISNA released a clarification:

ISNA Clarifies Baltimore Press Release
(Plainfield, IN 4/30/15) Today, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) clarifies the press release it issued yesterday in response to the escalation of violence in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African American who died from traumatic spinal injuries while in police custody.

In a statement, ISNA President Azhar Azeez said:

“ISNA sends its deepest condolences to Gray’s family and loved ones. Our April 28th press release unfairly focused on those who engaged in destruction of property rather than on its underlying cause. It also used disproportionately strong language to describe the destructive protestors while using mild language for the police. ISNA acknowledges this oversight.

“We realize that the violence committed by the few, which erupted recently, was due to decades of growing frustration of a community at odds with a militarized police department with limited accountability, high unemployment, high crime, poor housing, broken-down schools, institutional racism and lack of opportunity in Baltimore’s inner-city neighborhoods.

“However, ISNA stands by its appeal to those who engaged in destruction of property. But this does not detract from, diminish, or excuse, the underlying issues of racism and disenfranchisement.

“Now is the time for healing and for action. ISNA calls on Imams and leaders in the Baltimore area to mobilize their communities to counter systemic racism. It is our duty both as Muslims and Americans to correct an injustice regardless of who the victims may be.

“It should be noted that ISNA leadership has spearheaded and supported initiatives such as “Reclaiming Bilal,” which examine and remove the structural and systemic factors which perpetuate racism and inequality within the Muslim community and society at large.”

This is another opportunity for a national Muslim organization to listen to the community, and re-think how it responds to issues in the name of the community.

As Manal Omar said in her article on the ISNA statement, Baltimore Protests: Muslims Must Say and Do the Right Thing“The dramatic disconnect between the national American-Muslim institutions and the community they claim to represent was demonstrated instantly across social media.”

The Muslim ARC issued a response to the ISNA statement MuslimARC Responds to Statements by American Muslim Organizations; Commends Calls for Justice Against Oppression in Baltimore.

The Muslim Girl published a response U.S. Muslims Stand in Solidarity with the Baltimore Protests Against Police Brutality and State Violence.

Ihsan Tahrir published ISNA & #blacklivesDONTmatter which discusses the disconnect between the immigrant Muslim community and the African-American Muslim community. 

This is yet another controversy that will need to be added to the regularly updated TAM article American Muslim Organizations’ Mistakes Can Be Opportunities for Growth.  How ISNA respondS to this controversy will determine whether it will be included as a “missed opportunity”, or as an “opportunity siezed”. 

ICNA released a statement U.S. Muslim coalition calls for justice, accountability, transparency in Baltimore:

(Washington, D.C., 5/1/2015) – The US Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), a coalition of leading national and local Muslim organizations, today welcomed the announcement that Maryland State prosecutors have filed homicide and misconduct charges against six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray. In the statement, the USCMO said:

“The USCMO stands in solidarity with the family of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore community in seeking justice, accountability and transparency in Mr. Gray’s death at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department. Today’s charges are a step in the right direction.”

“A significant part of the American Muslim community is African American who not only endure commonplace police brutality, but also profiling because of their faith. Like our African American brothers and sisters, the USCMO believes it is our duty to join other community and civil rights organizations standing for justice and demanding an end to police brutality, an end to the structural racism that allows this brutality to exist, and an end to racial and religious profiling, and calling for the demilitarization of our local police forces.”

“Unfortunately it did not begin with Freddie Gray and will not end with him. We continue to demand justice for all the men and women of color who have lost their lives due to excessive police force.”
USCMO Secretary General Oussama Jammal added, “All communities deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and to walk freely without fear of harassment or of being targeted by law enforcement. We understand that justice is universal and we must work collectively towards upholding the rights of all Americans.”

“USCMO prays for the healing of the city of Baltimore and for justice, peace, and harmony in our country”
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Founding members of USCMO: American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA), Muslim American Society (MAS), Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA), The Mosque Cares (Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed).

And, following the announcement that six Baltimore police officers had been arrested, MANA released Statement on Charges Brought in the Case of Freddie Gray:

The Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA) salutes the people of Baltimore and others across the nation—Muslim and non-Muslim—who have stood and who courageously continue to stand for justice. Yesterday’s announcement of charges against those who are responsible for the death of Freddie Gray is proof of the saying of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that “Allah hears the supplication of the oppressed.”  Our sympathies remain with the family of Freddie Gray and we hope that the announcement brought some degree of comfort to them. We stand with them and all who call for justice to be served in the case of Freddie Gray.


Further, MANA commits to, and encourages Muslims to, stand in solidarity with all people of good will—individuals, groups and organizations—that are working to address the evil trinity of injustices that are primarily affecting African Americans: institutionalized racism, the use of excessive force by police and the inequities of the criminal justice system. These injustices contribute significantly to what the New York Times has recently identified as the “disappearance of 1.5 million American men of African descent, from everyday life in society.”


Allah tells us in Qur’an that He will not change a people’s condition until they change that which is within themselves. And so, we urge Muslims to “become the change we wish to see in the world” and to move our hearts and minds from indifference to commitment to struggle against injustice and from complacency to transformation—not only of ourselves, but of the society in which we live. And, as we move forward, let us remember the words of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) who said, “When you see an evil change it. If you cannot do that, then speak out against it. If you cannot do that, then resist it in your heart, but that is the weakest of faith.”


UPDATE 5/3/2015

It is difficult to believe that this controversy could be handled any more badly, but that seems to be the case.  The following dialogue between Linda Sarsour and Asad Ba-Yunus on Facebook in which Ba-Yunus, the Chair of the ISNA Legal Affairs Committee basically accuses her of “treason”  and of “advocating for “violent rebellion” for chastising” ISNA.  This dialogue took place before ISNA released their “clarification”, but I just became aware of it — no matter what, it needs to be included in this overview of this controversy.  I believe that it says a great deal about the mind set of some of those making decisions in the organization.  The reality is that many individual American Muslims expressed their disapproval of the ISNA statement, and of the clarification. 


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