Thursday morning I awoke at 3 a.m. I made some breakfast, did my ablutions and prepared for prayer. It was the first day of Ramadan and it was nearly dawn, time to begin a fast which would last until sunset – and which would daily be repeated for the entire lunar month.
I love and welcome Ramadan but on Thursday morning I followed cable news closely with a sense of foreboding. Please God, I prayed – as I have far too many times – don’t let the killer in Charleston be a Muslim. Please God, I am sure I was praying along with other Muslims, don’t let the blame of this horror fall upon the innocent shoulders of my Muslim brothers and sisters, as did the terror attacks in Fort Hood and at the Boston Marathon.
In the end there wasn’t any satisfaction finding out that the terror attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was carried out by a white, racist segregationist, Dylann Roof. The attack was premeditated, racist and terrifying in its single-mindedness. Roof shot the Mother Emanuel worshippers in order to provoke, as he shared with a friend, a race-war.
“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” Roof said as he killed the innocents, “And you have to go.”
It was an act of terrorism. Roof’s act was a reflection of an institutional bias, not an aberrant personal prejudice and it needs to be so confronted – in its context. Roof’s terrorizing of South Carolina’s black community is part of a centuries-old shameful history. Indeed, one of Emanuel AME’s earliest ministers, Denmark Vesey, accused of anti-slavery agitation, was one of 35 blacks executed by Charleston’s white slaveholders in the early 19th century.
“It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was (first) bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man … ” and its first verse was, “Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created man out of a germ-cell. Read, for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know!”
Today I turn to the use of the pen to try and make sense of what I know – and what I do not know.
Racism is taught and instilled. Despite an absurd Wall Street Journal claim that “Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists,” our racism seems to be a plague resistant to many moral and ethical imperatives. Today, to be black in America is still to live where there is no sanctuary – not even in a church.
When President Obama, in condemning the massacre, said, “I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” he was right – and it was personal. To be black in America – even an American president – is to be a target of the ignorance, prejudice and hatred of many who feel, as does Dylann Roof, that African-Americans should know their place – and when they step out and speak for justice and freedom, as did Denmark Vesey and AME pastor and victim Clementa Pinckney, they risk facing the wrath of the white supremacist.
Sadly, too, I’m not surprised by the reaction of the Republication presidential contenders. Among them are men who’ve opposed President Obama for years, who deny him his religion, his nationality and his legitimacy and have treated him with an immeasurable level of disrespect for a president- a level of disrespect engendered, I believe, because he is a black man who took on the system and won – and who then had to be put in his place.
The attempts of Fox News and a procession of Republicans to avoid calling the attack racism or terrorism was a new low in the “whitewashing” of the Republican Party and it’s shameful.
To these Republicans, when white people go on shooting sprees, it’s mental illness. When Muslims or African-Americans kill it’s cultural or religious. Such assumptions insulate the white community from having to confront incidents like the murders at Mother Emanuel.
Ramadan is God’s challenge to us to contemplate our commitment to our brothers and sisters, to all humanity and to this earth, a challenge that is both a blessing and solace in times of crisis and conflict.
On the day after Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel, sat for an hour, and then killed nine people it’s inconceivable that mourners in South Carolina should have been subjected to seeing the Confederate flag flying still, unbowed, mocking them, at their state capital while the U.S. and South Carolina flags were respectfully lowered to half-staff.
As Germans will never be permitted to fly the Nazi flag by claiming ignorance over what the Nazis were doing to the Jews – or claiming “heritage not hate” – or in the same way that the black flag of Daesh will someday be buried beneath the sands of Mesopotamia for all the horrors committed beneath it, there are flags that never again should see the light of day. The confederate flag is such a flag.
Sen. Lindsay Graham said, “We’re not going to give this a guy [Roof] an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It’s him…not the flag”
Ramadan is a time to reflect and renew, to heal relationships and to try to keep from getting agitated or angry toward others. Ramadan is God’s challenge to mankind: Be mindful of who you are, be mindful of God’s blessings, be compassionate.
In April, in a sermon titled “Requiem on Racism,” Pastor Pinckney, assassinated in the church he loved, said, “Regardless of our faiths, our ethnicities, where we are from, together we come in love. Together we come to bury racism, to bury bigotry, and to resurrect and revive love, compassion and tenderness.”
Together we come in love…
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.