University News

Community members gather for Fort Wayne vigil

Students speak about experiences with Islamophobia, racism at home, on campus

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2016

Shivering students gathered Wednesday on the Faunce steps for an evening of prayer and reflection on the murders of Muhannad Adam Tairab, Adam Kamel Mekki and Mohamedtaha Omar in Fort Wayne, Indiana Feb. 24.

The vigil was organized by Adrian Wood-Smith, associate university chaplain, and the Muslim Students Association in response to the “execution-style” murders of the three black men, two Muslim and one Christian. Local police officers believe the murders, committed during a home break-in, may have been related to gang violence, the Huffington Post reported.

Since so many details of the case are still unclear, Wood-Smith received concerns that the vigil would be commemorating the lives of potential criminals, he said.

“We’re all on the same page that a life lost to gun violence is a life lost unjustly,” Wood-Smith said. The fact that concerns like that are often posed when the victims are people of color or Muslim is indicative of a larger problem of dehumanization, which “hit home” for many members of the Islamic community at Brown, he said.

Wood-Smith also pointed out the reluctance of media sources to use the words “terrorism” and “hate crime” in their coverage of crimes against Muslims.

The events surrounding the murder “hit home” in more senses than one, he added, referring to another incidence of Islamophobia in South Kingstown, RI in December. A man was caught on camera threatening to kill an Islamic clerk because he was Muslim, but the police did not charge him with a hate crime.

News of the murders was also slow to spread. Mohamed Mohamed ’18 described seeing the news on Facebook the previous week and waiting days for it to be picked up by national news outlets. “I was really upset,” he said, adding that it exposed the “racial privilege” of the mainstream media.

Many members of the Muslim Students Association who organized the vigil heard about the murders while attending a Muslim conference at Princeton last weekend and resolved to organize a memorial once they returned to campus.  “I remember seeing the Washington Post article come out over the weekend and thinking, ‘That took you a while,’” Sana Siddiq ’16 said.

In his address to the gathering, Ahmed Elsayed ’16 criticized the hypocrisy of media coverage that routinely features racial debate but nonetheless ignores the death of black Muslim Americans. “We’re looking at the Oscars, we’re looking at (Donald) Trump. But we can’t remember these men?” he asked.

Bedour Alagraa GS added that “anti-blackness and Islamophobia have never operated in separate spheres” and that she had never experienced either form of discrimination without the other.

Following Elsayed and Alagraa’s speeches, attendees participated in a funeral prayer rooted in the Islamic tradition led by Imam Farid Ansari, chaplain at Bristol County Sheriff’s Department. Wood-Smith explained that the prayer relied heavily on silent meditation, punctuated by the Imam’s words “Allahu Akbar” (God is greater) and “Salaam-Alaikum” (peace be unto you).

“From the perspective of a chaplain, the rituals of religious practice can offer comfort in times like these,” Wood-Smith said. He also wanted to demystify Islam for students who had never encountered it before in a manner that didn’t demand anything of them, he said.

The vigil concluded with an opportunity to reflect on the murders with facilitators.

Shanze Tahir ’19 lives an hour away from Fort Wayne, where the three men were found murdered. “Indiana doesn’t have a large Muslim population,” she told The Herald, adding that she has encountered a lot of ignorance with regard to Islam while living there.

After the murders, the local mosque where Tahir and two of the victims prayed was vandalized, Tahir said. Islamophobic graffiti was sprayed on the mosque walls and left the local Muslim community shocked, she said.

During his speech, Elsayed shared his first-ever experience with Islamophobia while growing up in New York. In second grade, a teacher paused during roll call to ask him if his middle name was Osama. He also described how his father was forced to shut down his store selling Islamic garments and food.

“I walk around this campus, and I’m African-American. Then I open my mouth, and I’m Muslim, and that just gets harder,” Elsayed said.

Mohamed told The Herald that he has occasionally experienced Islamophobia from certain African Americans and anti-blackness from certain Muslims, increasing his sense of alienation as a black Muslim American.

“You know now. You’re here,” Elsayed said to the crowd after sharing his experiences. “You have a responsibility to continue this conversation.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Adrian Wood-Smith, associate university chaplain, criticized media outlets for not using the terms “terrorism” or “hate crime” in referring to the Fort Wayne murders. In fact, Wood-Smith was referring to media outlets’ tendency not to use these words when crimes are committed against Muslims but was not referring to these murders specifically. The Herald regrets the error.