: Of Emmitt, Katrina, and Muhammad

: Of Emmitt, Katrina, and Muhammad September 20, 2005

The winds and rains of Hurricane Katrina have long gone. Yet, those winds and rained ripped off the neatly dressed scab that covered the festering and infected wounds of race and class in the United States, and no one was happy to see what was underneath said neatly dressed scab. Many people believe the soporific response of the government to Katrina was motivated by racial bias; many others beg to differ. Many people believe it would have been different if the majority of victims in New Orleans were white; with this many others take issue. Yet, despite this dispute, there is one thing not in dispute: race and class disparities continue to be major problems in our country today.

Many people see the aftermath of Katrina as a golden opportunity to truly address the problems of class and race that plague our nation and stain the fabric of our national pride and unity. Jonathan Alter, writing in the September 19 issue of Newsweek, made the observation that “[President Bush] can limit his legacy to Iraq, the war on terror, and tax cuts for the rich – or, if he seizes the moment, he could undertake a midcourse correction that might materially change the lives of millions.” Alter was absolutely right in calling the problem of racial and economic inequality in the United States an “enduring shame.” Yet, it is much more than an “enduring shame”; it is a national fahisha, a national abomination.

For all the disgrace Katrina brought with her, this was not the first time our nation was stained with such a fahisha, especially with respect to her citizens of color. The fact that African slaves were brought to the New World in the first place was a national abomination, yet it did not move the Founding Fathers to ban the institution of slavery in the nascent United States of America. The fact that blacks were considered 2/5 of a human person in the original Constitution was a national abomination, yet it did not prevent this country from having to go to war with itself to finally emancipate the slaves. Even though the slaves became free, the scourge of racism did not go away; it metamorphosed into Jim Crow, another national abomination.

The murder of Emmitt Till, a 14 year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman, was a national abomination. Yet, it did not jolt the nation into granting civil rights to African-Americans and other minorities. Rather, blood had to be shed on the nation’s streets to accomplish that. In fact, the story of Hurricane Katrina drowned out (forgive the pun) the story of the 40th anniversary of Till’s murder, which occurred shortly before Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

Throughout our nation’s history, we have been shamed again and again by our hypocrisy when it came to African-Americans, yet such shame never managed to eradicate the racism that still occurs in our society. Why is that? Partly, I suspect, it is due to the succumbing to the tendency to commit evil that is present within each human being. Yet, it is also due to forgetfulness. The human being is prone to forgetfulness; it is part of his or her nature. In fact, the root of the Arabic word insan, or human being, also derives the word for forgetfulness. It is this natural tendency to forget that allows humanity to continue on after the worst of human tragedy and catastrophe. It is also this natural tendency to forget that gets humanity into trouble with its Lord, because it frequently forgets who the Lord is and why He placed humanity on earth in the first place.

And it is this very tendency to forget that worries me the most about Katrina and her aftermath. With time, the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center will be cleaned up. With time, the putrid and potentially life-threatening flood waters in the Crescent City will be pumped out. With time, the trail of devastation that Katrina wrought will no longer be evident, and the images and memories of America’s national disgrace will fade from our minds, and we will forget. And the wounds of race and class in the United States will scab over, be neatly dressed, and continue to fester and wallow in purulent infection. Our forgetfulness after each national abomination has prevented us from learning the lessons of our mistakes and not repeating them in the future.

Enter Muhammad. This is our chance to make sure this never happens again. For over fourteen centuries, God has been speaking to us. He has been telling us that we were created from one man and one woman, and He made us into “nations and tribes that [we] may know one another” (49:13). He told us that the best of us in His sight is the most righteous, not the most white or most black. His Noble Messenger, peace be upon him, told us over fourteen centuries ago that an Arab was no better than a non-Arab, that a black man was no better than a white man. The only criterion for superiority, he (pbuh) told us, is that of piety and righteousness, echoing the words of our Lord.

God has been telling us that the sustenance for the poor has been placed among the resources of the wealthy. Our Lord, in fact, enshrined in our faith an obligation to share our wealth with those who are less fortunate. Our Beloved Messenger led by example, giving to the poor and less fortunate without fear of he himself becoming poor. These values have been ingrained upon us by our Creator and His Last Messenger, and they both told us to spread this message of peace and love to others. They both told us to embody these values in our action, without regard of the faith of the recipient.

If, then, we claim to be God’s servants; if, then, we claim to follow the Prophet’s example; if, then, we boast to others that Islam has a cure for the racism and poverty that plague our country, indeed our world, why did we witness the national disgrace that was the Superdome and Convention Center? Why did so many poor people desperately cry out for help as their government abandoned them in their time of need? Why did our national disgrace get beamed across the world, shaming and embarrassing us so profoundly? Because we, American Muslims, have failed in our mission. We, American Muslims, have failed to live up to the standards and values taught to us by our Lord and His Messenger, even though we bear witness our belief in both each and every day.

This can happen no longer. Our miserable failure must end now. Our Lord (Glory Be His Name) tells us: “Believers! Why do you say that which you do not do? It is most hateful to God that you should say that which you do not do” (61:2-3). We must live up to what our glossy pamphlets say about us. American Muslims are already doing just that with the victims of Katrina, and it is most heartening and gratifying. Yet, long after the images and memories of Katrina fade from our collective consciousness, we American Muslims must continue to work. We must continue to toil and strive, as our Lord and His Messenger taught us, to finally bring racial justice and economic equality to our country. It may not be easy, but failure to do so can not be an option. Otherwise, we will have nothing upon which to stand when we are forced to stand before our Lord and answer for our inactions. And whatever excuse we muster on that day will be much too little, much too late.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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