The Anatomy of Empathy: An Encampment Testimony

I want to start today with a story. Usually, giving khutbahs is scary both internally and externally. Any kind of public speaking is scary. You are scared of how you are going to look, you want to sound smart. You prepare, but with what I want to talk about, I do not think that there is any adequate way for me to prepare, because I need to tell a story. 


This past week, I got very bad poison ivy all over my body. Somewhere around 50-70%, it was serious. A friend of mine and I were cutting trees down, and we did not realize until two days later, and a lot of oil spread later, that the trees were covered in poison ivy. What transpired over the next week was interesting. I say interesting because I felt aggravated when people would ask, "Is there pain, or is it just itching?" because I was like, "You do not understand, you do not understand," but my friend who was also covered understood exactly what I was talking about. There were many joking venting sessions about the joys of scratching, even though the itching was keeping us up at night, and even had my friend one night wanting to throw up because it was so bad. 


In the last khutbah that I gave, I said that I love everyone here very much. This week, and especially last night, I thought about that a lot. I love that friend very dearly. I asked myself, "Why do I love him so much?" Because for the past three years, he and I, along with another one of my friends that I love very much, went through a very unique experience, a lot like getting poison ivy; in that you can only understand if you went through it. I asked myself, "Is it common experience? Shared experience? Is that all it is?" I think it is a shared experience with a common purpose. I studied the Qur'an with these friends, and I did not study it in an academic sense. I studied it in the midst of life, of messy life. We each went through our own individual transformations, but we went through them together. So, I cared a lot about my friend who got poison ivy. 


There have been encampment protests all over the country, including City University of New York, The New School of New York City, the University of Rochester, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Southern California, California State Polytechnic University. I have here a list of 33 schools, but I know there are even more than this. One of these encampment protests happened at my school, Ohio State University. 


I went to it early. I thought the encampment was going on, but the first one had been broken up, and soon after I arrived I found out that another was being planned to begin in a few hours. People had been arrested at the first one. Before I arrived, I was on the phone with my wife who was telling me, "Please, go do what you have to do, support them, but be careful." She was worried about me. She did not want me to get arrested, because we all knew that is what would happen. I started to become scared, I was scared of getting arrested. I was scared of what would happen. I was scared of what they would do. 


When it began, I knew some people, but my friend was not there yet. Even though I was surrounded, in a group of people chanting, I felt scared and alone. I felt, “I am helping my wife by going home. They have this covered. I will be here to support and then I will go home.” But then my friend arrived with his wife, and at the beginning, we had some tents set up, people holding a line, beautiful singing, and prayer. It seemed like nothing was going to happen. It seemed like the police were just indulging in scare tactics, or maybe that is just what I was trying to tell myself, because underneath, there was this feeling of, "This is different." As things got more intense, and they were escalating because there were police on the roofs surveilling, they had shut down the student union in a way that I had not seen before in my years there. They started to announce, "We will move in in 30 minutes, we will move in in 15 minutes, and we will make arrests if you do not disperse," and time kept going on.


It was the most unique and profound experience, because what I was noticing going on in me was this fear of being surrounded by people that I know are not there to protect and serve, but are there to establish control and dominance, who were saying they were going to move in in 15 minutes, 30 minutes ago. I realized, I could turn and leave, no one would blame me. But I looked around at these kids. I am 35 years old. These kids are 18, 19, 20, 22. Some of them were brave. Some of them looked scared, but they were all there arm in arm, tightening the bonds between each other physically, both as an expression of trying to take comfort, but also to protect one another. At that moment, I decided I was staying. I felt like there was a voice within me saying, "Yes, God sometimes needs your mind for giving a khutbah, for writing, for studying. We recognize that is important, but right now, it needs my body. If I show up tomorrow for the khutbah ill-prepared, so be it. It is of some embarrassment, but people can log off of the livestream anyway. I am not leaving these kids." 


It was not long after that I found myself in the middle of the encampment with my friend, his wife and 200-300 other students. My friend said, "Go home, there is no point in you getting arrested." My other friend cursed at me and said, "Get out." I do not know if it was the right decision or not. I do not really think that is the point, but what I felt going home was a very complex interplay of guilt, rage, anger and fear that seemed to leave my heart completely bare and dissolved all its defenses and all of its desire to protect itself, or to save face through some narrative of explaining my actions of why I am doing what I am doing.


All I cared about was that my friend would be safe. As the night rolled on, it got violent. It was worse than I expected. I was glued to the live streams, and glued to looking at his location on my phone. What I kept thinking was, "If they arrest him, are they going to zip tie him, and is he going to be able to scratch his poison ivy?" The thought seemed silly, but the more I sat with it, the more I realized that that embodied everything that I feel we have lost. We are supposed to be one ummah, one body. This is the feeling that I should be feeling and that all of us should be feeling for Muslims everywhere, that we should all be feeling for Palestinians. God gave us everything. God warned us about imitating the values of those who do not believe. God warned us about morally compromising. God gave us a covenant to uphold the truth, and then under the land in which we were, put the world's most valuable resource, so if we upheld truth, we would never have to depend on another human being for the rest of our lives. We lost everything. 


It was very apparent that the police were surveilling and locating specific people, and that they were strategizing not just how to break the protest up, but how to brutalize, how to embarrass, how to humiliate, and how to terrify your children, the children that who have made their sole purpose in life to go to this university and get an education. The people that you have entrusted with your children called upon a group of people that have been documented to be brutal, to break up a peaceful protest. I do not care if it is trespassing, I do not care if it breaks the law. I barely slept, and when I finally heard what had happened, I did not know what to do. What happened at Ohio State University is by far among the tamest instances, but it is still far too much. The fact that it is one of the tamest reactions across the country is horrendous. 


Once Isha prayer rolled around, there were those who were interlocking arms and holding the barrier around Muslims praying, and that is when the police decided to attack. I do not think it was out of Islamophobia, I think that it was a purely strategic and tactical decision since that was when there was the least amount of people around holding the barrier. That was when it was easiest to demolish the barrier and get through. 


The police grabbed my friend, three or four of them, and they threw him to the ground. It is on video. One of them placed their knee, with their full body weight, on his neck and zip tied his wrists so tightly and for so long that his wrists turned black. Next to him, there was a student with his shirt ripped, being screamed at by officers to "Stop resisting." No one was resisting. You can go watch the videos yourself. Even if they were… if someone is coming at me aggressively and being violent, I am not supposed to resist? There were 70 police officers from campus PD who were there from early on. Later, they called the state troopers along with the Columbus PD, who were trained by Israel, to come and brutalize these students. So the police took the 40 or so students that they arrested, put them in buses, zip tied, and left them in there.


One student was tied so tightly that he was complaining, "I am going to pass out," and he did. He fainted and his head smashed into the door, and he was laying there for 10 minutes as my friend was screaming for someone to help him. Like I said, the police are not there to protect and serve, they are there to dominate and control. If you are colored, or if you are colored by association, because there were Jewish students from Jewish Voice for Peace who were also arrested, they also humiliated them. Officers would not help him, a kid. They asked for scissors to cut off the zip ties, and the police told them, "We do not have any." One person said that as they were tackling her, and as they saw others being tackled, they heard the police saying to each other, "Well, this is how you do a three-man takedown," as if these were dummies in some training exercise, and not students with rights.


Your universities that you are paying money to called people to objectify and humiliate your children. The truck was like a dog kennel. It was small, and the students arrested sat there for hours before being moved and processed in the Student Union, as if this was some weird dystopian movie. Then they were moved to the station where they sat for several more hours, not allowed to leave, not allowed to stand, not allowed to stretch. I have heard of actually aggressive white 17-year-olds with assault rifles who were arrested and treated with far more dignity. Fine, you want to uphold the law? I think that your trespassing laws are BS anyway, but where is the dignity? Or was all of the administration that claimed to be heralds of the Black Lives Matter Movement, was that nothing? I thought that we were socially conscious now. 


They were then held and detained around actual crazed criminals who were screaming at your children in dark, cramped rooms that were covered in feces, vomit and urine. The females were strip searched, while the males were not. I do not know what that was about. They also had their hijabs removed and not returned. One of them, it was never returned. For the other ones, they kept it. My other friend's thighs were bruised. She has a welt on the back of her head from being struck. She did not feel it, and she kept making it a point to tell me, "I am okay, I am fine." I thought, "Okay, maybe you are in shock,” but this was serious. 


Yes, there are more serious things happening in the world, but that does not diminish the seriousness of this and the effect that it has when a human being is denied basic dignity, when they are left traumatized and brutalized by people that are supposed to be their protectors; but it also was because I realized the real reason is because she was trying very hard to hold onto something that I was trying to hold onto when I was driving back, which is that this is nothing compared to what is happening to Palestinians. I did not turn to myself with shame or invalidate what I was feeling, because my friend was zip-tied for five and a half hours while having intense poison ivy. I know none of you can understand, but when you have that much poison ivy, that is the worst thing in the world.


It actually broke my heart that I was able to scratch, while he was not. That is the appropriate response, and the appropriate response to what is happening to Palestinians is one million times that. I have heard how Muslims talk about protests, those who are saying, "Well, protests really do not do a lot." Go with your kids. Watch them get arrested. Get arrested with them. It will open your heart. I do not like using the term “ummah,” because I feel it has turned into this weird symbol for something that I do not agree with, and it has almost become like when someone says, "Hey, brother,” or “Hey, sister," it makes you react in the opposite direction. But the concept of ummah, I think, is so vital. It is a fellowship of the spirit, and it is using the way I have been created as dependent human being in need of bonds to strengthen my spirit in the way of good.


Family bonds, bonds of love are extremely strong. They are so strong that they can lead you to bonding with people that can take you straight to hell and to create corruption, or it can lead you to creating beauty. At that moment, I felt that it did not matter if I was scared. It did not matter if I had selfish thoughts. What mattered is I have these beautiful friends who are here, and if they are here, I will be here. So, I do not think you should go to a protest because the Palestinians need you. I think you should go to a protest because you need to have your heart opened. You need to feel the reality that is breathing down our neck.


We have been sleeping. We have had each other, our work, our days. We had each other, and they left us alone. We kept the trade lanes open, and they left us alone. We played the good Muslim, and they left us alone, because we took their money and ignored them. We kept their engines turning and the moment they pulled away, we forgot them because we had each other, but we were sleeping. I have been sleeping, and I have been turning away from the truth that I did not want to face. There is a wound that will not heal at the center of this country. There is a darkness reaching like rust into everything around us. We let it grow, and now it is here. It is here, and it is not visiting anymore. It wants to stay. This empire of disease thrives in darkness. It is never more alive than when we sleep. It is easy for the dead to tell you to fight, and maybe it is true that fighting is useless. Perhaps it is too late. I do not think it is, but I will tell you this, if I could do it again, I would have woken up a lot earlier. Ask God for forgiveness.


Mass graves have been uncovered in Palestine. Children buried alive, hands bound behind their back, organs harvested, decapitated. I have seen numbers from 200 to 400 bodies. What yesterday taught me is that one is enough. Shayan is enough. Even that happening to him was a red line. I do not need to go through news reports. This is not a news station. I am not suggesting this to shame, but maybe some shame is a healthy thing. I actually think that shame is a good thing when it is for a good reason, but I am telling you this because I understand how your heart works and the way you are created is working against you. You need experience. You need bonds of love. God recognized this. Otherwise, the Qur'an would've said, "All opinions are equal, compromise,” but God kept warning us, "Be careful. Stick to what is good."


“And contain thyself in patience by the side of all who at morn and at evening invoke their Sustainer, seeking His countenance, and let not thine eyes pass beyond them in quest of the beauties of this world’s life; and pay no heed to any whose heart We have rendered heedless of all remembrance of Us because he had always followed his desires, abandoning all that is good and true.” (Q 18:28)


Stay close to those who are seeking the Face of their Lord, because it has a profound effect on you when you start falling in love with people who are in love with God. Part of love is pain. I am here for the totality of human experience. I am not here to separate spirituality from materialism. I am not here to separate emotions from intellect. I am not here to be happy. I am here to find God, and I am here to establish justice. Maybe if things were different, I could have been given another choice, but the only reason that we think we have a choice to stay home and take the easier, softer way is because we have not fallen in love with the people who are being slaughtered and humiliated.


There was this beautiful video from a Latino parent who went to a protest at the University of Southern California, and his response made me so happy. It was on the news. He was asked, "Are you not scared your child will be arrested?” and he replied, "No, I will be proud, because she is standing for the right thing." My father has given so many khutbahs and halaqas over many years, and has written so many books on the effects of authoritarianism. I have seen it and continue to see it. Our people are so scared. We want the easier, softer way. We have been conditioned to keep our head down and assume everything will be fine. It is not fine.


I do not know who among you listening have been to a martial arts class, but when you have someone coming at you with physical force, it is terrifying on a very deep level. Many of these college students do not even look like they go to the gym, yet they are picked up by these officers, each officer grabbing a limb, pulling them horizontally at 10:30 at night across the campus. At this same campus, just a week ago, these students were sitting out in the sunlight studying and laughing with friends. It is a gift. The pain is a gift. This poison ivy is a gift. It is not a punishment. It is a punishment if you stay asleep. If it's something that makes you continue to forget, then it is a punishment. 


But if you can open up to it, if you can start to open your heart and go to these protests. If you open your heart, recognize who you love that you can be with, who might be suffering, be there with them, and continue to strive for that, because it is not a one-time deal. You do it until it becomes a way of life, until you stop thinking about when you can stop doing it, because the human heart is not limited. It can contain an immense amount of pain, trauma and fear. It is a shame that it has to, but it can. It was made to witness and to be a steward of God on this earth. It is powerful. Stop thinking so small. I hope, pray, and will continue to struggle as best as I can, but I know that the majority of my strength comes from the ones who are better than me, the ones who are smarter than me, the ones who are braver than me being linked arm in arm with me.


I am done tearing other Muslims down. I am done after being there, and seeing their faces. I was proud. I was so proud that I was very ready to be arrested. It was not the point to get arrested, but interestingly, when I was preparing for this khutbah, I was reviewing Surah Al-A'raf, which starts, "Preach this message without fear of consequences." I would like to go into that surah at another time. I felt that I had to convey this message first, even though it had taken some time. I felt this is what needed to be said. I am proud. I am proud of being a Muslim, and I am proud of other Muslims. I want to support other Muslims, because I believe that if you are fed, it is not too late, and what you can create on the other end of it is something that is both individually and collectively better.


Surah Al-A'raf talks about Satan diluting Adam and Eve with thoughts after they ate the fruit. I think one of those delusions is that somehow, they were sacrificing something by obeying God’s command. We are sacrificing the most by doing nothing because this slow, torturous, undignified, humiliating pursuit into nothing and into laziness, to me, is much worse than death. 

There will be times when the struggle seems impossible. I know this already. Alone, unsure, dwarfed by the scale of the enemy. Remember this, freedom is a pure idea. It occurs spontaneously and without instruction. Random acts of insurrection are occurring constantly. There are whole armies and battalions that have no idea they have already enlisted in the cause.


Remember that the frontier of the rebellion is everywhere, and even the smallest act of insurrection pushes our lines forward. Remember that the imperial need for control is so desperate because it is so unnatural. Tyranny requires constant effort. It breaks. It leaks. Authority is brittle. Oppression is the mask of fear. Remember that and know this, the day will come when all these skirmishes and battles, these moments of defiance will have flooded the banks of the empire's authority, and then there will be one too many. One single thing will break the siege. Remember this. Try.

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