Image Credit: House of Gül

Terror on a Train

By: Hamza Yusuf | President, Zaytuna College

Courage is the first and the foundation of the moral virtues. It is a quality that the ancients most admired in men and a quality that appears to be in decline in our modern world. But every once in a while, a sublime act of courage occurs, and, in spite of ourselves, it resonates deep within us, and we are overwhelmed with admiration for a quality that we recognize as something that transcends the mundanity of modern life.

Last Friday afternoon, when two young teenage girls (one of them wearing a headscarf) were being verbally abused by a monster in human form, three onlookers chose not to look away and instead came to the girls’ aid. Unexpectedly, the aggressor did something beyond our ken: he stabbed two of them to death and grievously injured the third man.

His hideous act brought to life awareness in all of us of a quality that is sorely in need of revival in our hate-filled times. When faced with hatred — whether it comes from a bigot, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, secularist, or atheist — we need to stand up to it, speak out against it, and publicly condemn it, until it becomes a deterrent to those who, even for a moment, think of expressing their hate. We can do that only by spreading the light of courage, prudence, temperance, and justice — qualities the ancients considered to be the highest moral potential that each of us actualizes.

Just as most Americans disavow that supremacist bigot’s ideology and know that it does not represent their beliefs, so too the vast majority of Muslims, who are peace loving and law-abiding people, disavow the Islamist extremists’ ideology and know that it has nothing to do with their beliefs. Collectivizing the sins of some on all is what led to the deaths of those two courageous men and the injury of the third man. And that is the ideology that we all must fight within ourselves — that we do not take the individual actions of anyone to represent the actions of everyone, no matter the group they may be from, unless they are their stated beliefs.

The media’s double-standard is perhaps more glaringly obvious than usual in this particular tragic event: we must ask ourselves, instead of “Jeremy Christian,” had the horrific aggressor had a name like “Abdullah Muslim,” and had those two girls been dressed differently and been of a different skin color, in the very same scenario, instead of viewing the murderer as a “psychopath,” would we now be looking at an incident of “terrorism” in which many of us would be collectively blaming all Muslims, just as Jeremy Christian blamed those two innocent girls for the acts of a monstrous minority?

When tragedy like this happens, it demands reflection in order to penetrate the meanings or to allow the meanings to penetrate us. Aeschylus, the great Greek tragedian, who understood the human heart, wrote,

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
Until in our despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Tragedy acquires meaning and consequence only if we learn from it. And what we must learn from this tragic event in Portland is that the best of America came up against the worst of America on that train. And even though the best died, in their death, there has to be a collective affirmation from all of us that the America of Jeremy Joseph Christian is not the America that we want. Instead, we must resolve to nurture the America of the three courageous men who put their lives on the line. The America we celebrate is that of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Ricky John Best, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher — the America that protects the vulnerable not the one that preys on them like a quarry. May we as Americans acquire the wisdom that comes through the awful grace of God.

Taliesin Namkai-Meche’s mother embraced a Muslim girl at the vigil for her son. Images from Yashar Ali’s Twitter account

Taliesin’s family released this statement on Saturday afternoon:

“Taliesin Myrddin lived a joyous and full life. His enthusiasm was infectious. We lost him in a senseless act that brought close to home the insidious rift of prejudice and intolerance that is too familiar, too common. He was resolute in his conduct (and) respect of all people. In his final act of bravery, he held true to what he believed is the way forward. He will live in our hearts forever as the just, brave, loving, hilarious and beautiful soul he was. We ask that in honor of his memory, we use this tragedy as an opportunity for reflection and change. We choose love. Safe journey Taliesin. We love you.”

This reflection was originally posted on Sandala.com