by Haroon Dean
Sriram Shamasunder, professor at UCSF and Co-Founder of the HEAL initiative, repeated the following question throughout his Tedx talk at TedxBerkeley: “Whose suffering matters less and why?” He quoted late poet June Jordan with calculated pauses and timed repetition, and Dr. Shamasunder made his message abundantly clear: some narratives receive attention while others are silenced, and the difference between the two is the difference between life and death.
Within our own tradition, we find a particular responsibility to bear witness to silenced narratives:
“And thus we have made you a just community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you […]” (2:143).
Rather than being a declarative statement regarding our existence, I think this addresses what should be the ethos of the Muslim community. We are not just by nature, and therefore we must continuously strive to be just. The responsibility of being witnesses over humankind translates to the need for the Muslim to exceptionally broaden their horizons. It is this need that I believe we, as writers for Al-Bayan, must fulfill.
But what do I mean by broadening our horizons? Al-Bayan has served as an amazing outlet for us to freely share our stories. It has been the convenient and favorite platform for us to discuss the American-Muslim identity with all its perks and quirks. And it makes sense—after all, Al-Bayan is fundamentally an American-Muslim publication. It is one that has been solely dedicated to showcasing a voice that is underrepresented. However, the discourse of identity is but an aspect of our voice, yet the publication has become fixated on it. Though the discourse serves to recognize the validity of our experience, it’s become the lion’s share of what’s talked about. This publication is for marginalized voices and narratives in more than one way. This platform is also meant for the sister with the brilliant analysis on a public health issue to share her thoughts with the world by means of Al-Bayan. It is also meant for the brother who wants to write a work of fiction unmarred by the critique of those who neither comprehend nor attempt to understand the cultural context of his work.
Perhaps most importantly this platform, we forget, must be used to speak out against injustice. We must ask: who would care if Al-Bayan disappeared tomorrow? The extent of our impact is immediately apparent at the latest Al-Bayan launch party. Most of, if not all, our guests are Muslim, students, cis-gendered, heterosexual, of either South Asian or Arab descent, and so forth. Within the Bay Area alone is the massive systemic displacement of peoples from homes they’ve lived in for decades. Overseas, Yemen is being ravaged, people are protesting for accessible education in South Africa, and millions have been infected with Zika virus in South America. These are all narratives and stories just as important as ours. There are topics, ideas, and people that need to be spoken about through our platform.
This year—specifically this semester—Al-Bayan has opened its doors to new writers from all over the state. I sincerely hope that this influx of brilliance will allow for Al-Bayan to expand the breadth of its discourse. After all, this letter is a simple call to return to our roots. The Muslims have historically been the standard of what it meant to be well versed, literate, and critical. Our scholarship is known today within major fields because we spoke on things that mattered, not just to us, but also to the world at large. When we write for the Spring 2016 semester, let’s write while keeping the big picture in mind—whether that means asking yourself, “Whose suffering matters less and why?” or questioning your role as a witness to mankind.