When he found himself in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Adnan Syed made a conscious choice to “be a better Muslim.”
At least that’s what he told Sarah Koenig, host and executive producer of Serial, the podcast that has brought the 15-year-old murder of Hae-Min Lee back to light. Like many young people, Syed initially identified as Muslim just because his parents were part of the faith. As an adult, however, he has reportedly thought more deeply about what it means to believe in God.
“Now he can say that for nearly half his life, he’s lived like he’s supposed to,” says Koenig in Episode 9 of the immensely popular series. “He knows it’s a rationalization of his situation, but it’s been the most helpful one.”
Syed is currently serving a life sentence for a murder he claims he had nothing to do with. The prosecutors and police were supposed to handle the investigation without giving in to any kind of religious bias. But Koenig has repeatedly raised the question of whether prejudiced views of Syed’s Pakistani heritage and Muslim faith may have tainted the way they presented the case to the jury.
The specter of prejudice reared its ugly head in a report written by a cultural consultant for the detectives in charge of the case. One of its conclusions stated that “it acceptable for a Muslim man to control the actions of a woman by completely eliminating her.” Another part of the report claimed that “within this harsh culture, he has not violated any code, he has defended his honor.”
Koenig made sure to mention that she wasn’t sure if the report influenced the detectives’ investigation.
But Rabia Chaudry, Syed’s friend, is completely convinced that religious discrimination helped lead to Syed’s conviction.
Chaudry, a lawyer and a Security Fellow for the New America Foundation, was the one who initially brought Syed’s case to Koenig’s attention. Chaudry knew Syed back when he was a lanky 17-year-old honor student at Baltimore County’s Woodlawn High School.
She’s been blogging about the case after every episode. Chaudry spoke with The Huffington Post about the part that religion played in Syed’s case.
Tell me about Syed’s faith. Was religion important to him as a teen?
I think Adnan was a typical child of religious parents -- parents who are really religious and connected to the mosque and local community. There are certain expectations for you to be at the mosque at certain times -- you get pulled in. But everyone has their own levels of rebellion. It’s very rare to find a teen who is a deeply religious person -- how often does that happen in any faith community? Very often, all of us feel an obligation to faith at first because of your parents, but then you grow into your religion as an adult. That’s what happened with Adnan. The faith aspect is something that has kept him anchored after his incarceration and helped him find a community in prison. As a teen, he was just typical. Religion was something he had to deal with.
In one of his interviews, Syed said that perhaps if he’d been a good Muslim from the beginning, by not smoking pot or hanging out with the wrong crowd, these things wouldn’t have happened to him. How did you feel when you heard that?
That is maybe the closest I’ve ever heard him come to feeling some kind of regret. Adnan is one of those people who is self-reflective enough that he takes responsibility first and looks to blame others second. It’s not something a lot of people do and it was hard to hear. Because even though he said that, it is literally a part of Muslim creed that God decrees everything. There’s a passage in the Quran that says even if the whole world conspires for something to benefit you or harm you, it wouldn’t happen unless it was God’s will. So on some level, it’s your personal responsibility to do what’s best, but then you have to let go and let God and realize that for some reason, this was God’s will. I’ve always heard Adnan balance that at the end of every appeal. He’s always said that in the end, God is his judge. It’s really in God’s hands.
How is Syed’s faith now? How does he live it out?
It’s interesting because there’s a conversion phenomenon happening in prisons. A lot of people convert to Islam in prison. Everyone looked up to him in prison because he was authentically Muslim -- born and raised in it. It encouraged him to take on that leadership role. Any measure of practice would have been more conservative than where he was before. Islam inside the prison system versus outside in the community, I think they are different things. I can’t say I know Adnan’s place on the spiritual spectrum. But in general, most Muslims in prison, whether converts or not, tend to be on the more conservative religious end.
Do you think his Muslim faith made a difference in the trial?
Absolutely. I think because the state didn’t have proper evidence to connect him to the trial, they needed something like this. The religious factor was their ‘hole in one.’ After Adnan was arrested, my own brother was questioned by police. He was questioned about religious practices, like dating in Islam. And my brother’s like, “What the hell is this about?”
They didn’t make this a straight-up ex-boyfriend case, which they easily could have done. It was heavily influenced by religious bias.
Do you think Sarah Koenig did a good job in her portrayal of Muslims on the podcast?
I think she did a good job. She focused at least 75 percent of her time on things other than faith, even though that was a main part of the state’s case. For me and Adnan, that part was obviously unconstitutional. But if you want to get to the meat and potatoes in the case, you need to look at the lack of evidence, at the timeline given by the state, and Sarah spends most of her time doing that.
I was worried when this show started that the public would look at us as weird religious people. And that hasn’t happened. I am amazed by that. People have in fact been outraged by the religious bias. It’s disgusting to them. They’re not looking at Adnan as a weirdly religious person -- even though that’s what the prosecution did at the time.
I think Serial has already humanized Muslims in a way that a lot of pointed PR campaigns aren’t able to do. People are just not interested in the [religious bias] aspect of the case. It’s a non-issue for most people. And now, I get to go on interviews and talk about the case and the prosecution without having to talk about religion. As someone who has worked as a Muslim advocate, it’s nice to not have to talk about this stuff. It shows a level of growth and sophistication in America after 9/11.
What’s your hope for Syed?
Much of my hope has already been fulfilled. There are a lot of legal openings, thanks to Sarah’s work, one of them being the Innocence Project. New life has been breathed into this case and that’s what I wanted. I hope the public stays on it until there are some real results.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.