"London neighborhoods on fire!" I was beginning to process the story as I turned into my block a little past midnight, when I was abruptly interrupted by a young man who jumped off his stoop and ran up to my car window. It was the first weekend of Ramadan, a month that, among many other things, commemorates the revelation of Quran as a profound and transformative intervention into the unjust social order of seventh century Arabia.
"Did you talk with him? Is there anyway he'll do it?"
"I'm sorry. It's not looking good," I respond. Larry is a 20-year-old unemployed African American man who lives at the end of my block. It's the corner house and the one where the more obvious drug dealing and other illicit activities take place.
For the last four weeks, I've been trying to use a recent connection at one of the new big box stores in Englewood to get Larry hired. Finally, he got the call. But he failed the background check. I tried to intervene and was told by an empathetic middle-aged African American manager that he appreciated what I was trying to do, but he couldn't even offer Larry an entry-level position stocking shelves. He admitted that if such a policy was in place when he was first seeking employment he too wouldn't have been hired.
There isn't much I can say to Larry and I don't want to offer false hope. I reluctantly drive off and listen to stories of a protest over the fatal shooting of a young black man in London turn into wide-scale riots in and around the city. I look into my rear-view mirror to catch a glimpse of Larry walking slowly back to the four or five other young men gathered on his stoop.
As policy experts and social scientists formulate theories for what happened in London last week, those of us who work in and care about the conditions in inner-cities across the United States must ask the question: Can or when will it happen here? Moreover, for Muslims, as the incident took place toward the end of the first week in Ramadan, we should ask what spiritual insights this month offers us as we reflect on the aftermath of these riots and the important lessons they hold.
Earlier this summer stories of an unprecedented type of violence in Chicago elicited harsh and immediate response from our new mayor. Instead of the tragic set of shootings that we have, sadly, become all too accustomed to, this swift response was to flash-mobs targeting tourists, students and others working or living in some of Chicago's most affluent neighborhoods. Within a few short days, heavily armed police were patrolling Chicago's legendary Magnificent Mile. Meanwhile, police presence was increased down and across public transportation arteries to Chicago's South and West Sides.
The profile was unmistakably racial: Young black men like Larry living in and across Chicago's South and West Sides, many from the most vulnerable demographics within neighborhoods with the highest unemployment rates in the country. Failing schools with atrocious drop-out rates, high recidivism, lack of jobs, chronic violence and a shrinking safety net have all contributed to a potentially incendiary social dynamic.
Along with historically high unemployment rates, the call for sweeping budget cuts across America's major cities will inevitably hollow out the already shrinking set of options some of these youth have. Nor is this confined to any racial or ethnic group. In a city like Chicago there are plenty of Latino, white and other youth confronting similar circumstances. Like London, there are plenty of other youth whose sense of worth has been so conflated with material items that it would be hard to believe they could resist the opportunity to join in with looting or rioting if the right environment presented itself.
Ramadan challenges us to care and even feel implicated in the gross inequities that unfortunately characterize life in many of our major cities and society at large. For Muslims, this is a month of Taqwa, or an all-encompassing and supremely heightened consciousness of the Divine. The term is used in multiple forms throughout the Quran. One oft-cited verse declares: "Truly the most dignified among you is the one with most Taqwa."
Muslims are spiritually agitated, especially in this month, to consider how unjustly contingent a life of dignity has become on what part of town you live in, what schools you were educated at or what other life chances you were denied because of the persistent socio-economic patterns of ethnic and racial segregation in many of our major urban centers.
The solutions aren't easy and certainly won't be arrived at overnight, but the spiritual agitation needed to consider the larger problem truly our own is perhaps one of the most important steps in ensuring that our neighborhoods don't end up in flames. For me, the daily fast, reflections on its deeper spiritual-social justice meanings and the group of unemployed and relatively hopeless young men hanging out at the end of my block will be the reasons this Ramadan to take the lessons of the London riots, as partly prompted by ongoing social inequities, seriously.