Mass shootings, police violence, and street crime have been in the American news for decades and have been portrayed as intractable problems. Our schoolchildren are being trained to escape bullets as campuses become hardened targets rather than hubs of learning and growth. The gun violence epidemic in the United States is “driven by…a violent culture in the United States and… access to guns,” says Margari Hill, co-founder and executive director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 40,000 people die from gun-related injuries each year in the United States. This number includes homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths.The impact of gun violence extends beyond the immediate physical harm caused by the injuries, because it also has a profound impact on the mental and emotional well-being of individuals, families, and communities.
This epidemic of gun violence has a disproportionate impact on members of BIPOC communities, many of whom identify as Muslim. In 2020, 12,179 Black Americans were killed with guns, compared to 7,286 white Americans. Among Hispanic and Latino people, 60% of gun deaths are gun homicides.
Firearms are used in more than half of female homicides in the United States. American Indian/Native women are murdered by guns at approximately three times the rate of white women. Among these groups, the most common gun violence occurs in situations of street violence, domestic violence, robberies, homicides, accidental deaths, and gang feuds.
The root causes of this gun violence are many: intergenerational trauma, distrust of police and authority, lack of stable housing, lack of economic opportunities, underperforming schools, and an array of military weapons easily available to Americans, to name a few.
Unfortunately, Islamophobia and gun violence can also be intertwined. Erum Ikramullah, a research project manager with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), explained how some Muslims often feel unsafe in certain parts of America due to their identity.
“Our previous research shows that Muslims did experience insecurity from the political climate of the Trump years, with Muslims and Jews the most likely to report experiencing fear for their personal safety from white supremacist groups (and) post-election anxiety in 2017 (38% of Muslims and 27% of Jewish Americans). Muslim women were more likely than Muslim men to report such fear,” Ikramullah said.
ISPU’s research shows that being inherently violent is a salient false stereotype held about Muslims, with 9% of the general public in agreement that most Muslims living in the U.S. are more prone to violence than other people (down from 13% in 2018).
“I was coming back from praying Salat ul-Isha [the last nightly obligatory prayer]…I heard somebody yell ‘Bin Laden’ or ‘terrorist’…the next day, I prayed Asr [the day’s third obligatory evening prayer] at the musalla. When I came back,I heard the same voice…He was just mocking me…he motioned with his hand condescendingly to move along. And I didn’t. And behind him, another person, who was in their front yard, said, ‘Stay right there, I got something for you’ and then went inside his house…when I saw a rifle, I left.”
The common response to gun violence is extra policing, but Kami N. Chavis, a vice dean at the William and Mary Law School and director of the W&M Center for Criminal Justice Policy and Reform, said, “I do not think we’re going to arrest our way out of this gun violence problem.”
Clearly, a reactive approach to gun violence is not working. Meredith Elizalde, a Muslim mother who lost her son to gun violence in front of her eyes, said, “Nothing changes. This country—it just keeps going down the same path, no matter how many kids die. They don’t care.”
Her son, Nick, was shot while at school. She agreed that not enough people are talking about the trauma that stems from historical, communal, and personal suffering in Muslim communities. She said that gun violence doesn’t discriminate; it’s as much a Muslim issue as it is an American issue.
Gun violence also makes other social issues worse. Domestic violence is a societal problem that becomes much more lethal and traumatic in the United States when guns are involved. Denise Berte, current executive director of the Peaceful Families Project and a licensed clinical psychologist, researcher, trainer, professor, and forensic practitioner with more than 25 years in multicultural trauma, including trafficking and violence against Muslim women, explained the situation further.
The Peaceful Families Project conducted a study (that has not yet been published) over 18 months between 2021 and 2023, based on 25 case studies of domestic homicide in the U.S. Muslim community. While the sample size was small, they found that guns were involved in many of the cases they studied.
In about 84% domestic violence cases, Berte said that “gun violence was one of the highest risk factors within the case. And that makes sense if you think about it…if you’re beating someone, you’re going to hear them crying, you see the pain that you’re inflicting, it’s physically tiring, it’s not easy to beat someone to death…With gun violence, it literally takes half a second and you’ve killed one person, two person[s], three persons, and yourself.”
Guns make the process of committing acts of violence much faster, making the ability to stop practically nonexistent. Guns in households have a complicated place, especially in households who feel marginalized in this country due to racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia. Some in the Muslim community have started buying guns as a self-defense mechanism “with the idea that this will protect them,” said Berte. But unfortunately, that is not the reality. More often, these same weapons are used to harm the family the weapon was supposed to protect.
“What we have found, however, with the intersection of family-based violence, is that…having that weapon in the home is much more likely to move a situation from domestic violence, which is bad, to domestic homicide, which is a complete tragedy,” said Berte.
Addressing the dual crisis: gun violence and mental health inequities
Black and brown communities often face systemic barriers to accessing mental health services and support, which can further exacerbate the impact of gun violence on their well-being. Margari Hill explained that Muslims, in particular, have compounding anxiety regarding the safety of their children because they have read too many “Janazahs,” or death prayers, for the younger generation.
Many Muslim individuals “experienced [a] great deal of trauma in their life,” according to Amin Eshaiker, who works with inmates in a prison outreach program, Link Outside, to offer resources, programming, and support for a better life in—and outside—prison. “…And a lot of those traumas are unresolved, whether it’s parenting, whether it’s the neighborhoods they grew up in, whether it was the criminal justice system, racism, etc.”
The growing mental health crisis proliferates both in response to and as an instigator of the gun violence epidemic. To solve one problem, both issues have to be worked on simultaneously.
Fortunately, the situation is not all bleak. There are potential solutions to address gun violence in BIPOC communities and, by extension, Muslim communities.
Individual states are taking action to curb gun violence. In California last year, Attorney General Rob Bonta set up the Office of Gun Violence Prevention to tackle the epidemic from multiple fronts: “seizure of firearms using the Armed and Prohibited Persons System database, prosecution of firearm trafficking cases, and defense of existing common sense gun laws.”
Kavi N. Chavis emphasized the importance of paying attention to the mechanisms being used to combat gun violence: “We are so fortunate to live in a country where we have so many diverse populations living side-by-side…my hope and aspiration would be that we all learn from each other…”
Chavis suggested another approach would be to increase mental health resources and support for communities in need, especially those 127 or so cities where half of gun violence is concentrated. These cities suffer from increased poverty, lower rates of education, and racial segregation. The solution offered is straightforward: Provide mental health support and resources to the cities that have the most common gun violence occurrences. Gun violence exposure is associated with PTSD, antisocial behavior, depression, stunted cognitive and emotional development, risky substance use, and a heightened likelihood of engaging in violent behaviors.
Empowering Muslim communities toward resilience
To break the cycle requires widespread support. Ahmad, who was wrongfully convicted of murder, said that “in places like where I am, ERDCC prison in Missouri, people from major towns like St. Louis and Kansas City are affected continuously by assaults and murders of family members and/or friends. They often seek out counseling from fellow prisoners because they don’t feel safe or have yet to overcome the stigma of seeing a ‘pysch’ about their personal problems.” He further explained that Muslim prisoners do not have the same resources to deal with trauma as their Christian counterparts.
Shaykh Mustafa Umar, former director of the Link Outside prison outreach program, underscored the need for Islamic counselors—professionals educated in both Islam and counseling—who can understand the religious and cultural nuances of Muslim communities.
When it comes to educational initiatives, he believes it’s crucial to engage individuals who have expertise in the realm of weaponry while also having a deep understanding of the cultural dynamics at play. By establishing a connection with culture or cultural history, significant positive outcomes can be achieved. He said there is a certain type of background in the community; they can invite an expert who not only understands the subject matter comprehensively but also maintains strong ties with diverse home countries. Doing so would allow an individual to address the prevailing situation, while highlighting the historical significance of the community and emphasizing instances of resistance and social movements.
Mustafa Umar said this approach can assist in finding equilibrium, emphasizing that while bearing arms, for instance, may not always align with the American context, historical traditions can be adjusted and interpreted to better fit current situations. Cultivating cultural sensitivity among participants is imperative for the success of educational initiatives.
Mustafa Umar advocated for Islamically trained and acculturated mental health therapists.
“We need to get more Islamic counselors because what ends up happening is we have Muslim counselors, but we don’t have the Islamic counselors,” he said.
This is important because not all Muslims may be well-versed in the teachings of Islam; having scholarly training in Islamic jurisprudence and theology would help facilitate smoother understanding.
In highlighting the impact of proper Islamic education, Shaykh Nsour recounted a story about one of his students who was a victim of gun violence but not retaliating because of “taqwa,” meaning the fearing of God.
“The work that we do is to increase people’s understanding of Islam and of themselves, and not only through Islamic education, but also through understanding criminality, understanding recovery and action plans,” Nsour said.
Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, an academic and executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, explained that there is not enough support in Muslim communities. “The fact [is] that many of our community organizations, nonprofits, or mosques are understaffed and often not as mature as some of the other sort of…faith communities, institutions…many mosques are run by either volunteers or one or two staff members at best. [which] means that there is capacity on that and then that means that outreach, that awareness needs to happen at an increased level.” He believes gun violence can be allayed through proper investment.
Other Muslim leaders focus on combating violence with retrospection, community support, and education. The Tayba Foundation offers courses relating to addiction, recovery, and therapeutic community to help incarcerees change their coping mechanisms with trauma. The courses, said Shaykh Nsour, help “increase people’s understanding of Islam and themselves, criminality, recovery plans” through realization of “what trauma is, how it affects a person, how a person can cope with it and …heal it,” ultimately to prevent gun violence or any other type of violence by changing behavioral thinking.
Tayba emphasized community support, which is evident in incarcerees creating courses and contributing to literature that is used to teach other incarcerees, using their experiences with the system and trauma to teach others about the most effective coping mechanisms. They have a course “that specifically addresses addiction and recovery from an Islamic standpoint.”
When it comes specifically to domestic violence, many organizations support women and children who are the primary victims of this behavior. However, leaving men untreated and without help leads to creating another set of victims and continuing the cycle. Thus, the Peaceful Families Project also has a program in place called “Peaceful Partners” that specifically addresses male needs by providing “male-to-male allyship, male-to-male support, male-to-male defining what is Muslim masculinity in a positive way,” said Berte.Ultimately, gun violence cannot be tackled until the root causes are addressed: racist policies in policing, inadequate access to housing, and lack of educational and economic opportunities for BIPOC communities. State legislatures, attorneys general, and local governments can step in to address these problems. Creating community violence intervention programs, preventing domestic abusers from accessing firearms, and addressing the unique needs of women of color can drive down the rates of gun violence deaths and casualties in America, including Muslim communities.
This article was made possible by a grant from the Google News Initiative.