To the Teacher:
In this lesson, students continue the exploration they began in Part 1 of what happened after a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas, was defaced. In Part 2, students learn about and discuss the aftermath of the event, which included an informal restorative process. The lesson is based on this New York Times story by Sabrina Tavernise.
Ask a volunteer to read the following by Alice Walker:
Someone told me once
that Earth is
the only planet that has
The only planet that has mornings!
This is an intriguing thought: and, how would they know? The poet in me loves it, however, because it sees the metaphor of new beginnings, optimism, rising to the occasion (in Mexico a friend calls sunset "the occasion"), and getting on with the new day. I also appreciate the notion of our specialness, as a planet, whether it is accurate or not.
Ask students to think about a time in their lives they tried something anew, were given a second chance, or had a new beginning at something. What was that like? In a go–round (with a talking piece if you use one), ask for student reflections. Or, if time is short today, ask volunteers to share an experience and what it felt like.
Next, invite students to talk about a time in their lives they did something they regretted after the fact – something they wished they hadn't done, or done differently perhaps. Maybe it was something they did out of anger or because they were tired, overwhelmed, stressed out or otherwise compromised. What happened? How did it make them feel, and what do they wish they could have done differently? Why?
The Harm at the Al Salam Mosque
Invite students to think back to part 1 of the lesson about the Fort Smith Mosque. If they don't recall, remind students of the acts of vandalism on the Al Salam Mosque committed by Abraham Davis and his friends.
Restorative questions to consider for Abraham, who participated in the harm–doing:
- What do they think Abraham might have been thinking and feeling at the time?
- What has Abraham been thinking and feeling since then?
- Who do students think were affected by the young men's action(s)? Encourage students to include but go beyond the obvious mosque community members, e.g.:
o the mosque community members and their imam
o other Muslims in town
o other minorities in town
o the surrounding community
o Abraham's family and friends (and the families and friends of the other two young men involved in the vandalism)
o Abraham's elementary school principal
o the police involved in the investigation
o the lawyers, judges, etc. who are part of the criminal justice system
Next ask students to consider how the Al Salam Mosque community members were harmed. Restorative questions to consider:
- What was the reaction of mosque members at the time of the incident?
- What were their thoughts and feelings at the time of the incident?
- How were they affected?
- What do students think were some of the hardest things for the mosque community members?
Based on what we just discussed and knowing what we know:
- Do you think there should be consequences for Abraham's actions?
- Do you have a sense of what those consequences should be?
- Who do you think should have a say in determining what the consequences should be? Why?
Small Group Dialogue
Invite students, in groups of three to five, to read and then discuss this handout (which also appears at the end of this lesson). Use some of all of the following questions:
- What are your thoughts and feelings about what you just read?
- What stood out for you? Why?
- How do you feel about what the mosque members decided to do in response to the vandalism?
- How do you feel about how the court responded?
- Based on what you know, do you think there was healing from the harm done?
- Were things were made right in the end? How?
- Did the courts participate in the healing and/or making things right? What are your thoughts about that?
Explain that several of the questions used in our lesson today, are part of the process of "restorative practices" or "restorative justice."
These practices are in contrast to the more commonly used "punitive practices." Punitive practices focus on rules and on imposing consequences on those who reak the rules, without necessarily taking the individual people involved in the incident, or the specific circumstances, into consideration. More often than not, the focus of punishment is on the act of harmdoing and on the consequences for the person who did the harm. The people who were harmed (often called victims), are usually excluded from any process of healing or making things right. In Forth Smith, the prosecutor's office used a punitive approach: It went ahead with its conviction, seemingly without taking the Al Salam Mosque community's wishes into account.
"Restorative practices" try to include the people who were harmed in the process of making things as right as possible (given the situation and the people involved). The restorative process is voluntary. If people choose to engage in restorative practices, everyone is given a chance to share how they were affected by the events. Since people and relationships – that is, the fabric of community – was harmed by the vandalism in Fort Smith, it is that fabric that a restorative approach seeks to repair. Only the members of the mosque can know what they need for that repair to be possible.
In this story, it appears that while the court used a punitive approach, the people involved chose a restorative response. Abraham expressed his remorse in a letter to the mosque, which was not a court requirement. And Dr. Nassri, on behalf of the mosque community, generously went out of his way to argue against a felony conviction for Abraham. The court went ahead with the conviction it anyway, and the lawyers advised the mosque community not to meet with Abraham.
Despite this, Abraham reached out to the mosque community on Facebook and expressed his gratitude for the support he'd gotten from them. In response Wisam reached out to Abraham.
- Who provided healing to whom there? Explain.
Read aloud the message Yasim sent to Abraham:
Bro move on with life we forgave you from the first time you apologized don't let that mistake bring you down ... I speak for the whole Muslim community of fort smith we love you and want you to be the best example in life we don't hold grudges against anybody!
Invite students to think about this quote in the context of what they learned about the events in Fort Smith.
Handout: What happened next
Below is Abraham's letter to the Al Salam Mosque community:
Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,
I know you guys probably don't want to hear from me at all but I really want to get this to y'all. I'm so sorry about having a hand in vandalixing your mosque. It was wrong and y'all did not deserve to have that done to you. I hurt y'all and I am haunted by it. And even after all this you still forgave me. You are much better people than I.
I don't know what's going to happen to me, and that is honestly really scary. But I just wouldn't want to keep going on without trying to make amends. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause. I used to walk by your mosque a lot and ask myself why I would do that. I don't even hate Muslims. Or anyone for that matter. All in all, I just want to say I'm sorry.
After receiving Abraham's letter of remorse and apology, Dr. Nassri, the president of Al the Salam Mosque, convened a meeting of senior members of the mosque. In the sermon, the imam reminded them of their duty of Muslims to forgive. Anas Bensalah was at the meeting and said, if one of my kids did something stupid like this I would want them to be forgiven.
After the meeting, Dr. Nassri reached out to the prosecutor's office to let them know that the mosque did not want to press charges and strongly opposed a felony charge for Abraham. They did not want to destroy Abraham's life.
But although Dr. Nassri met the prosecutors a second time, they decided that Abraham would need to plead guilty to a felony, or face a trial. He wouldn't have to go to prison if he stayed out of trouble for three years. But any minor violation in those three years could land him behind bars for six years.
Dr. Nassri was taken aback. This is not what he had asked for. The court's consequences were harsher than the mosque members wanted. He said, "They call us the victims, and the victims say, ‘Hey, guys, loosen up!'"
Hisham, one of the Mosque's founders, agreed. Though he loves America, he doesn't like how hard it is to get a second chance in this country. "You do a stupid thing and you pay for it, but then no one will hire you," he said. Hisham has helped two men in this situation. He has given them odd jobs at his car lot and gone to court with them when no one else would. He feels these men already paid for their mistakes, in other ways as well. He sayd, "Someone messes up and it sticks with him all his life. Even if he tries to become a good man, the community says to him, ‘You are a bad man!' They encourage him to be a bad man."
When Abraham finally got home, he wanted to visit the mosque to say hello and thank the community. Dr. Nassri was good with this. He'd asked the prosecutor to allow Abraham to come, but was told no. Anas Bensalah suggested meeting Abraham in a café, but the public defender advised against it. So Abraham turned to Facebook:
Well, I'm home now ... I just want to say thank you to all those who have been supporting me and a big thanks to the guys at the mosque who have been supportive and helpful and I pray blessings over them.
The next day, he saw a response from Wasim, Hisham Yasin's son, who Abraham had been friends with in school:
Bro move on with life we forgave you from the first time you apologized don't let that mistake bring you down ... I speak for the whole Muslim community of fort smith we love you and want you to be the best example in life we don't hold grudges against anybody!"