The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has just upheld a lower court’s ruling that the Rev. Daisy Obi, a 73-year-old pastor originally from Nigeria, and a Somerville landlord, must not only serve six months in jail for pushing a Muslim tenant, but must “enroll and attend an introductory course on Islam.”
BOSTON – After a landlord was convicted of pushing her Muslim tenant down a flight of stairs, a judge ordered her to respect the rights of all Muslims and to take an introductory course on Islam. Now the highest court in Massachusetts is being asked to decide whether the judge violated the landlord’s constitutional rights.
The Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments next month in a case that poses interesting legal questions at a time when the country is grappling with anti-Muslim backlash following deadly attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, both allegedly carried out by radical Muslims.
The case centers on Daisy Obi, a 73-year-old ordained minister from Nigeria who is the pastor of the Adonai Bible Center in Somerville, just north of Boston. In April 2012, Obi rented an apartment in her multi-family home to Gihan Suliman, her husband and five young children.
Suliman complained about the heat and electricity not always working, while Obi complained Suliman appeared to have 12 to 15 people living in the apartment at one point.
Suliman testified that about a month after she moved in, Obi stood on the stairs outside Suliman’s apartment screaming anti-Muslim insults.
The following month, while Suliman was taking her baby out of the car, she said Obi yelled anti-Muslim sentiments at her other children.
Then, about a month later, Suliman said Obi accused her of ringing her doorbell, shouted at her and pushed her. Suliman said she fell backward down 15 to 20 stairs, hitting her face on the banister, cutting her lip and tearing a ligament in her shoulder.
“While sentencing Obi last year, Judge Paul Yee Jr. called Obi “the landlord from hell” after pointing out that she had harassment prevention orders issued against her by two other tenants.
These were not Muslim tenants.
He sentenced her to two years in jail on the assault and battery charge for pushing Suliman but required her to serve only six months, with the remaining 18 months suspended if she complied with certain probation conditions.
“I want you to learn about the Muslim faith,” he said. “I want you to enroll and attend an introductory course on Islam,”
“I do want you to understand people of the Muslim faith, and they need to be respected. They may worship Allah … but they need to be respected.”
Obi vehemently denied making any anti-Muslim statements to Suliman or pushing her. She testified she was inside her apartment praying when she heard a knock at the door from the police, who arrested her.
Obi said in a phone interview that she believes Suliman had a vendetta against her because she refused to allow her to let more people live in her apartment.
“I’ve never, ever made a rude remark against her,” she said.
“Why would I do that? I have three Muslims living in the house now.”
Obi also said she believes Suliman hates her because she is a Christian.
Suliman did not respond to messages left at her home and workplace.
As to previous signs of anti-Muslim bias: Rev. Daisy Obi’s property is in one of the tightest rental markets in the country, and she would have had no trouble finding tenants. Her willingness to rent to Muslims is a reasonable indication of lack of bias when there were so many non-Muslims she might have taken instead. And even now she has three Muslim tenants. And there has been no suggestion that those Muslim tenants have had any problem with Rev. Obi.
Surely the chief grievance Rev. Obi had with the Sulimans has to do not with their being Muslims, but with those 15 people living in the apartment that Rev. Obi thought she was renting to a family of seven. Apparently Gihan Suliman had no response – none is reported – to Rev. Obi’s claim about those 15 people. Wouldn’t she have denied it if it were false?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Rev. Obi’s charge is plausible. My own mother-in-law rented an apartment in her home to what appeared to be a quiet Pakistani couple. It was only when, several months into the rental, that she smelled smoke and went upstairs to see what was going on, that she discovered 15 people had been living there all along – never mind the gas burners that were spread out on the living room floor in violation of every relevant code. I’ve told that story to others, and have been surprised at how many people have had similar experiences with Muslim tenants.
We hear of Gihan Suliman’s complaint about intermittent heat and electricity, but not what likely caused the problem. Fifteen people make a larger demand on heat and electricity than seven, perhaps more than the systems – or the fuses – could bear. Nothing is said about whether Rev. Obi fixed the problems in a timely fashion once alerted. Did she? Are there utilities bills that might show unusually large usage of heat and electricity? Were utilities included in the rent? Why did Judge Yee not address this aspect of the case, to either confirm or deny Rev. Obi’s claim about the 15 people crammed into that apartment?
And then there are the two episodes, a month apart, of “anti-Muslim statements” that Gihan Suliman accuses her landlord of making. The landlord flatly denies having made them. It’s one person’s word against another. The Judge chose to believe Gihan Suliman. Does Suliman remember those “anti-Muslim” statements? What were the exact words that expressed “anti-Muslim” bias? Why does the opinion not include any of them, so we might judge for ourselves? Is it possible that Suliman was quick to perceive as an “anti-Muslim” sentiment what was merely anti-Suliman, or that, keenly aware of the usefulness of Muslim victimhood, she chose to hear, or might have thought she heard, or even, recollecting those words in tranquility later on, decided to claim she considered expressions of frustration by the landlord (who might, for example, have excoriated “you people”), as “anti-Muslim statements. Was Rev. Obi really the “landlord from hell,” or was it perhaps just as likely in this case that the Sulimans were “tenants from hell”?
There is the claim by Suliman that Rev. Obi pushed her down the stairs. Obi flatly denies it. How likely is it that a split lip and a torn ligament would be the only result of a violent and direct shove down many stairs?
Finally, Obi claims that Suliman hates her because “she is Christian.” Is that charge so outlandish? Obi comes from Nigeria, where almost two million Christian civilians were killed by Muslims during the Biafra War, a war that came about after pogroms against the Christian Ibos by the Muslim Hausa and Fulani led the Ibos to declare their independent state of Biafra. Rev. Obi has a certain amount of personal experience of being on the receiving end of Islam, which no course assigned by Judge Yee can provide. And if we look around the world today, do we not see many examples of Muslims displaying hatred, even murderous hatred, for Christians, as they have been doing for 1,400 years?
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, we agree with Judge Yee’s findings. We accept completely Gihan Suliman’s version of events. Yes, we believe she was shoved down those stairs by Rev. Obi. We believe that the landlord twice expressed (still unspecified) anti-Muslim sentiments. Let’s pretend that we find it preposterous that Gihan Suliman might have had 15 people in her apartment, and ludicrous to think that as a Muslim she could possibly hate Rev.Obi, and want to take advantage of her, merely “because she is a Christian.”
What worries is not so much Judge Yee’s finding, unfair as that may be, but the remedy he has ready. Not the six months in jail, onerous for a 73-year-old. It’s the Re-Education Camp aspect of all this: in sentencing Rev. Obi, Judge Yee said that “I want you to learn about the Muslim faith. I want you to enroll and attend an introductory course on Islam.
“I do want you to understand people of the Muslim faith, and they need to be respected. They may worship Allah … but they need to be respected.”
What does this forced re-education mean? It means that Judge Yee is sure that if only Rev. Obi learns about the faith of Islam, she will of course realize the error of having thought ill of Muslims (but she didn’t think ill of Muslims, to whom she is even now renting – she thought ill of Gihan Suliman). Possibly Judge Yee does not realize that Rev. Obi has had plenty of experience with Muslims in her native Nigeria, and hardly needs to be lectured on learning “about the Muslim faith.” But because Muslims “need” respect, it’s up to Rev. Obi to get with the program, learn just enough in some “introductory” class about Islam to see the faith, and its adherents, in a new light, and offer them, like so many pitiful rodney-dangerfields, the respect not that they “deserve” but, rather, “need.” Also sprach Judge Yee.
Rev. Obi has been ordered to “enroll” in a course on “introductory Islam.” Where? Taught by whom? On whose recommendation? Will Judge Yee be making that decision? Surely he will have to, for he can’t expect Rev. Obi to know what course is suitable for what she needs; she’s the one being “re-educated.”
And to whom will he turn to for advice? Will he rely on the local chapter of CAIR, that samaritan “civil rights organization for Muslims,” which is no doubt eager to recommend whatever course offers the most sanitized version of the Qur’an and Hadith? Or will Judge Yee turn to a certified Objective Authority on Islam, such as Professor Noah Feldman, who teaches at Harvard Law School (the Stamp of Quality), who surely must know whereof he speaks, else why would he be at Harvard? Or will Judge Yee reach out for advice to similar Leading Experts on Islam across the country, such as John Esposito, and Reza Aslan (“World’s Greatest Authority”), or even consult that Leading Writer on World Religions, the eminently fair-minded Karen Armstrong?
Let’s assume there is an “introductory course on Islam” for non-Muslims given at some community center or outreach program attached to a mosque in Somerville. And assume further, as is likely, the reading list for this course consists of a carefully abridged version of the Qur’an, leaving out all the most anti-kuffar bits (no 9:5 or 9:29 or 2:191-193), but giving a lot of attention to 2:256 and 5:32 without 5:33. Will Rev. Obi, or her lawyer, be allowed to object to the course she is assigned to take, to show in what ways the course is misleading, before the farce begins? Will we even be allowed to find out what is on the syllabus for the course, and to post it online for public discussion, so everyone can see what is being force-fed, as part of the re-education of Rev. Obi?
Since it is hard to make sense of much of the Qur’an (this “wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite, endless iterations, long windedness, entanglement,” as Carlyle called it), Rev. Obi would undoubtedly want to have on hand a commentary, or tafsir, to elucidate the many obscure passages. Now what commentary on the Qur’an will she be allowed to use? Would it be alright if she consulted a relentlessly straightforward exegesis, verse by verse, that is to say, Robert Spencer’s lucid exposition, “Blogging the Qur’an”? No? Why not? On what basis would Judge Yee claim that that such a commentary would “not be helpful” in understanding the Qur’an? Because it won’t lead to the “respect” for Muslims that is the whole point of this absurd and insidious exercise?
Will this “introductory course” include not just an expurgated Qur’an, but a similarly abridged Hadith? What will Rev. Obi be allowed to learn about Muhammad’s life? Will she learn, do you think, about Muhammad and little Aisha? Or about the murders of Asma bint Marwan and Abu ‘Afak? What about Muhammad’s raid on the Khaybar oasis? Or his watching with evident satisfaction the beheading of the bound prisoners of the Banu Qurayza? What will be allowed, and what will be carefully kept out, from the handful of Hadith Rev. Obi will be assigned to read? Will she dare, in the privacy of her home, to read a little more of the Qur’an and Hadith than is assigned, or is there going to be a strict limit on just how much she will be allowed to learn, lest she start feeling less rather than more respect for Muslims, thus fatally vitiating the whole point of Judge Yee’s force-feeding of an “introductory course” on Islam? Or has Rev. Obi, having grown up in a country split between Muslims and Christians, already read the Qur’an, as well as experienced the Living Qur’an?
It is clear that Judge Yee believes that the more Dr. Obi learns about Islam, the more she will be disabused of whatever anti-Muslim feelings she may, so unfairly, have somewhere acquired. And then she will give Muslims the “respect” Judge Yee says they need (“I do want you to understand the Muslim faith…and they need to be respected”). The If P, then Q here is most doubtful: If you understand the Muslim faith, then you will give them the respect they deserve. Sez who? But the good judge seems to think it is simply impermissible for Rev. Obi to be allowed to think otherwise.
What kind of person believes that the more you find out about Islam, the more you will find in it to like? Oh, the kind of person who knows nothing at all about Islam, but doesn’t think he needs to take an “introductory course” himself, for his mind is made up, and he refuses to entertain the frightening possibility that, just maybe, the more one finds out about Islam, the less impressed, and the more appalled, any person of sense will become. Someone like Judge Yee.
It will be fascinating to follow this case further. Wouldn’t we all like to know what course Rev. Obi ends up taking, and whether she has had to receive the approval of Judge Yee? We’d like to see the syllabus, the topics covered, the readings assigned, as part of the Re-education of Rev. Obi. And after it’s been given, can we please see a copy of the final exam? It would be useful if everything about that course could be posted on the Internet, so those of us who take a keen interest in how Islam is presented in the West will be able to follow along. Why should anyone object? Certainly not Judge Yee. If such a course does wonders for Rev. Obi, why not allow many others to be “re-educated” at the same time?
And whoever is teaching the course will be put on notice that he now has a much larger audience than he may have bargained for, and certainly not the kind of submissive audience he was hoping for. Let’s see if it cramps his style.
Is this case worth this attention? Yes, because for the first time an American judge has assigned, as part of a defendant’s punishment for assault and battery, a course of “re-education” about Islam. And while this may be the first such punishment, it looks like the face of things to come. How long before many others will be forced to endure this kind of sinister “re-education,” until we are all parroting a party line on Islam, making sure to give Muslims the respect that some judge insists not that they deserve but that they “need,” and ready to tug at our forelocks as they pass, just like dhimmis of old, and all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.