‘Really beautiful, really hard’: How Mississippi’s Muslims cope with the COVID pandemic

Lamees El-Sadek refers to herself as being of the Mississippi and Nile Rivers, a person of Egyptian heritage who grew up in Crystal Springs, Miss., about 45 minutes south of Jackson. She’s currently the field director of the Community Engagement Alliance Against Covid-19 disparity, an initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health. She is also a doctoral candidate in public health at Harvard University.

We spoke immediately following two vaccination events the alliance co-hosted with the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, a local mosque and the state health department.

El-Sadek warned against the rising infection rates of Delta strain of COVID-19 as well as the low vaccination rates in the Deep South. She also discussed the pandemic’s impact on the South’s Muslim communities and what it was like growing up in Mississippi in the years following 9/11. She shared some surprising ways small, rural communities differ from larger northern communities.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

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Reckon: To start, we are starting to see COVID numbers tick back up after a while of them being on the decline. I know you hosted two events to vaccinate people in Mississippi today. Did you get a good turnout?

Lamees El-Sadek: We got a good turnout for what our standards are at this point or what our expectations are at this point. I think we had a dozen at our second site. I haven’t gotten the report of how many were at our first site.

And that’s the reality across the state at most of these pop-up events. I think the overwhelming majority of people who wanted the vaccine got their vaccines as soon as they were available to them. And events are more geared towards those who are convinced or maybe on the line, but this will really push them over to the “Yes” group. Or the “Yes” category. Yes, you will get vaccinated.

It’s just putting the vaccines wherever they already are. And whether that’s their faith space, their work, their home even. We do lots of home-based visits now. Our turnout was good for what we expected.

Reckon: And these events were hosted with the Museum of Muslim Culture there in Jackson. I mean, what have we seen in terms of vaccination rates among the South’s Muslim populations?

El-Sadek: We don’t really collect data in terms of faith categories, so I’m not sure what our Muslim population vaccination rates look like in comparison to other religious groups. What I do know is that a good proportion of our Muslim population, at least in the metro Jackson area—and really across the state—immigration is a big reason why a large proportion of our Muslims are here in this state. And because having either a vaccination or a negative, recent history of Covid is required for international travel and lots of families tend to travel during the summer.

A good proportion, anecdotally from who I know, of the Muslim community has been vaccinated. The other big group that constitutes the Muslim community is the Black community. There’s a significant number of Black Muslims. And from the beginning, at least in Mississippi, they’ve been very vocal and very active. And they’ve offered very active leadership in ensuring that vaccines or shots are accessible to the Black community. And so they also received their vaccines very early when those were available. Exactly what those numbers look like, I’m not sure.

Reckon: How concerned are you about spread right now? We’re seeing big numbers out of Florida. And we’re starting to even see some spread among vaccinated populations.

Lamees El-Sadek: It’s very concerning, especially in Mississippi. We’re the lowest vaccinated state proportionately across the entire nation and there’s a number of reasons why that may be. There’s hesitancy across all groups, across white Mississippians but also across Black and Brown Mississippians. The hesitancies come in for different reasons. What really worries me the most is Mississippians who maybe want or are willing to get a vaccine, but they haven’t for reasons that are outside of their relative opportunity or feasibility.

And those reasons may be their job, they work very long hours. But I think people may use those excuses. So I’m just saying the extent that poverty can have on an individual or family’s life and lifestyle.

And in addition is the continued distrust that our history of medical racism and medical segregation has had on, especially, our Black communities in Mississippi. And we’ve really tried our best to speak to those reasons of distrust and reasons of hesitancy. Really getting out into rural communities and trying to meet people where they are, but I fear there’s still a significant level of distrust.

And we also know that people who serve us, people who work in service industries, people who serve on the frontline often tend to be members of the Black and Brown population. And so Delta already is the majority strain in Mississippi, and I suspect that we’re going to start seeing more and more deaths within our Black and Brown communities as a result of this. They’ll be the first affected and the most disproportionately affected.

Hammontree: You talked about the Muslim immigrant community getting vaccinated in part for international travel. My understanding is this is the second year that that the Hajj to Mecca has been limited in terms of who can complete it, because of COVID. Is that something that is affecting the population there in Mississippi? Are there people who will miss out on the opportunity to do it ever because they weren’t able to do it these two years?

El-Sadek: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m not sure how many in our community intended to do the Hajj this year and haven’t been able to. I remember last year it was completely essentially cut off except for local residents. This year they opened it up. I believe 60,000 Muslims qualified. I don’t know anyone from Mississippi who is going this year.

Islam is very big on intention. So, I think if anyone had the intention of going and was unable to go because of COVID resurgence then, God willing, their pilgrimage will be accepted. And, theologically, they will be treated as though they had undergone the pilgrimage and completed it fully.

I think once the opportunity genuinely becomes available for us to go to Hajj, I think maybe that will be an incentive for some at least in this area to receive their vaccinations. In a lot of Muslim countries, actually, they give people these vaccine cards and they really can’t go—this is not related to Hajj—but you can’t go, for example, to a movie or you can’t enter a mall, or you can’t enter certain supermarkets unless you’ve been vaccinated. And I don’t know that they will have that restriction with Hajj in the future, but I think that’s at least one interesting pathway that we could consider.

Hammontree: How has the Muslim community in Jackson, and elsewhere around the South, responded to the pandemic in the last year? Obviously, people of all faiths were forced to worship from home for a long period. Certain celebrations and holidays and things like that were canceled. And now some of those things are starting to open back up. What’s the reaction that you’ve seen?

El-Sadek: Well, it’s been really, really beautiful and really, really hard in different ways. Going back to the Hajj point, last year because it was so restricted, a lot of the people that actually were able to do Hajj were those who were taking care of the buildings, including a lot of the custodial staff. And there were lots of images circulating of these front-line workers in Mecca and Medina, who were getting to pray and do this ritual that so many Muslims around the world, millions of Muslims around the world desire to pursue but were unable.

So that was really an awakening point. Hajj has always been associated in modern times with who can afford to go, who can afford to travel. And for the first time, it was the opposite. It was sort of a role reversal. It was actually those who we often put in the lowest rungs of “class,” and those who are financially or economically the most vulnerable, those were the ones that were actually able to experience this very holy journey.

And so that I think, caused a lot of Muslims here, but also around the world, it sort of caused a lot of us to have this level of introspection of how interconnected we are and what our responsibilities are to our fellow humans.

But more pointedly, more related to your question, Muslims really went online like most humans did. So a lot of our weekly Friday sermons, they call it khutba in Arabic, went online.

But what that meant is that we no longer were tied to our local mosques. We almost instantaneously became connected to any mosque we wanted to go to. Whether it was a mosque in Saudi Arabia, or the Mosque of Ibn Tulun which is the oldest mosque in the world in Egypt, or even here in the U.S., a lot of our big cities have really famous Imams. And before, you know, you’d have to travel to these big cities to listen to them. But finally, they were in your living room, as a result of everyone being digitized. And so that was a really beautiful experience.

And especially in Mississippi, we have a really difficult time recruiting and retaining Muslim scholars for similar reasons to why we have difficult time recruiting and retaining scholars and talents in any field, not just in the religious field. It really gave us access to a very high level of education, religious education that we typically don’t get to experience.

And the downside, of course, is that there’s especially the big holidays like Ramadan, and the two Eids, those are very communal, exceptionally communal. And it’s mandatory for you to pray the Eid prayer as a community, and when you don’t get to do that, you feel like you’re missing out on a big part of your religious experience. And especially in a place like Mississippi.

You know, I’m getting my doctoral degree in Boston and Cambridge, and there, you know, you run into Muslims everywhere, including on the metro line, and in class, at the grocery store. It doesn’t matter where you are, you’re almost guaranteed to run into Muslims, but in a place like Mississippi, you have to intentionally seek Muslims out and the easiest place to do that is at the mosque and is at these events that you look forward to every year. And so, we really realized the importance and value and beauty of community. But we also intellectually and religiously learned a lot as a result of being on lockdown.

Reckon: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Talking a little bit more about that experience in Mississippi versus Boston, did you grow up in Mississippi?

El-Sadek: I did. Yeah. I was born and raised in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, a small rural town of about 5000 people about 40-45 minutes south of Jackson.

Reckon: I’m curious, you know, I guess we just crossed the 20-year anniversary of the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson. I think it opened April 2001. And then, obviously, just a few months later 9/11 happened and we saw this big wave of Islamophobia in the United States. And it certainly was acute in the Black Belt region. So, what was your experience like growing up in Mississippi?

El-Sadek: I think I was in seventh grade when 9/11 happened and I remember a couple of my teachers turning on the news. And I was seeing that as someone who really never affiliated—or at the time, I didn’t affiliate with that incident. Because immediately it was associated with Osama Bin Laden, and he’s from Afghanistan. You know, that’s not even an Arab country. They don’t even speak Arabic.

And so, like, as a young person, you know, I didn’t really have the baggage that I understand now—the political and religious baggage that’s associated with Islam. I didn’t have that at that age. I was just as shocked as anyone else and as afraid as any other student or American was. But that soon changed.

You know, a lot of my classmates as time would go on would just make different insults like, “Oh, your uncle must be from the Taliban.” I don’t wear the headscarf, but my mom wears a headscarf. And my mum’s also a teacher of the same public school system I went through and so, you know, I would get lots of jokes like, “oh, why does your mom wear that rag?” And it was a bunch of like, “Where’s your rag? You’re not gonna wear your rag?” A lot of comments like that.

But all of that was a lot milder than what… I think I was just lucky that I didn’t experience worse and that me and my family didn’t experience worse treatment than that. Because there were people who were killed in the metro Jackson area. And they weren’t even Muslims. There was a Sikh family, and they owned a gas station in Jackson, and they were mistaken as Muslims, and they were shot in the gas station.

And the museum, if you’re familiar with the museum, you may know that it was vandalized during that time and spray painted and windows were broken. And so, there were some incidents like that.

Definitely, I think that experience really otherized me and my family.

It otherized us, but at the same time, it brought some of the community closer to each other. So, my kindergarten teacher was Miss Mary Kitchens, who is the wife of Judge Jim Kitchens who is one of the Supreme Court justices in Mississippi. immediately the next day after 9/11, she came over to our home with food and a fruit basket and told us “I know that you’re probably going to experience difficult challenges and insults from the community. So just know that we have your back.” And you know, that really meant a lot to my family at the time. And it still does to this day.

So there were incidents like that, but, you know, now that I’ve gotten older and lived and grown up in a place like Mississippi and also experienced life in Boston, and places like Washington, DC. and Baltimore, what I’ve realized is that in smaller communities like Crystal Springs, not necessarily places like Jackson, although that would still apply if you compared it to a city like Boston. These places are so small that you have no choice but to get to know each other. Even if you don’t like each other, you still have to get to know each other.

And at that level, you really humanize each other.

And even if I’m sure that many of my friends and many of their parents hate Muslims, you know, they despise Muslims. And they even told us that, you know, “we wish that America would nuke the entire Middle East,” they told my family this right? Looking us right in our eyes. But they loved us. They loved the el-Sadek family. And it’s very strange. How can you wish that an entire region would be exterminated from the face of the Earth, but you like us and you invite us to your house and you invite us to dinner?

And there’s sort of this cognitive dissonance that I think may happen in the South where they like certain individuals, but for, whatever reason, they think that people abroad are different. You know, like, we’re “different” than other Muslims, we’re “different” than other Egyptians. And so, I always felt supported by my community in Crystal Spring and in Mississippi, even though I know that most of my friends—especially from my childhood—probably vote against my interests and probably have conversations with their friends that are against my interests. But on an individual level, I felt supported. And same with my parents. If they ever needed to take off work, they trusted that their coworkers would fill in for them. If they ever got sick, or any of us got sick, my sister often got sick growing up and was in and out of the hospital, and we always had, you know, friends coming over with food as a sign of support.

In Boston, I had a very different experience. In Boston, it was a very liberal, very progressive community that I lived in. But interestingly, I didn’t feel at all individually supported. In fact, it was the opposite. And I remember when Trump had his Muslim ban, there was a lot of protests happening in Copley Square in Boston, and a couple of my classmates decided to organize a cohort movement. And so, they wanted to make shirts and posters and go out to join the protests. And they were so enthusiastic about it, and constantly sending us pictures in the WhatsApp group of the posters they were making and the shirts they were making. And, you know, these were all white members of our cohort. But at no point did they actually reach out to any of the Muslim members of the cohort, or the Latino members of the cohort.

And so, while they were really participating in this big party or big celebration of unity against this awful policy, they didn’t really help the people that were closest to them or offer any semblance of support to the people that are the classmates that were nearest to them that they could actually immediately be able to impact or support. Rather than just policies that will take a lot longer to change. And, you know, there’s this this mentality up there of every person for him or herself. And it’s interesting, because while it’s maybe more progressive there and policies are more inclusive there, on an individual level, you don’t feel more included in the community. Does that make sense to you?

Reckon: Yeah, that makes sense. I think the smaller the community is, like you said, the more that people are going to have to at least know each other, whether they wind up liking each other or not. And when you’re in a big city, you can become just a face in the crowd. Do you have any message to anybody out there who has not yet been vaccinated, may be on the fence, something that you would say to encourage them to get vaccinated?

El-Sadek: There’s a lot to say and then there’s almost nothing you can say at this point. And I will say this. It’s been politicized a lot, the vaccines. And just from my experience working with communities and talking with people who have not been vaccinated, their reason for not getting vaccinated, it’s not really political. It’s not related to any huge conspiracies. It’s a lot of reasons, like, they just haven’t had the time to go get their vaccine, they’re afraid they’re going to get sick with side effects, not even from COVID, but just you don’t want to get sick and have to miss out from work.

And the reality is, you know, at this point, if you haven’t gotten COVID, and you have not gotten the vaccine, you will probably get COVID at some point in the near future. And even if you can handle it, even if your body is able to fight it, you may give it to someone whose body is not able to fight it. And God forbid something happens to them, and no one wants to live with that burden. Just making some time to protect yourself goes a long way in protecting your entire community and helping all of us get beyond this awful pandemic that we’ve been living through for a year and a half now.

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