Hugh Fitzgerald: Who Says There Is No Humor In Islam?


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During a holy month when he was supposed to be fasting, a Muslim inmate in the Mecklenburg County Jail still wanted his lunch.

So Travaile Speller has sued, claiming that his jailers and the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office discriminated against his religious practice by forcing him to eat only two meals each day during Ramadan.

That is clearly depriving me of necessary calories, as well as the recommend(ed) daily volume of nutrients that my body requires to function normally,” Speller says in his hand-written complaint. “They are intentionally eliminating one whole meal (lunch) which is cruel and unusual punishment directed towards all Muslims.”

There’s just one problem: During Ramadan (which took place this year from May 15 to June 15), practicing Muslims are limited to two meals each day. Those are known as suhoor, which can be eaten before dawn, and iftar, which is served after sunset.

The daylight hours are off limits for food, drink and sex, a month-long ban that would appear to cover Speller’s lost lunches.

Inmate Travaile Speller, who says he is a Muslim, has sued the Mecklenburg County Jail for religious discrimination after he was blocked from receiving lunch during the holy month of Ramadan.

“They withheld his lunch during Ramadan? They were supposed to withhold it during Ramadan,” said Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte and a member of Sheriff Erwin Carmichael’s faith advisory board.

“The jail was doing him a favor and actually respecting his faith.”

Both approved Ramadan meals were provided to any Mecklenburg inmate who registered in advance to observe the fast, according to the copy of the sign-up form included with Speller’s lawsuit. Speller added his name to the list on April 30, court documents show.

As written, the form serves as almost a step-by-step guide on how to adhere to the four weeks of fasting. Inmates would remain on the approved list of Ramadan observers as long as they accepted the suhoor meal, did not drink fluids or eat commissary items during the day, and did not join the lunch line, the sheriff’s office said.

In other words, they had to fast.

Followers of Islam believe fasting teaches patience, modesty, and spirituality.

Two weeks after the Ramadan fast ended, however, Speller filed his complaint. He says the loss of a month of midday meals violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

“My meals should not be diminished based on my religion, or because of my observance of my religious holiday,” he wrote.

It was not immediately clear how the jail came up with its Ramadan policy and how many inmates observed the fast. On Tuesday, Mecklenburg sheriff’s spokeswoman Anjanette Grube said the office had not been served with Speller’s complaint and could not comment.

Helping Muslim inmates abide by the rules of the holiday would have required some adjustments by the jail kitchen. Hough says the morning meal can be served as early as 4:30 a.m. while iftar would come well after the jail’s normal dinner schedule.

Islam traditionally has been a popular religion in prisons and jails. A 2016 New York Times article said 11 percent of the state’s prison population was Muslim. At the maximum-security Sing Sing Correctional Facility, 80 percent of the Muslim inmates had converted after entering prison, a prison Imam told the paper.

Jail records indicate Speller has been arrested at least 10 times over the last two years. He has been in custody since January, when he was charged with a series of burglary and larceny offenses.

According to the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, “Whoever fasts during Ramadan out of sincere faith and hoping to attain Allah’s rewards, then all his past sins will be forgiven … It is the month of patience, and the reward of patience is Heaven.”

For now, Speller appears fixed on more earthly rewards: His lawsuit calls for a jury trial, and $250,000 in damages.

This little tale leaves one in disbelief. It’s Muslim chutzpah. A convert to Islam, a certain Travaile Speller, a prisoner in the Mecklenburg County jail, informed the prison authorities that he would be observing Ramadan, signed an agreement to that effect on April 30, which meant that therefore he would be fasting during the day and need to be supplied with both the suhoor meal that is eaten before sunrise, and the iftar meal that is eaten after sunset for the month of Ramadan. The prison officials were determined to fulfill the needs of Muslim prisoners, even though it meant opening the jail kitchen at 4:30 a.m., much earlier than usual, for preparation of the suhoor meal, and keeping it after sunset, long after it normally closed, for the iftar meal. The prison authorities were eager to do everything just right for their Muslim inmates.

Travaile Speller wrote in his complaint that “my meals should not be diminished based on my religion, or because of my observance of my religious holiday,” and that the failure to provide the midday meal constituted violation of his equal protection rights.

Of course the whole thing is both idiotic and very funny. Speller’s meals were diminished on the basis of his religion because that is exactly what he wanted, exactly what he signed up for: the observance of Ramadan, which required fasting during the day. Did he think he could continue to have his suhoor and iftar meals, and also have the midday meal as well? If he was misinformed about Ramadan, whose fault is that? If he decided that the observance of Ramadan was not what he expected, and at any point he wanted three squares a day, he had only to inform the authorities at the Mecklenburg jail. He could have stood in the lunch line and insisted that he wanted to chow down, that the Ramadan business of only two meals was not what he meant, not what he meant at all. Was he perhaps a recent convert to Islam, whose understanding of Ramadan was most imperfect, and his hold on logic apparently non-existent? Was he someone who thought that he could both observe Ramadan, and also not observe it at the same time, but only by just a teeny-weeny little bit, so it didn’t really count? Besides, he was observing all the other rules of Ramadan — he wasn’t smoking, wasn’t having sexual relations, was refraining from false speech (insulting, backbiting, cursing, lying, etc.) and from fighting except in self-defense. So in the grand scheme of Ramadan things, what’s a little lunch? I mean, you can understand it from Travaile Speller’s point of view: round about midday, a man can get a little peckish. What’s he supposed to do, what with all the early rising for suhoor, and the late going to bed after the iftar meal? If he doesn’t have something to eat at 12, or 1, a man can get a headache. Surely that can’t be good for anyone’s spiritual development. Have a heart.

The other possibility, also idiotic, is that Travaile Speller thought he was being a Clever Elsie, by signing up for Ramadan observance, but  with his fingers crossed behind his back. His plan may have been all along to keep silent, wait until Ramadan ended, and only then, sue the county for depriving him of his midday meal, which should be worth, in the crazed calculation of a man like Travaile Speller, about a cool quarter-million. After all, American courts have plenty of such absurd claims, with enormous sums demanded. Sometimes someone gets lucky. Why shouldn’t Mr. Travaile Speller think that he, a Muslim and therefore beset by bigotry — or so he’s been told — could get lucky, too?

The surpassing ludicrousness of this lawsuit — and of the $250,000 he claims as his due for the supposed violation of his equal protection rights — does reflect, however, a climate of entitlement that, while hardly limited to Muslims, has been elevated by some Muslims to an art form. A Muslim in Basking Ridge, N.J., who managed to portray local opposition to a new mosque as based on bigotry rather than — as it clearly was — on objections by residents to the large size of the project, and the noise and disruption that would ensue in a residential neighborhood, managed to extract $3.4 million from the hapless town fathers.

In this kind of climate, why shouldn’t Travaile Speller think he should try his luck, and not have his cake and eat it, too?

The Ayatollah Khomeini famously said that “there is no fun in Islam.” How wrong he was. He never met Travaile Speller.

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