Thanks to witness Rachel Macy, we know the last words of Taliesin Namkai-Meche were, “Tell everyone on this train that I love them.” Taliesin died from stab wounds inflicted by a white nationalist. He was one of three men who courageously tried to stop the verbal assault of two young African American women they had never met—one was a Muslim in hijab. Even though he was only my student in one class, “Islam in the Modern World,” I immediately recognized these words as being characteristic of his remarkable soul. His final words carried the same resonance of purity and earnest desire as when he told me why he wanted to learn more about Islam. He wanted to help counter the prejudices Muslims face in America today.
Yet, while I quickly intuited Taliesin’s compassion and intelligence in his last words, I must admit that I did not immediately fathom their beauty and profound significance. Did he want the African American and Muslim young women on whose behalf he confronted his attacker, Jeremy Christian, to know that they were loved? Did he want, even as he lay dying, compassionately to release the burden of guilt of others on the train who witnessed the same event but did not have the courage to confront the murderer? Was his expression of love also an act of forgiveness?
Love is a powerful emotion that we sometimes reduce to a cliché. “Oh, I love that restaurant,” or, “How I love that movie.” At other times, we idolize love as romantics who see beauty in everything.
But now I think back to my experiences with Taliesin, and the course he took with me; he wrote an analysis of a panel of two leaders of the Portland Muslim community on “Islam: A Religion of Peace” that was sponsored by a local organization called Race Talks. Rereading that paper, I am confident that Taliesin’s final expression of love was neither romantic nor idealistic. Nor, I believe, was it said in vain. It was an expression of the deeper ethics empowering his inconceivably brave final actions.
Now that I reflect on it, there are other reasons that make me even more confident of this sense of the man. My first impression of Taliesin was that he was an attractively naïve young man who thought that Islam and all Muslims, indeed all of humanity and its religions, are essentially good. I saw in him a conviction that, if he just learned about Islam and Muslims, he could counteract news headlines about violent acts carried out by a few Muslims in the name of religion.
When he learned that our class was not going to define Islam in reaction to the headlines, but rather examine the variety of ways Muslims have interpreted and practiced Islamic concepts in relation to the changes brought on modern society, I sensed a bit of disappointment in Taliesin.
Unlike many students who take my introductory courses on Islam with similar motivations, Taliesen defied my preconceptions. He did not drop the course at that point. He persevered and struggled to learn how he could apply the critical study of religion to better understand the Islamic tradition in all its rich diversity and on its own terms. He wrote in the conclusion of his paper on the Race Talks event that the “event affirmed what I have learned throughout the semester.… Islam, like all religions, is riddled with complexity. Dispelling ignorance about Islam will not come about through a two-hour panel.... Rather, it will come about only when enough people pledge themselves to researching the deeper intricacies of Islamic history and the motley nature of the various cultures that have adopted Islam as their religion.”
I sensed then, and I know now, that Taliesin’s motivation for learning about Islam was not to reinforce what I assumed were his own naïve preconception that all humans and all religions are essentially good. He was motivated to learn about Islam because his ethics of love required him to be informed about other cultures and religions so that, in his everyday life, rather than acting out of ignorance, he could act justly out of an informed love for others.
That is why he persevered in my class even though what he learned challenged his hopes and preconceptions. That is also why he stood up to Jeremy Christian’s ignorance and hate. Christian knew only enough about Islam to identify the hijab as a target. He equated the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims with ISIS and Saudi Arabia. According to the police report of his arrest, he yelled at the girls on the train: “Go home, we need American (sic) here.” “I don’t care if you are ISIS.” “Fuck Saudi Arabia.”
Christian acted out of ignorance and self-obsession, out of the fear that somehow his rights as a white man were under threat in the United States as our society has become—irreversibly—diverse. Taliesin’s last words—how rare, how fortunate that we have them!—tell us that he sacrificed himself out of an informed ethics of love, in this case, as the ultimate affirmation of the worth, the love-worthiness, of others—in a word, of diversity.
As scholar of religion Nancy Jay argued, sacrifice brings people together in community by defining the values through which they differentiate themselves from the rest of the world. The ultimate sacrifice of Taliesin and Ricky Best and the bravery of Micah Fletcher, men who likewise put their lives on the line for the sake of vulnerable others are nothing less than a vision of an American community.
That vision was embodied, the day after their attack, in the vigils that were held in their honor at the Hollywood District station where their train stopped and at the Muslim Education Trust. People of different generations, ethnicities, races, religions, and genders came together in community to demonstrate who Portlanders are and who Americans are. We who value the work and heroism it takes to sustain this vision of Portland and of America shall hold forever Taliesin’s unforgettable dying words. We will remember them as an expression of an ethics of love and not merely as the words of victims of a hate crime or an act of terror.
There is no doubt that the attacker acted with hate and intended to terrorize, but that should not permit us to lose sight of how these heroes spontaneously rose above the moment of terror. Their sacrifice gifted us examples of a possible Portland and a diverse America. These men stood up for their vision of community. It is up to us who survived to realize their vision as our community.