As the NYPD continues to investigate the shocking death of the first black female judge to sit on New York’s highest court, the media is struggling to definitively say if Sheila Abdus-Salaam was, in fact, Muslim or not.
News that Abdus-Salaam’s body was found floating in the Hudson River on Wednesday flashed across social media, fueled in part by early reports that she was a Muslim — the first female Muslim judge in the US — and implications she was the possible victim of a targeted crime. (The NYPD has said it was possibly a suicide and that “nothing criminal” is being investigated at this point.)
Articles about Muslims being assaulted gain a lot of attention these days, as the alt-right and white nationalists — emboldened by the new presidential administration — ratchets up rhetoric against them.
But officials have said describing Abdus-Salaam as a Muslim is not accurate and that she was a very private person.
A report from the New York Post, which broke the news of Abdus-Salaam’s death, describes her in the lead sentence as, “A pioneering judge, who became the first Muslim woman in US history to serve on the bench.” Soon after, reporters and Muslim advocates with a large number of followers began tweeting headlines saying she was Muslim.
Several news outlets, including BuzzFeed News and The Hill, followed the Post’s reporting and described her as a Muslim in breaking news reports.
BuzzFeed News also based this reporting off a reference to Abdus-Salaam, 65, in the Encyclopedia of Muslim American History, edited by Indiana University Professor Edward E. Curtis, IV. This publication says Abdus-Salaam changed her name after she married her first husband and is also considered to be the first prominent Muslim-American judge.
Abdus-Salaam was also described as the “first Muslim to sit on the Court of Appeals” by New York State Senator Kevin S. Parker in a press release congratulating her on her appointment to the bench in 2013.
Other news outlets, including the Daily News, NY1, and the New York Times, did not refer to Abdus-Salaam as being Muslim in their breaking news coverage of her death. NY1 writes, “Sources say Abdus-Salaam's first husband was Muslim, but she never converted to Islam.”
As the story picked up steam, Muslim advocates put out statements about Judge Abdus-Salaam. CAIR said in a statement that she was "the nation’s first female Muslim judge" and offered condolences to her family and loved ones.
Meanwhile, once doubt was cast over whether Abdus-Salaam was a Muslim, those on the right accused the left of spreading #FakeNews or using her death to promote Islam.
The day after she was found dead, NY State of Politics ran a post saying “that description is not accurate,” according to Court of Appeals spokesman Gary Spencer. The post says that Spencer told the reporter that Abdus-Salaam “did not mind being referred to as a Muslim woman and never corrected it.”
The Times also spoke to Spencer for a follow-up piece on Abdus-Salaam’s death, writing: “Her name led to confusion about whether or not she was Muslim. Gary Spencer, a spokesman for the Court of Appeals, said she had told him that she was not.” On Friday, Spencer confirmed these reports to BuzzFeed News.
Asked to clarify, Director of Public Information fro NY State Unified Court System Lucian Chalfen told BuzzFeed News on Friday, "What’s been described to me from people internally: No, she was not [Muslim]. Yes, she used professionally the name of her first husband. She chose to keep it. Obviously, the outward assumption is that she was Muslim [because of her last name]."
"If others are telling you something different — report what you got. If others are saying she was [Muslim], then you could say it’s a little unclear,” Chalfen added. "She was just very private about things like that."
Friends and former colleagues of Abdus-Salaam told BuzzFeed News on Thursday that Abdus-Salaam became involved with Islam during her early years in New York in the 1970s. Abdus-Salaam, whose maiden name was Turner, and her first husband began to follow the Nation of Islam and converted to the Muslim religion. The couple eventually broke up and she left the Nation.
However, those close to her believe that she continued to be quietly associated with Islam. “Sheila was not one to proselytize,” said UNC law school professor Ted Shaw, a former law school classmate of Abdus-Salaam’s.
Her cause of death is still under investigation. Speaking at a swearing-in ceremony for new police recruits on Thursday, NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce outlined a timeline of events that police have put together so far: Abdus-Salaam spent the weekend in New Jersey with her husband, Gregory A. Jacobs, and was last seen at around 7:00 p.m. ET on Monday. She also spoke with her assistant Tuesday morning and said she wouldn’t be coming into work that day. When she failed to show up for work on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that her assistant grew concerned and contacted her husband, who reported her missing. At around 1:45 pm on Wednesday, a person called 911 and her body was found in the river not far from her Harlem home, a police source told BuzzFeed News.
“At that point our case picks up,” Boyce said. “We’re trying to find out about her whereabouts [after she was last seen and heard from]."
There was no apparent injuries to her body — no signs of a struggle or physical harm — and “nothing criminal” is being investigated at this point. Boyce also said police recovered a Metrocard on her person that was last used at a 42nd street subway station on Monday.
Asked about the possibility of suicide in this case, Boyce said, “It’s too early to tell right now.”
In the days since her body was found, detectives are fanning out in her Harlem neighborhood to see if they have any video of her leaving her apartment.
“We have many hours of video that we’re currently reviewing,” NYPD Spokesman J. Peter Donald told BuzzFeed News Friday.
BuzzFeed News reached out to members of Abdus-Salaam’s family on Friday for comment.
Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mike Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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