Change Perceptions: Make ‘The Strangers’ Yours

Anyone can be Muslim

The picture you see is my family celebrating an Eid camping trip after Ramadan in 1998. The red, curly haired, very Caucasian peanut just secured his driver’s license today, and he is a towering 6 foot, 2 inch (183 cm) tall Muslim.

When people see him with brown skinned kids at school, they are very surprised to learn that he is indeed Muslim because most people think of Muslims as ‘Other,’ meaning other than ‘Us.’

Typically, the image that comes to American’s minds is that a Muslim is Arab or perhaps Asian, although a large proportion of Muslims are in fact from African descent.

I believe this is significant to how we tend to value the lives of Others, and in particular to the political perspectives and policies toward the Middle East and Central Asia in general.
What should be known is that anyone can be Muslim. It is not an ethnic or nationalistic reference; rather it is simply a comprehensive religion on the continuum antecedent from Judaism and Christianity that guides the lives and identity of about 1.6 billion people (23% of the world’s population), according to a 2012 Global Religious Landscape report from the Pew Research Center.

Most disconcerting though is a more recent Pew Research Study referencing How Americans Feel About Religious Groups. The study was conducted May 30-June 30, 2014, and cites feelings towards religious groups on a scale of 0 as cold to 100 as warm. A 50 would reflect no particular positive or negative feeling about a religious group. In this report, prior to the Gaza spectacle, Muslims were dead last compared to all other groups, including Atheists. Forty-One percent of respondents placed scores of 33 or below for Muslims, which I find pretty sad and perhaps not representative of where I live.

Fortunately for my family, we live in a relatively affluent suburban Chicago setting with an abundance of educational institutions, houses of worship for many religions, and a fairly large non-segregated population of Muslims. Many of them hold advanced degrees and professional employment.

In retrospect, I noted that when the U.S. economy took a hard pullback a few years ago, it seemed that store clerks were friendlier than they’d been in the past. Looking around the malls, I found a greater percentage of Muslim patrons making purchases than other shoppers. Maybe the cashiers were the first ones to realize the value of Muslim purchasing power.

Even yesterday, I was acknowledged with a smile and friendly “Hi there!” initiated by non-Muslim women in two separate incidents while walking through parking lots at the local community college and at Whole Foods Market. I felt hopeful that the gloomy implications informed by the Pew reports were not representative of every part of the United States.Strangers

With this data though, I am asking everyone to help make ‘The Strangers’ documentary a reality. My friends, Abdalhamid Evans and Salama Evans, who are also on the founding team of the American Halal Association, have been working on a film project which is critical to changing erroneous perceptions about Muslims. Their story about a misfit group of hippies who stumbled upon Islam, converted, and created a community about 40 years ago in the town of Norwich, UK, is a story which needs to be told. salama-profiledownload group-copy-300x175 Please read about their amazing story and see them in the film trailer. Then give a bit of help to this project and share with your friends. It could make a positive move toward reigniting compassion, illuminate hearts, and dispel the ignorance out there. At least get a T-shirt and warm things up for the next Pew report. knees-300x174

The Trials

220px-Kent_State_massacre The Trials
Ramadan typically entails much reflection about one’s life and deeds, and this one has focus, sadness, and frustration over the increasingly dangerous situation in the Middle East.
From my memories of living under occupation in the West Bank of Palestine in segmented episodes over the 80s and 90s, recollections on the uprising in Tahrir Square and subsequent coup in Egypt, the massacres of civilians in Syria and Iraq, famine in Sudan, and smoldering discontent of citizens in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, there is a heaviness to this Ramadan like none other.

Fasting seventeen hours a day has not been as fearsome as anticipated, but neither has it been very productive. Mercifully, the cooler than normal temperatures are interpreted as a favor. I have many tasks to do, but I am not burdened with the worry of deadlines. My days typically start at 11 a.m. and end at 5 a.m., with an hour nap sometime between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. The disruption in normal working schedule gives me the night to attend taraweeh prayers at the mosque where I hear the recitation of Qur’an, and I have the chance to read, put time into my social media assignments, and write.

Listening to Qur’an is like putting salve on the heart’s wounds, and making supplication for the ease of people’s suffering may seem shallow in power. Yet, I am reminded of the Qur’anic ayah, “…Allah is the best of planners…” (8:30).

Though the situation may at times seem hopeless, I am also reminded that God gives the hateful people ample opportunity to rectify their deeds. When they eschew choosing compassion and are blinded by base desires, they set judgment against their souls.

A range of criticisms and areas of misunderstanding about Islam are explained quite well by a blogger I reference here. I hope it is useful.

Meanwhile, I highly recommend an hour long panel session from the Aspen Ideas conference, titled “What Will The Map of the Middle East Look Like?” In it, one of the experts cited our collective angst when our own government sanctioned the murder of 4, only 4, Kent State demonstrators. Think how people in other countries feel when whole groups of innocents are murdered by armed authorities?

When will people realize that we are one human family? Compassion is the weapon against hatred, and it is slipping from society.

It strikes me that the only solution is to stop the financing of war machines and mediate grassroots parties into a semblance of democracy or shurah, which is recognized Islamically as dialogue and collective decision making between relevant parties. Even the historic Iroquois League set the example of this model’s value, and the forefathers of our Constitution saw its utility.

This is my humble contribution to suggest that violence and military intervention are ill advised, but a framework of society building could best resolve the mess.

In tandem with this understanding, I learned of the death of one of my elder cousins. Over the years, he’d been what could be described as down and out, and he became typically inebriated and had failing health. Not many of the relatives cared to maintain contact, and he quietly lived out his days downstate until he peacefully passed away in his sleep.

What I consider his greatest achievement was that he patiently endured his problems and maintained a heart of gold. In spite of the cynics around him, through our occasional conversations I could tell that he stayed compassionate; and he leaves an adult daughter with the same quality.

Success has many definitions, but I think the greatest success is when one leaves this life Pure. Ultimately, the rites of Islam aim to purify us, and a soft heart is a good reflection of the quality of purity in a person.

May our hearts stay soft, our supplications answered, and may we endure our trials with dignity and with steadfast faith. Amen.

Difficulties Seek Resolve

2014-07-05_17-48-29_579 A pervasive sadness overhangs my days, as I see many images of the injustice toward Palestinians on Facebook, and I know the fear, anger, and terror because I’ve lived through it. Vulnerable is the word that comes to mind also, as I was very cognizant that if I had to run, there was little choice except to chance walking through heavily militarized desert and no chance for cover if attacked. In fact, I’ve had nightmares whereby I see myself disguised as a Bedouin trying to head east toward Jordan, but in the dream my children and I, except for one, perish.
I’ve witnessed armed teenage soldiers with little sense and plenty of bravado stick their rifles in people’s bellies, arrayed in body protection and a variety of weapons like tear gas and clubs. They walk in a group using their walkie talkies for communication, and seek to assert their authority. One morning, as they made their rounds, they came to our door and hauled my husband out to the street. Someone had painted graffiti on the wall bordering our property, and the soldiers forced him to use a bucket of white paint to cover over it. That was vividly cast in my memory because my spouse was wearing his red tartan plaid pajamas, and my son was horrified at seeing his father humiliated at rifle point. That certainly made a lasting impression on the lad. He was only about 5 years old, but it sowed seeds of anger.
Especially disturbing is when they go after the young school children, and raid the universities to destroy property and harass college students in the middle of the night. One night, as I peered through the kitchen window, I’d seen soldiers bang on the neighbor’s door. The owner answered and I saw those soldiers rough up the teen boy within their view, seemingly without provocation. Another evening, the street was filled with soldiers in their jeeps, and my teenage relative had to get home nearly two blocks away. I recall tucking my own children into bed, asking my sister-in-law to watch over them, and then I escorted my visitor past those soldiers to home. I was very scared, and the thought occurred to me that I might not live to see my kids again if I were unlucky enough to be picked for torture or persecution. Lessons like these affect one forever, and I empathize with those who have no way to escape the strain of occupation.

I also feel remorse for senseless deaths that I’d learned of last night when two boys, in their early twenties, were drag racing on a busy street in a southern suburb. One was the nephew of a former colleague. They crossed into the oncoming lane and killed two innocent parents, leaving at least one child orphaned. Such stupidity; such a waste.

Have you seen ‘Inequality for All’? I highly recommend it. Robert Reich and the movement have my email, and I get daily reminders about the 1 percent and inordinate power the wealthy have to corrupt our democracy. There was a terrific interview with Bill Moyers that recaps the salient points of the film. The necessity to flex the responsibility of citizenship is imminent.

Then there is my own father. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that over a year ago he had suffered a minor backyard tumble that ended up resulting in a severe infection on his foot. It was only recently that he has been able to walk without a walker or cane, but he is precariously unstable and his benefits for ongoing physical therapy have expired. He is not getting enough activity now to continue his progress, and I’m seeing regression that gravely concerns me.

I know, this is getting heavy, and there are a few more dear ones who have health battles that are on my mind, but it is Ramadan. I bear in mind that although things seem dark, there is a divine plan. Not to be preaching, but when I feel such weight from how much I care I turn to nature. For in it, I find timelessness, peace, the intelligent design, and it fortifies my patience.


I believe that we all have a role to play; and that if we choose our responses to such trials with compassion we will prevail in some way. In nature, I connect to the water and rocks; the ground gives me comfort. It reminds me of my insignificance to the larger picture, and also humbles me. Gardening is satisfying, as long as the mosquitoes are kept at bay, but we are having the worst year due to all the rains we’ve had. Cruising on my bike and playing tennis with my youngest son helps put me back on track. We also like to visit Klein Creek Farm and commune with the sheep and walk the property.

For how can we remedy what may be in our power if we grieve too long? Granted, some things we endure are out of our capacity to affect, but some other things are able to be resolved. Lastly, my heart finds strength from the Holy Qur’an. I can read it, but it is easier to catch the recitation live on Mecca TV. With that, and asking for God’s help, I somehow recharge and find strength. Verily with every difficulty comes relief (94:6)