Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Accidental Fundamentalist stumbles into Islamophobia

I'm an interesting type of Muslim. The kind you couldn’t pick out on the street. There are no obvious outward signs of my faith and my ethnicity isn't clear. You can barely tell I’m an Indian – or of Indian origin – because I’d pass for Greek, Italian, Israeli, Spanish, even southern French.

The Islam I practice is Sufism – and, in my case, most of my practice is internal. I call myself a Muslim Fundamentalist because I follow what I believe are the “fundaments” of Islam – which are generosity, compassion, kindness, loyalty and honesty. I'm always fuming at the tv when they call someone blowing up a bus a "fundamentalist Muslim." And, as someone who lives in downtown Manhattan (and has lived and worked here for 20 years), I hear it a lot. I would call them "nut cases," "cultural reactionaries"... but they would never represent the fundamental essence of Islam.

Not to say that I don’t love ritual, culture and the joy and magic of tradition, but I believe you have to come to the Divine on your own – and on your own path. And, as the often-quoted hadith (saying) of the Muslim prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) says, "There are as many paths to the Divine as there are souls."

Sufism is strangely, one of the best known, unknown parts of Islam. Most people know the writings or teachings of Mawlana Jallaluddin Rumi and Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz, their quotes are now on magnets and calendars. I even saw a bohemian outfit described by a blogger called Rumi in the window of Forever21 on 34th st.

"I Have Learned
So much from God
That I can no longer
Call Myself
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew."

-Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz

The idea is that the fundaments of Islam are almost too great and too universal to be contained in any one religion. Sufism, like Kabaalah, deals with the essence of Islam, the idea that the Divine is everywhere, in everything - like the Sanskirt word, Om - the all-encompassing.

Sadly, most people don't realize that Sufi ideas are based on an Islamic viewpoint.
Like Buddhism, Sufism is about giving up the ego, the desire for power, the wish to be right, the craving for material satisfaction. Again, these are fundaments of Islam.

For me, this quote describes the practice of Sufism on a personal level.

"Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment
Knock, And He'll open the door
Vanish, And He'll make you shine like the sun
Fall, And He'll raise you to the heavens
Become nothing, And He'll turn you into everything.”

-Mawlana Jallaluddin Rumi

In my understanding of Islamic fundamentalism, the truest practice of faith is demonstrated by your actions on the planet, towards all other life. A brilliant modern thinker in that vein is Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, who wrote “Green Deen,” a powerful Islamic argument, based on Quranic quotations, for the necessity of being environmentally and socially-responsible.

Since I'm your everyday single Muslim mother, I go to school for Muslim holidays with my three daughters to talk to their classes. One morning on our way to the Ramadan presentation, when my middle daughter was about 10, she said, “So when do we find out that we’re right?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “You know, that Muslims are right and everyone else is wrong. Do we find out when we die?”

And I said, “We’re ALL right. The goal is to be kind to each other and help each other and find some peace in ourselves. Different religions are just like a different languages. It’s like calling a chair, 'une chaise' in French. It’s the same thing. So in Arabic, we use the word, Allah for God. In French, you say, Dieu. In Spanish, Dios. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, you can call God, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, Shiva – you can follow your culture – and if you follow something with your heart, you will get to the same place.”

So people often ask me, how do I call myself a Muslim if I don’t veil – or wear hijab. And I say, in Islam, being a Muslim requires one simple phrase, “La illaha ill lallah, Muhammad el-rasulallah.” Which means I believe in God and Muhammad is the seal (or the last Prophet). It implies that you also believe in the Torah and the New Testament. Everything else is between you and God. I have no place judging your choices or what calls you.

What I’ve told my kids is that what you call yourself – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Bahai – is less important than what you do with it. The imperatives in Islam are called the five pillars – faith, prayer, fasting, charity, pilgrimage.

But I have plenty of friends who are culturally Muslim but in practice agnostic, never fast or even consider going to Mecca. They drink alcohol, eat pork and have spent their lives working with underpriviledged children in the Delhi slums, or helping families in New York City who have been torn apart by the immigration laws. Or improving the lives of homeless people. And, from what I understand of faith, THOSE are the people who are going straight to heaven (without passing purgatory). Not the ones who just touch their foreheads to the floor five times a day or starve themselves on ramadan while making their families and friends miserable. (Not that one shouldn't pray or fast, but if you don't do it correctly, it's not worth it.)

Again, I tell my daughters that fasting on ramadan - not eating or drinking - is the easy part. The hard part is fasting from anger, from impatience and frustration. I tell them that for 30 days, they shouldn't raises their voices, they shouldn't be unkind or hurtful, they should be even more careful not to be untruthful or disloyal or mean. Trying to do that when you've had nothing to eat and been up since the crack of dawn is really, really hard. Many people say that if you get angry when you're fasting, your fast is broken. You might as well eat at that point and start apologizing. Because the fundamental goal of fasting is to get closer to the Divine - and how close are you when the small irritations of the material world bring you right back down to the ground?

So as an Islamic fundamentalist, here’s how I deal with “Islamophobia” or the current anger towards Muslims. I act like it doesn’t exist. The Muslim Bar Association is using the civil rights precedents set by the LBGT community – and I use the behavior of my gay friends as an example. I go into every situation assuming that people who don’t like me just don’t know me yet. I see it as an opportunity for dialogue and a chance to prove religious profiling wrong.

Talking about Islamophobia reminds me of going to a party once and meeting another Indian single mother like myself. She murmured to me, “Don’t you hate the way they look at us? The way they are all whispering about us behind our backs?”

I said, "Really? They are?" I'd never thought of that.

Suddenly, the room changed for me. Maybe they WERE all whispering behind my back. Until that moment, I’d always assumed everyone liked me until my actions gave them a reason not to. I’d always thought that my difference was an opportunity to show people that things are never as simple as you expect.

I remember when I first moved to Washington, DC, just on the edge of my teens. A girl asked me, "Do you like Black people?"

I must sound absurdly pollyanna, but I was baffled by the question. No one had ever asked me if I liked or disliked an entire race of people. And of course, since I was a new kid - brown and Muslim when almost everyone else was Jewish and European - I was keenly aware of getting the answer wrong. But I had no idea of what to say.

My mumbled answer was, "I guess there are some I like and some I don't."

Not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist but, as a fundamentalist, it is not to your benefit to internalize it. If I assume that everyone I meet is hostile towards me, then I miss the chance to connect with people who are not. And I miss the chance to change people’s perceptions. I judge someone's intentions before I experience them.

Someone who dismisses me without meeting me, misses the chance to find out that a Muslim mother with teenaged daughters is probably spending more time thinking about how to get her teenaged daughters to go to Friday prayers instead of watching Gossip Girl. Or how to get them to think more about their schoolwork and spirits and less about their looks.

Not to be Panglossian (for you Candide fans), but for me, the current public conversation against Islam and American Muslims is a good thing. This spring, when I started reading and watching the press about Park51, I said to non-Muslim friend, “Oh my gosh, they all HATE us. Did I just never notice or is this all new? When did the American public start mistrusting Muslims?”

He said, “No, it was there all along. It’s that no one said it in public.”

What’s happened is that because it's now socially acceptable to vilify 1.3 billion people (and a faith that has its roots in Christianity and Judiasm) in a public forum - even as an election platform, we can start addressing the fears and the lack of understanding in a public forum. If 60% of Americans say they've never met a Muslim, it's time for us to start shaking hands. We should be standing on street corners with "Ask me, I'm Muslim" badges on.

The scary part is that part of the reason for all this fear and anger is the Islamophobia Industry. As an investigative article in "The Tennessean" points out, keeping the American public angry and on edge generates millions of dollars. Steve Emerson alone makes $3,339,000 a year with his site.

Admittedly, the world economy, global warming and environmental concerns - not to mention, in my case, a mortgage and three girls about to go to college - are scaring everyone. Fear makes you do strange things. Which is what I feel is happening in the world today. Whether they are Quran burners or soldiers or terrorists, it’s based on a fear of losing control of life. Of trying to hold on to something that you know is familiar.

Working on the Park51 project – which I have since the inception – has been an incredible journey into facing and understanding fear, especially of the unknown.

Obviously, there is so much fear expressed against the project and against Muslims. But what I think outsiders don’t realize is that there is equally so much fear within the Muslim community. There are Muslims who say they don’t want to go to Park51 because they are worried about men and women praying together, because Shias, Sunnis and Sufis pray together, because there are gay and lesbian Muslims who pray there.

People, Muslim or not, are scared of the government, they’re scared of their neighbors, they’re scared of change and the future and how it might take away everything that’s familiar and move them out of their comfort zones. If you're an immigrant or a minority, you're scared that the majority will seduce and steal your children - as we saw even in "Westside Story" or "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

Even if the future is better – it’s not what we know, it’s not what makes us feel safe – so we don’t like it.

That said, this Muslim Fundamentalist has been blown away by is the level of support we’ve received. It’s almost like – for lots of people – the controversy really made them come alive. It’s made them question their prejudices and their beliefs as a Americans. It's made them remember their experiences as new immigrants. In so many ways, the controversy over Park51 has been a groundbreaking moment – because it’s brought the dialogue into the open.

As a Muslim mother, I started an organization called Muslims for Peace. The idea was to create a unified Muslim voice for Peace – no political agenda – just a Million Muslims standing up for peace and compassion across the different kinds of practice.

I have friends who wear niqaab or beards and I have friends who are gay and lesbian Muslim activists – I even have a friend who’s been going on tv and saying she agrees with religious profiling - but speaking out for peace is something that we could all agree on and come together on. Muslims for Peace started out with a project I launched in November 2001 - after living through September 11 as a Muslim in lower Manhattan - 100% Human (click on stories and pictures to get the whole idea).

(Then, of course, I was a casualty of the economy myself. Since I work in advertising, the canary in the coal mine of the financial industry, I lost work, got cancer... and spent a lot of time not able to get much done. That said, I dealt with my cancer in the same way I deal with Islamophobia. I don't believe in it. So far, so good.)

Recently, I met a guy in a social setting who's a PR wiz. When I told him I was involved with Park51, he sent me a video of a tv appearance in which he said the project would never happen. In later emails, he told me that public opinion is against us and growing more hostile every minute (though we might be saved if we hire him). The 9/11 families would never be behind us.

But on the ground, what I notice is, when I wear my ONE MORE MUSLIM FOR PEACE t-shirt on the street – and around the site of the world trade center, which is after all, my neighborhood, people smile at me. They honk out of cars, they ask where they can get one. My neighbors say, "Can I get a ONE MORE JEW FOR PEACE?" Or "ONE MORE FRIEND OF A MUSLIM FOR PEACE?" The greatest impact 9/11 had was felt in the surrounding streets and schools and parks and homes, and my neighbors - Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist - welcome us with open arms. Especially the swimming pool.

Since I becoming an accidental fundamentalist, I made ONE MORE PERSON FOR PEACE t-shirts and I am trying to figure out how to get cafepress to allow me to have ONE MORE JEW FOR PEACE, ONE MORE BUDDHIST FOR PEACE, ONE MORE CHRISTIAN, ATHEIST, etc without having to pay monthly fees to keep the designs up there. Because a fundamentalist knows that actually everyone wants peace, harmony and a safe place to live a healthy life.

That the fundaments of Islam are the fundaments of every faith.

The only way to escape from Islamophobia is to click my heels together and say my favorite Dalai Lama quote (that I stole from my brother) - the truth we discover as we evolve and the world shrinks and our plastic shopping bags in new york city kill dolphins on the other side of the planet -

"There is no us and them. There is only us."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

how to be a leader without really trying...

[the context: i've written this to read to college students attending project nur's leadership conference this weekend from their website: project nur is a distinct and alternative Muslim voice: a civic identity grounded in pluralism and moderate thinking and action. it emphasizes civic action with the goal of forging a cohesive and mutually respectful multicultural community of university students committed to the advancement of human rights, civil rights, social justice, tolerance, understanding, and co-existence.]

i prefaced this talk with a quote from zarina, my middle daughter. when she was 10 or so, we were on our way to school where i was going to talk to her class about ramadan. she asked me, "so when do we find out that we're right?"

i said, "what do you mean?"

she said, "when do we find out that muslims are right and everyone else - like christians and jews and hindus - are wrong? do we find out when we die?"

and i said, "well, everyone is right. it's all the same thing. it's like a language, you can call god, allah, jesus, buddha, krishna and they are all just names for the same thing. all religions are trying to get us to the same place."

so here i am speaking in a muslim context, but i am really speaking to everyone. because we are all in this together.

here goes:

everywhere you look now, business culture is telling you how to be leader. there are books, seminars, cds and dvds all telling you to take charge.

saturday night, my daughter and i walked past a pop-up shop on 23rd st (in new york city) and there were mobiles and signs with affirmations and personal cheers like this:

be an individual
stand up for yourself
go your own way

you know the stuff. you see it all over the place. on posters, printed at the bottom of textbooks.

it occurred to me that the best leaders are the people who become leaders without really trying.

which doesn't mean it's easy. actually, it's really really hard. it's harder than doing every single leadership course and reading every book on it. that's like putting a lot of time into learning how to drive a car without ever knowing what you will drive or where you want to go.

from my experience on the planet, the best leaders are not the ones you imagine. they're not the ones who run the mean girls groups or the bullies in high school. they're not the ones who seem to have tons of friends around them all the time. they're not the ones trying to control anyone at all. a born leader isn't always - in fact, isn't often - a good leader.

real leaders, from my experience, are the people who are dedicated to a cause. who really believe in an idea. who are passionate and committed. so much so that they sometimes seem almost crazy.

in the harvard business school's "primal leadership" handbook, the initial premise - the culmination of their studies, articles and research - is that the "fundamental task of leaders... is to prime good feelings in those they lead. That occurs when a leader creates resonance - reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people."

this is interesting both from a prosaic perspective as well as from a spiritual one. for the purpose of this post, a great leader is someone who - by the example of their integrity and dedication - inspires others to something greater, bigger, more important.

for example, if you are obsessed with knitting and you go out of your way to find and create exceptional wool, and in the process, improve the lives of sheep and the people who raise them; you could find yourself an environmental leader.

from a spiritual perspective, if as a muslim, you take the life of the prophet muhammed (p.b.u.h.) - not necessarily the historical life, but the life and stories that we use as an example and a tool to help us negotiate the world - you find a man who is so devoted to the idea of the oneness of God and teaching compassion, honesty and tolerance that others eventually followed him.

it should be obvious here that a leader isn't in it for the money.

not that there's anything wrong with making money - but the power comes from the dedication to something bigger than personal profit - that's what draws people to you.

in my personal experience, i found i've become a leader when i've clearly stated what i believe in and how it makes me feel. people are drawn to that, they respond to it. not because i am trying to stand out, but because we are all humans and we recognize the universal emotions amongst us. when one expresses those feelings honestly and clearly, even to the point of vulnerability, people feel moved.

the most important lesson i learned from advertising came from a neurologist called donald calne. he said, “the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” (his book is called, “within reason: rationality and human behavior”)

the next step, once you are a leader, or perhaps when it's thrust upon you - as i found, when i suddenly became executive creative director of a large team at mccann-erickson - is what you do with it.

it seems that the biggest stumbling block for leaders is assertiveness. clearly and simply telling people what to do - whether they support you or sneer at you. most leaders, or people placed in positions of power, have trouble negotiating between over-assertiveness or under-assertiveness. under-assertive people become bullied by the people who they are meant to lead. they try too hard to be liked - they end by lacking direction.

in my case, i went out and bought a book called, "the girl's guide to being the boss (without being a bitch.)" or the chick in charge... i was trying to get a group of hostile people to work together, somewhat unsuccessfully.

and we all know the problem with over-assertive people - you've been avoiding those kids on the playground since you were four or five.

in forbes online recently, there was an interview with a neurobiologist about the brain chemistry of leaders. the interesting find was that as leaders become more successful, their testosterone levels rose, activating their dopamine systems. this means they become less empathetic to others and more likely to have a sense of infallibility.

the challenge for leaders, as they become successful, is arrogance.

we don't need brain scientists to tell us that, just history. or just the newspapers.

again, there's a spiritual side to this. just read lao tzu's "the art of war" - "a leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." as muslims, we can take our example from the prophet as well, a great leader is selfless. it's not personal glory, it's the greater good.

bizarrely, as someone who works in advertising, i've always felt that selflessness has to be the starting point in every conversation.

i still try and sell stuff and often stuff of questionable tangible value. but i always try and find the larger story in every product. i try and find how it is part of the greater good. i might be working on a fragrance for calvin klein, skincare for avon or clothing for jennifer lopez, but i always try and approach it by thinking about the message it creates for society. sometimes, it's as simple as feeling better about yourself - and thus being kinder and more peaceful - in a crazy world. other times, it's about social or environmental responsibility.

i started my own advertising agency with the idea that it is possible to use the forces of capitalism for good. that it wasn't always about getting the consumer to love your brand, it was about loving your consumer. so if you were selling a lipstick, you were thinking about women and girls' self-esteem and confidence. if you were selling a pair of jeans to an african-american guy, you were thinking about his role in society and helping him get educated and stay empowered. i got involved with park51 - the lower manhattan muslim community center project - because i felt it was crucial to have an interfaith, non-sectarian space with a muslim starting point.

of course, i wanted it - and we needed it - in my neighborhood.

all that said, in my mind, there's a pitfall to all the conversation about leadership today. especially in the workplace. it's flipside to the '50s and early '60s where people did what they were told and often didn't question it. they worked, got married, had babies, watched them grow up, retired and died. they tended not to switch careers or get divorced or go back to college to re-think. they tended to lack perspective and larger goals.

but today, it's the opposite. it's all opposition. with all the go-your-own-way and take-a-stand theories, it's hard to get the boat moving at all. too many people are overwhelmed with the do-your-own-thing mentality and it takes years for them to figure out what that thing is. they flip-flop. they don't know how to fit into an organization and they don't know how to follow. my mother quoted a native american phrase, "there are too many chiefs and not enough indians."

too many people are trying to be leaders - and for the wrong reasons, more out of a desire for personal glory than a desire to change things for the better for everyone. too many people are leaping up and taking over because they want control, or they think they do, but they're not sure where they're going.

most people would be better leaders if they learned how to be better followers. how to listen more closely to what leaders were saying and choose smarter ones to follow. how to impact leaders - because as a follower, you give the leader his/her power - to stand up for the greater good. if you don't like the message, let the leader know, especially if it's a message that pretends to speak for you. don't let your leaders talk about violence or intolerance.

as a follower, if you believe in your leader, stand up for him or her. blog, twitter, facebook - the internet is a free and fast way to connect to a wide range of people. it's a communication platform. but what's even more useful - show up - attend events. create critical mass. be a body. not just a wired "slack activist."

in the days before the internet, people used to say, "you vote with your feet." or "your wallet." in today's world, that's even more powerful. go there. don't just join the facebook group, boycott (or buy) the brand. march. sit-in. talk to people.

malcolm gladwell wrote in the new yorker about why social media wouldn't have - couldn't have - created the civil rights movement in the u.s. because social media can often win minds, but it can't always win hearts. it can't often drag us away from our laptops and inspire us to take risks in the real world. "social media alone doesn't inspire the kind of high-risk behaviour required for social activism." we need to be more than "slack activists" and make things happen.

what was frustrating for me, as a muslim, was that after sept 11 - and even today - people going on about how muslims don't speak out about the violence and intolerance. i started a not-for-profit, 100 percent human and muslims for peace, especially to create that unified public voice. i don't want to argue - muslims DO speak out - but we need to do it more. and we need to speak out even more about the people who represent us. yes, on blogs and twitters and articles, but also in real life.

so in a sense, yes, every single one of us has a responsibility to be a leader - a thought leader - to talk to everyone we know about what we believe, at home, at work, in social settings. we all have a responsibility to do something that will make the world a better, kinder place because that's why we're here in the first place.

(oh, and i just answered the question - "why are we here?" - as well)

so - back to the beginning - the best leaders are the ones who aren't really trying. they're just trying to be better people.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

who our friends are

i've been blown away by the support we've received for the park51 project:
strippers, socialist workers and gay and lesbian organizations, hebrew school students, woody allen, salman rushdie, michael bloomberg, jon stewart, russell simmons, the african-american community, the jewish community of lower manhattan, christians, buddhists, hindus, agnostics, atheists, even a pot-smoking, amarillo, texas-raised quran hero (who ended an anti-muslim rally by grabbing a kerosene-soaked quran off a grill and skateboarded off, famously saying, "dude, you don't HAVE a quran!")

and, as a muslim, i keep asking myself, "are we going to remember who our friends are?"

when all the controversy dies down, are we going to leap on to the tea party's campaign and fight gay marriage and abortion, and complain about the jewish conspiracy and all those leftwing liberals?

we muslims - as any woman who's walked into a tea party full of vicious aunties will tell you - can be somewhat judgemental. the pursed lips and head-shaking and murmured, "astaghfir'Allahs" (God forgive us). the sideways glances as the porcelain tea cups clink politely. oh yes, and then there's the taliban.

will we have learned the right lesson from this? that tolerance, love and compassion, for people and situations we don't understand or that make us uncomfortable are always the better way. as muslims, we've been shown this kind of solidarity. can we learn to release our judgements and show the love back?

a friend of mine sent me an email today in which he said:

"One can only teach and live by example if one wishes to remain true to the larger spirit of humanity. Narrower interpretations are based on vicious forms of group tyranny. I am sure that it hurts when these narrow interpretations cloak themselves in the name of Islam - claiming to "own" it in some way that excludes all others."

in my mind, the most important lesson in Islam is the opening of every chapter (or sura) - the phrase we repeat over and over again, until perhaps we don't hear it any more - "the merciful, the compassionate." as the native americans said, all faiths are threads of the same rope. even if those faiths include agnostics and atheists. it's not just "people of the book," it's all of us. every one. we must learn to embody that compassion.

what i loved about william chittick's blog about islam on the huffington post is that it reminded us that the rules (and the people who break them) are not the point.

our friends are not always the people who seem to be just like us. our friends are the people who stand by us when we need them. we must appreciate their generosity and stand by them, too.

to all of our supporters - i know this isn't why you do it but - thank you.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why Park51 Needs Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan. And Irshad Manji and Parvez Sharma and El-Farouk Khaki

Like every Muslim in the world (with internet access) and a bit of extra time, I've been watching the daily drama surrounding Park51. In my case, I watch with more interest. Though I am not a spokesperson, Park51 is in my neighborhood and was an outgrowth from the overcrowded mosque I attend.

What is becoming increasingly obvious, apart from the fact that no one seems to really know the facts about the Park51 project, is that as a community, we are letting outsiders make decisions and pronouncements FOR us. We are reacting rather addressing our needs.

Whether you are for or against men and women worshipping together, for or against gay and lesbian rights, for or against playing and listening to music, for or against hijab; let's talk to each other.

I read an article somewhere about how to react when you see a parent being abusive to a child in a public place. If you start by chastising the parent, you've guaranteed the child an even worse time when you leave. The first step is to tell the parent you understand how difficult it is, that it's hard to be patient. Then you might tell the parent what a wonderful child they have, or something to help them to see the situation differently for a minute. Help them step away from a moment of frustration. The first step to change starts with building bridges, releasing tension. Even with someone you really disagree with.

As Muslims, we need to start listening to each other. We need to engage and explore, gently and respectfully, especially in the beginning; but definitely thoroughly.

Park51 was created based on love and inclusion. It is open to all people. Thus it is also the place to learn and start dialogue about Muslim identity. We are redefining our identities as American Muslims - and whether we agree or not - we need the points of view of all Muslims who are open to dialogue, from Hamza Yusuf and Reza Aslan,Irshad Manji, Parvez Sharma, El-Farouk Khaki and anyone else who wants to make peace with his or her faith.

But we also need all those thinkers (some brilliant) who have thrown up their arms and walked away. We need to take their questions and critiques seriously. While we may need to separate cultural and personal narratives from larger issues, we need to listen, not dismiss. We need Hirsi Ali, we need Wafa Sultan, We need Ibn Warraq and Salman Rushdie. Because for every writer who has walked away, there are hundreds of other people who have found themselves alienated in similar ways and deserve to be heard. We need Muslims who have never before found a place where they feel at home and accepted - no matter how they choose to practice.

We also need everyone else - Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Bahai, Agnostics, Atheists. As the Prophet Muhammed (p.b.u.h.) is reported to have said, "There are as many paths to the divine as there are souls." We need a place where we can listen and discover our similarities and accept our differences. We may find crucial pieces that were missing in our own understanding of faith. The Dalai Lama has spoken beautifully and eloquently on Islam, so has Karen Armstrong and, of course, others.

We need to find a safe space to ask ourselves the hard questions - about female circumcision, about forced marriages, about poverty, literacy and violence, so much more - reach a real place for consensus on issues that harm people and lovingly agree to disagree in places where people can make choices.

Park51 has infused in its roots the interfaith work of Imam Feisal Rauf. But as an Muslim interfaith center, it cannot possibly allow itself to be circumscribed by any one man or woman. Even with people we admire, who seem beyond reproach - let's say, Gandhi or Mother Theresa - we often discover that they were humans after all, and as such subject to human foibles and caprices.

Park51 must be larger, more diverse and more committed to New York City and its values.

Park51's location is already forcing us to take so many sensitivities and viewpoints into account. We are in the unique position of having brought to the forefront so many different viewpoints on Muslims, on Islam, on our constitution and our freedoms, on our ways of worshipping and showing respect.

Ideally, we will become the crucible for Muslim thought in America and New York City's symbol of tolerance and harmony with all expressions of faith.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Satanic Verses... replay

Open on a scene of fist-pumping, screaming book-burners. Cut to a scene of screaming, sign-waving anti-Muslim protestors reciting the Lord's Prayer at a community board meeting or a pastor burning a Quran a day.

As someone who's been involved with the Park51 project from the beginning, I feel like I'm watching the same movie. (Deepak Chopra agrees in the Huff Post)

Some years ago, I interviewed Salman Rushdie for a magazine, just after the fatwah, before the hiding. When I read the onslaught of media about our project, it's down to the same thing Salman Rushdie told me, "No one's actually read the book."

Even my own mother said, "What?! It's not a mosque? It's not on ground zero? Why isn't anyone TELLING us this?"

Let me explain. I LIVE in lower Manhattan, about 12 blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Contrary to popular opinion, we are desperate for prayer space in the area. In our neighborhood, there is an increasingly large population of Muslims. Many of them work in the Financial district, but also on Canal street and in other local businesses.

Because the Muslim holy day is Friday, when most of them are at work in our area, our tiny storefront of a mosque spills over with people. They are lined up outside, crowding the sidewalk like an open call for a multicultural American Idol.

According to fire codes, our storefront mosque can only hold about 75 people. Thus, on Fridays, we had to schedule four or five prayer consecutive services in order to accommodate people. People who have to rush back to work have to pray on the sidewalk on pieces of cardboard. Mira Schor's My Whole Street is a Mosque explains how our whole neighborhood becomes instantly "hallowed ground."

Opposition suggests that there are other prayer areas in Manhattan, but they obviously have never tried to get from the lower Westside to the Upper eastside and back by lunch time. (You Muslims in the suburbs, especially the Canadian ones, clearly have NO idea.)

Some members of our congregation put together a plan to buy a nearby building to house the overflow. Obviously, Tribeca real estate is expensive and they bought an affordable but broken-down building that's sat empty for years, on a more or less deserted street. It was close, cheap and fulfilled our needs. It wasn't meant to be a symbol of anything.

In the fall of 2009, they started having regular Friday prayers and by the late fall, hundreds of people were coming. Because we LIVED in the neighborhood, it was a necessary service. It was one without symbolism – except when, from time to time during the Qutbah (sermon), we reflected on how lucky we were to be living in America. As for the charges against Imam Feisal, as someone who listened to his new-agey-self-searching qutbahs over the past 15 years, they were down to a word, spiritual and reassuringly apolitical. He never failed to remind us to be grateful for being American Muslims.

Now that the prayer room was operative, we all had a look at the space and realized it was much bigger than we needed - and, being Muslims, we all felt the right thing was to give something back to the neighborhood. Especially, a neighborhood that was made a wasteland by terrorists calling themselves Muslims.

We wanted to SHARE our space – our private property - with everyone.

We started brainstorming. One person dreamed of a gallery. Another, a playspace for kids. We envisioned cooking classes, performance spaces, classes for teenagers, a basketball court, a swimming pool (MY personal favorite), a wellness center. I wanted a Muslim prayer area that treated women equally, that was open to people of all sexual orientations, that was open to dialogue amongst Muslims of all beliefs, sects and practices - as well as other religions and atheists. We all wanted sustainable building materials and eco-friendly construction – maybe solar panels on the roof?

We got really excited about offering this gift to our community. We imagined the first-ever Muslim Y, with access for everyone. It would be something that we, as American Muslims, as New Yorkers, could really be proud of showing to our grandchildren.

Thus we made our first mistake. We introduced the idea at the community board meeting. All of a sudden, what we saw as a gift, an effort to enrich and heal, was taken (by some) as an assault on the people who had suffered on September 11.

Experience is not a qualifier in itself, but on September 11, 2001, I put my 6 and 4 year olds on the school bus. Then I watched the planes hit and wondered if I would ever see my daughters again. I sat on the steps on my building and comforted a sobbing neighbor whose husband was at Cantor on the top floor of the towers.

As the first tower collapsed, I ran through the crashing, the dust and crowds of screaming people, pushing my 1 1/2 year-old in a stroller. I went on a 13-hour trek with her and a friend to search for my older kids who had been evacuated from the U.N. school and then to bring them back home and give them something to eat.

I started out exhausted that day because the night before I'd come back from a week of looking after my ex-husband who had just suffered a brain hemorrhage. He was in the hospital in Stony Brook, Long Island.

Eventually, I escaped upstate for a few days. As we drove back into New York City, still in a panic, I called my youngest daughter's godmother, a Jewish friend who had lived with us for a while. She thought I shouldn’t come into the city until after Rosh Hashannah, just in case people found a reason for reprisals against Muslims.

We picked her up on our way back into the city and she rode back down with us in case we needed help. We were lucky the police let us through the barricades because we had a car full of groceries and air purifiers, hard hats, water bottles and gas masks to deliver to the workers down at ground zero. The hardware stores in the city were sold out and everything downtown was a ghost town.

I spent the next two months crying. I sobbed every time I ran into a friend or a neighbor who survived, who was alive and well, and we hugged each other in the street. I cried at funerals for friends and neighbors I lost. I cried as I walked my kids through the acrid air up to Soho to the school bus. I cried every time I put them on the bus and was seized by a panic that they might not come back. I cried every time I caught a glimpse of the news. Though like so many of us downtown, I stopped reading newspapers or watching tv. I’d already watched people jumping out of buildings in real life, I’d felt the incredible rush of wind and scrape of dust as the buildings collapsed. I lived near the burning wreckage for months.

But even while our tears were still wet, we felt the beginnings of the backlash. One evening, crossing Canal street at the police checkpoint, I was dressed in a sari for an Indian art event. A group of sandy-haired young men strode towards me and jeered, “We’re going to bomb you m--f---s right back to the stone age!” and spit on my sari, as the police just stood silently and watched. I was scared but I understood. America is physically isolated. They can't tell an Indian from an Afghan.

Then I was in the Tribeca Grand working on an ad campaign for unity when my super-trendy Sikh friend, Waris Singh Aluwalia, was pushed up against the sofa by some tipsy preppy guys standing at the bar. Not long afterwards, he was punched, too. All right, they can't tell a Sikh from an Afghan either.

Still, slowly but surely, life went back to normal. The burning cooled. The air cleared. The restaurants and shops hobbled open. People who were traumatized moved away. New people moved in (mostly financial industry types). There were babies and strollers and a Wholefoods. The playground got bigger. The school was packed.

And, as everyone knows, the best antidote to suffering and trauma, is the joy of life and moving forwards. For those of us who lived around the World Trade Center site, it became a nuisance as its construction continually halted traffic, blocked roads and made our cell phones go out. We still shopped at Century 21, had coffee in the park, walked over the windy pedestrian bridge to get to the movie theater on the other side.

The only people who still called it Ground Zero were tourists who came to look and buy postcards or baseball hats or snowglobes of the burning buildings. Or to take pictures of each other in front of the fence.

All of a sudden, the argument isn’t about reviving a deserted street in our neighborhood. It isn’t about all the jobs and services we will bring to the place where we live. It’s about a symbol.

The same symbol you can buy on t-shirts and postcards and posters.

Maybe the analogy's not the Satanic Verses, maybe it’s abortion rights. We all love children. Who doesn’t want to kiss rosy-cheeked babies?

But some of us feel the day-to-day life of the mother and her unborn child might be so difficult, that we have to agree to the pain of abortion. Some of us feel that human life – as a symbol – is so dear, that there is never any justification for taking it. Is it the prosaic or the poetic?

Is this a place where New Yorkers live? Or is it a symbol for all of America?

And if it’s a symbol – where does the No-Muslim-Zone end? No-Muslims three blocks’ away? No-Muslims four or five? Can they pray on cardboard on the sidewalk or is that an affront as well? What about Muslims living and working in the area? Should they be denied services because their religion was hijacked? Where does our presence stop causing offense? (A taxi driver will tell you, all the way up to 23rd Street, at least).

Should I and my Muslim neighbors leave lower Manhattan in deference to the hurt feelings of all Americans?

I can’t deny the anguish and suffering of people who lost loved ones on September 11. I remember that panic, that sense of being violated by the event itself. I live the trauma myself.

But isn’t the answer to the hole that pain creates, the pleasure of life and love? Isn’t the most effective way to heal through forgiveness and faith? That's what they tried to do with the Catholic Center for Prayer and Understanding near Auschwitz.

We want Park51 to be a sanctuary, a refuge, a place to restore yourself, body and soul – no matter what your age, religion, sect, race, gender, sexual orientation.

And the money for the project? We're working on it. But we want to make sure that every donation is above board. We are vetting every penny. None of us wants ties to people who might use their money to buy influence and destroy our dream.

So let me explain again. It is not a mosque. It is a nonsectarian community center and prayer space. There will be an interfaith meditation room and memorial to the people we lost in 9/11. It is not at ground zero. It is two very long dark blocks away.

It is a place where children of all faiths will play in the pool together. A place where teenagers of all faiths will perfect their basketball techniques. A place where everyone might learn how to cook and eat delicious foods from around the world. This where we can have a library with a reading room, a place for high-risk adults to learn to read or learn how to apply for jobs, for the elderly to have a meal and meet their friends.

Park51 is our gift to ALL New Yorkers. Especially those of us who live downtown and need every service it offers.

Let's not burn books. Let's take a deep breath and read them for the message of understanding they might bring.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

buying soul

avon just made the front page of wwwd by buying a jewelry brand sterling silver jewler silpada along with two skincare lines, liz earle (british natural skincare) and tiny tillia (children's bath products).

sounds smart. avon can become a purveyor of hotly-desired objects and perhaps overcome some of its psychological obstacles for consumers in north america. they can benefit from the learnings of small brands that are still close to the passion and striving of the original owners. small brands are often based a love for the product as well as for the consumer.

how lucky for avon to catch that magic.

Monday, July 12, 2010

high fashion online? how common.

marc jacobs has broken down. according to the ny times, high-fashion businesses are stepping gently into the internet pool.

i have to admit, even when down to my last dollar, i am a luxury consumer.

if i can't afford it - and i can't find a cool target/h&m/uniqlo/topshop collaboration that requires a lot of hunting to obtain - then i'd rather go without.

sometimes, especially at the last minute or while in remote locations, i absolutely have to have a deck of tarot cards thus they must be made by prada or hermes and i am forced to buy them on ebay.

oh, and i live too near canal street to have more than disdain for fakes.

what's an addict to do?

when i was in miami this spring, i fell madly in love with a cavalli dress from the current collection, but was wise and didn't fall prey to an impulse purchase. however, when i come back to nyc, it seems i can't live without it and i cannot find it anywhere but the saks website. and it's sold out in my size. ebay?

oh, if only cavalli sold his collection online.

but gasp, yes, roberto cavalli has a link on his site to yoox - and i am rescued!

let's face it, luxury brands, i am shopping online.

it's true, nothing beats the scent of the store, the music, the feel of the fabric in your hand, checking the fit and shape in the flattering light of the dressing room, the gleam of the chrome, the heart-pumping moment when the saleswoman hands you the shiny shopping bag.

but in a pinch, i'll shop online - and, if i am, so is everyone else.

i might be pressed for time, have second thoughts, or be too far away from the boutique.

high-end retailers take note, i HAVE seen some really sexy home pages, especially on my glossy screen powerbook. if you don't believe the online experience can make you rabid with desire, check out glossy internet magazines like nowness and drool over the glistening images of untouchable objects.

i suppose, at some time, shopkeepers might have refused to make catalogues, the idea being that a mere photograph couldn't possibly capture the soul of a beautiful object. but that was before irving penn made toothbrushes divine, before hiro made make-up delicious and raymond meier made prada shoes lickable.

the experience might not be same but the end result is - the click of my credit card and the shiny package in my hands.

i suppose i'm just common.