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."