Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Reflections of a Polish convert

Tareq Salik is a 25 year-old from Olsztyn, Poland . He was born into a Catholic family but converted to Shia Islam when he was 18. He has a B.A. in English Philology from the University of Warmia and Mazuria in Poland. He moved to Birmingham about 15 months ago and is currently studying in my class at Al-Mahdi Institute.

Since Tareq is a convert, he has researched about Islam in great depth and most of time, he knows more about the religion than most of us in the class. I enjoy talking to him about his life, his beliefs, goals & challenges and decided to write about some of what we talk about. Why he converted is not the focus of this entry – we have heard many of those stories before. Instead, I've chosen to emphasis some of the challenges he has faced and continues to face as a convert.

Many times, Tareq feels that some born Muslims don't completely accept converts into their communities. Many born Muslims he has come across will outwardly praise him for converting out of his convictions rather than following a faith he was simply born in. Yet, they still act as if they are better Muslims and even try to find fault with his practices, for example while performing wudhoo (ritual ablution).

Most of Tareq's challenges have been what he calls "community related." Shiaism is usually practiced by the Lebanese, Iranians, Iraqis, Indian, Pakistanis & Khojas. Since many Shia communities are divided along ethnic lines, they tend to be very exclusive. This problem becomes a huge obstacle when it comes to spouse selection. Female converts usually marry born Muslims and easily find spouses, but this is not the case for men.

Tareq finds that although many born Muslim women are willing to marry converts, they are unable to do so due to family or community pressure. Since most parents check a potential husband's family background, many male converts find it challenging since their families are not Muslim and may not be considered a "good family." Thus, for many male converts, the criteria for finding a wife have completely changed: instead of looking for compatibility, religiosity or attraction, they look for women whose families will accept them.

For Tareq, it is equivalent of saying that these girls cannot marry Salman Farsi – a close companion of Prophet Mohamed (SAW) who was a convert of Persian origin. He feels that by discriminating against converts on such matters, Muslims are not living up to the standards of Islam.

Many converts that Tareq knows end up marrying non-Muslims or Muslim women that are not religious or come from non-traditional families. In his experience, many converts are disappointed to find out that the concept of "Muslim brotherhood" is only in theory and not actually practiced. He wonders what the point of spreading Islam to non-Muslims is if converts are not accepted into Muslim communities.

At the end of conversation, I ask Tareq what he intends to do when he is ready to look for a spouse. He didn't answer. He just smiled.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Greetings from Birmingham!

Salaams all!

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve sent anything out, so here’s my first update from Birmingham. I’m studying at the Al-Mahdi Institute here & for the first semester, the classes that I have are: Arabic, Theology, Logic, History of Islamic Law and Hadith Reading. I really enjoy what I am learning & it is inspiring to finally meet Muslim scholars who think on the same wavelength that I do. They come from various backgrounds but most of them have studied in Iran and have combined their interests with degrees from UK universities. We are only about 10 students in the first year class which allows us to have intimate discussions. Although we’ve only had a month of classes, I think my teachers already recognize me as the student who asks the most questions in class!

I live in a house with 7 very interesting women whom I really like and most of us share rooms. My room mate is a Sunni from London of Bengali origin. Most of the other girls are from the UK too while one is from Tanzania & one from Pakistan. Three of the girls are Syeds (descendants of the Prophet). Since we are all from such different religious & cultural backgrounds, we work hard to create a harmonious atmosphere at home.

My neighborhood is primarily South Asian and I really enjoy having halal food & Asian groceries so easily accessible. The women in my neighborhood dress up pretty conservatively, so many times I end up wearing a black abaya over my clothes in order to avoid stares from people. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in Dubai & forget I’m living in the UK because I hardly ever interact with Birmingham natives, which I do find disturbing.

I miss DC a lot more than I expected. None of my house or class mates are particularly political and on many issues regarding the United States, I get really defensive. For example one of the senior students here once asked me bluntly, “How do you feel about belonging to a country that is responsible for so many deaths worldwide?!”

Ramadhan has been interesting – the Khoja mosque that I attend is very traditional and very split on several issues, so I haven’t really found my niche within the community yet. Other than that, I’m just trying to adapt to my new life and trying very hard not to get influenced by the Birmingham accent!

I hope you all are doing well & are enjoying the spiritual goodies of this blessed month. Laters!


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What you can do for Lebanon

The past few weeks have been crazy in the Middle East. What has been the scariest thing to me is what is my duty in all of this. What can I do to help so that future generations will not point a finger at me & blame me for failing to assist the people in the current crisis.

I don't need to go into details of what has been going on in Lebanon and I'm sure like me, you are frustrated. But there are things you can do to help. We don't want people from future generations to point fingers at us & say we failed to help people during this crisis. Don't wait - the time to act is NOW & here's how:

1. Don't underestimate the power of word of mouth - tell your friends, neighbors & co-workers. Many of them are not aware of the issue - talk to them & educate them about the situation. It is our duty to do so. Send them new sources from www.bbcnews.com & other news sources you find relevant.

2. Write a short letter to the editor of your newspaper. It doesn't have to be long or controversial - just talk about how lives are being lost on both sides for no reason and the U.S. needs to work with other countries to stop the violence. If you liked a particular piece you read, refer to it to support your argument. Even if it doesn't get published, you tried & you can always e-mail it to friends & family! Or like me, you can blog about if you have one.

3. There is a dire need to mobilize resources for relief operations in Lebanon. Below are contacts for international and local organizations that are helping Lebanon through this humanitarian crisis.

Please circulate!!




Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Youth empowerment at the United Nations

"No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off its youth severs its lifeline."
~ UN Secretary General Kofi Annan

From a young age, both my parents were instrumental in instilling a sense of concern for the environment - be it recycling or conserving electricity and water. So, last year, when my colleague introduced me to SustainUS - a US network of youth working on sustainable development, I was immediately interested. What is sustainable development you ask? It is a process of developing (land, cities, business, communities, etc) that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Every year, the UN holds a conference on sustainable development (the
Commission on Sustainable Development) where government officials, young people, NGOs and other people from all over the world can participate & make their voices heard. This year, I was privileged to be chosen as a delegate youth leader for SustainUS and spent all of last week at the UN participating in the conference.

There are are so many things to share: flashing my UN badge to go past the tourists, sharing a room & bathroom with 10 other youth delegates, 5-hrs of sleep a night, hilarious statements by oil-producing countries, addressing the delegates from around the world on
sustainable consumption & fair trade, the laughter & tears, being inspired by the youth from around the world, the frustrations and successes. It's impossible for me to write about it all, so I have decided to focus on 3 things that were definitely highlights of my week:

1. Children and Youth are recognized as one of the major groups & thus have a seat on the UN floor just like any government would. This means we have a right to intervene & share our thoughts on the suffices being discussed at any given time. Last Wednesday, we were asked to present a 3-minute statement on an issue that we wanted to share. So, a few of us gathered to craft the statement & believe it or not, it took us more than 6 hours because it had to be crafted so carefully.

In the end, we decided to focus on a local environment-friendly hydro-electric project that one of the Nepalese youth delegates had started in his country. It was interesting to see his excitement because he probably had never imagined that he would be asked to represent the youth at the UN just two weeks after he had participated in the pro-democracy demonstrations in his country. As we worked on our statement, we could see a change in him - he felt more empowered & in the process, he empowered all of us. Having lived in America for so long, I have forgotten how abundant opportunities are in this country & how rare it is for other people around the world, esp those from developing countries. His
statement on the UN floor was so inspiring, it moved all of us. The best part was when he was approached by a German delegate to discuss possible funding for his project!

2. This year, I was honored to meet some people from the Appalachian valley who have been significantly affected by mountain-top coal mining. One of the women who talked to us talked about how their water was contaminated & affecting her family & community. What she said next brought tears to my eyes: before she came to the conference, she didn't think anyone cared about her community, but after seeing how we were all working to make a difference, she realized that there were people who cared about their plight.

After having spent a long time in the halls of the Capitol or the UN and schmoozing policymakers, it is sometimes easy for me to forget that in the end, it isn't about the perfect words on a piece of paper, but about people. That there are actual human beings that are affected by the decisions we make & I'm so grateful for that reminder.

3. A bunch of creative people from the youth caucus made hundreds of windmills from origami that we could all pin on our shirts to remind everybody the importance of renewable energy. We also put them up on a world map where we all wanted to see more wind energy being produced. The powerful visual said more than words could convey & was definitely a lot of fun!

I was amazed at how organized, articulate, inspiring & pragmatic all the youth delegates were no matter where they were from. There was no way governments could ignore us! Last week also made me realize how American I felt - I knew I had no credibility to approach the Tanzanian or the UAE delegation so I approached the American delegation with my colleagues.

Our message was pretty simple: We will live the consequences. We will breathe the air & drink the water you leave us. Let the support you lend to us be the legacy to us. Don't gamble with our future.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Arab, Muslim silence on Darfur conflict is deafening

From The Daily Star:

First person Fatema Abdul Rasul

For the entire Muslim and Arab world to remain silent when thousands of people in Darfur continue to be killed is shameful and hypocritical. On March 28, 2006, the Arab League held its annual summit in Khartoum but failed to effectively address the crisis in Darfur.

Earlier in March, the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council had extended its mission in Darfur until September 30, and the League has decided to financially support the AU mission from October onward.

Considering the urgency of the situation in the region, the response of the Arab League is inadequate. The
money is needed now.

"This is medicine after death," said Baba Gana Kingibe, the head of the AU mission in Sudan. "We need the assistance now in order to be able to resolve the crisis."

Koran clearly states: "O ye who believe! Remain steadfast for Allah, bearing witness to justice. Do not allow your hatred for others make you swerve to wrongdoing and turn you away from justice. Be just; that is closer to true piety." (5:8)

Yet, the Arab and Muslim world has failed to condemn the violence in Darfur or assist any efforts by the international community to protect the innocent civilians - most of whom are Muslim.

Arab and Muslim leaders have never hesitated to condemn the killing of innocent civilians in Iraq or the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Yet, none of them have spoken out against Khartoum's policies in Darfur even though the number of Darfurians killed surpasses those in the other two conflicts.

During the past two and a half years, over 400,000 people have been killed in Darfur while more than two million people have been uprooted from their
homes. The Sudanese-backed Janjaweed militia has routinely raided villages, executed adult males, raped adult women and girl children, burned homes and crops, stolen livestock, and kidnapped children into slavery.

Although United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has declared the situation in Darfur as the world's worst current humanitarian crisis, the international response to Darfur so far has been half-hearted. Currently, the African Union (AU) has about 7,700 personnel deployed in the region but lacks a robust mandate and adequate resources to protect civilians. This has lead to an escalation of violence and deterioration of the situation in the region.

Recognizing the need for an urgent solution to the crisis,
President Bush along with other world leaders recently agreed that a UN peacekeeping force should replace the fledgling AU mission in order to stop the killings in Darfur. However, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have strongly rejected this proposal hindering efforts to solve the crisis.

Even oil-rich countries in the Persian Gulf have barely reached into their deep pockets. Saudi Arabia has contributed about $3 million while Qatar and the United Arab Emirates combined have contributed less than $1 million to the crisis in Darfur. In contrast, Canada has pledged more aid than all the Arab countries put together.

In fact, the Arab League has consistently supported the Sudanese government. For example, in 2004, the Arab League rejected sanctions and international military involvement regarding Darfur.

The Arab League's indifference over the crisis in Darfur makes it appear that any country can commit gross violations of human rights and still go about business as usual.

However, the international community disagrees. Last September, more than 150 heads of state - including several Arab and Muslim leaders - gathered at the United Nations for an historic summit and endorsed a principle known as the "Responsibility to Protect."

This principle states that no nation can hide behind the veil of sovereignty while it conducts or permits crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. It also implies that other countries cannot turn a blind eye when these events occur beyond their borders just because it does not suit their narrowly defined national interests.

The need to end the crisis in Darfur is a golden opportunity for the international community to mobilize around this principle.

Organizations such as the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conferences should embrace this initiative instead of obstructing action at the United Nations.

In addition, Arab and Muslim leaders should constructively engage in the peace talks between rebel movements in Darfur and the Sudanese government.

For instance, appointing a high-level Arab or Muslim envoy would send Khartoum a clear signal that the Arab and Muslim world is committed to end the violence. This individual should be empowered to meet with all parties, from tribal leaders in Darfur to the heads of strategically important governments.

If Arab and Muslim leaders want to prove to the international community that they are truly committed to respect for human rights, justice and accountability, it is imperative for them to stand up against the genocide in Darfur.

Fatema Abdul Rasul is an Edward Rawson Fellow for the Peace & Security Program at Citizens for Global Solutions, a lobby group in Washington working for improved American foreign policy.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

It's the little things that matter

As I mentioned the last time, I haven't been blogging in a while – I don't know why but I just haven't felt like it. I dread up waking up every morning because I wonder what will pop up on my BBC homepage. In the past few months, I just feel like everything that can go wrong in the world is going wrong & we might as well blow ourselves up. I know – it's not a very inspiring message nor does it portray my usual can-do attitude, but I can't help it.

Last week, I was working on a report on Darfur when it really hit me that yes, the international community is allowing a genocide to occur – again. For those of you who are not aware of the issue, Darfur is located in the western region of Sudan. Since 2003, the government-sponsored militia has killed about 140,000 people based on their ethnicity. Most of the victims are Muslims and what kills me is the silence on part of the Muslim & Arab world, although the number of Darfurians that have been killed surpasses those killed in Iraq and Palestine.

I don't remember the genocide in Rwanda or the Balkans in the last decade, so for me genocide has always been a chapter in my political science book – a historical fact that I had to study. Having to work on one that is actually occurring while I write is still very new to me and honestly, overwhelming. However, after working in DC for a year on Darfur, what I have realized is that genocide is stoppable. For people who want to learn more information about the issue – please visit
www.globalsolutions.org/darfur and feel free to contact me if you have questions.

Although I have been mulling about the issues mentioned above for a while now, there is one person who inspired me to write this particular entry: my 13-yr old sister. Why you ask? Well, a few weeks ago, her Qur'an teacher mentioned the drought in East Africa this year and how she and her friends could fund raise money for a well in Tanzania. Taking her advice, my sister and her two friends got together & started to sell baked goods during various events at the mosque. Their enthusiasm & commitment to the cause has allowed them to raise over $1000 in just a few weeks. Words cannot express how proud I am of these three girls.

Their courage to make a difference in this world has given me much needed hope. We are all empowered to create change – we just have to be willing to act & think beyond our comfort zones.

As we near the end of Muharram and Safar, we need to take stock of what we have learned from mourning the tragedy in Karbala. Our beloved Imams and Bibis endured severe hardship for their cause, but they didn't allow themselves to be victims. Men and women of all ages in the holy household stepped up to the plate because they realized how high the stakes were.

The stakes are high today too. Are we going to step up to the plate or are we going to sit back while another shrine blows up? The choice is yours.


Monday, February 20, 2006

Silent No More

""I learnt from Husayn how to be wronged and be a winner."
~Mahatma Gandhi

I know it has been a while since I’ve blogged but I guess I kinda had a blogger’s block if you will. It has taken me a while to write this piece as I mulled over all the thoughts in my head. This year marked my 2nd Muharram experience in DC and it has been significantly different from last year. This year, I have many more Shia friends and actually was able to go the various mosques in the area. I have never been “mosque-hopping” before & it was definitely an interesting experience.

Since I have always been so strongly rooted in the Khoja community & most of our mosques function similarly (just like Wal-Mart!), it was weird not knowing my way around the mosque or what to expect. The two mosques I ended up going to were South Asian and it was the first time I was the minority within the broader Shia community: the traditions at Idara Jafaria in Maryland was pretty similar to what I am accustomed to but the Mohammadia Center in Virginia was just fascinating. Firstly, since this community is in the process of building a permanent center, the majalises were held at a “Chutney Banquet Hall” which I found pretty amusing. The one thing that was intriguing for me is how the members of this community would place a huge variety of South Asian sweets & desserts by the alams & replicas of the shrines and then pass it around for everyone to taste. And whenever I refused for the fear of gaining weight during the 12 days, the ladies would disapprove because it was seen as refusing “blessed food.”

This Muharram, I was surrounded by people whose last names were: Naqvi, Rizvi, Shirazi, which clearly indicated that their families have been Shias for centuries. Although my ancestors have not always been Muslim and converted to Shiasm a few centuries ago, it made me appreciate my Shia heritage even more and regard the legacy of Imam Husayn (AS) & Bibi Zainab (AS) as a gift to our community.

Although I did gain new information at the lectures in both mosques, I was disappointed by the content most of the time. Unfortunately, I have given up the hope of expecting to be inspired by speakers at any of the mosques I attend – it seems to me that most of them are completely disconnected from political or social reality and the issues affecting the community. What also bothers me is how the role of women in Kerbala is not emphasized enough. For instance, it irks me when lecturers stress that Bibi Zainab’s (AS) courage came from her father Imam Ali (AS) & her grandfather Prophet Muhammad (SAW) while ignoring the fact that her resilience was also due to her amazing mother Bibi Fatema (AS) & grandmother Bibi Khadija (AS).

This Muharram, my friends & I also discussed the role of traditional azadari (mourning) such as matam & zanjir in today’s society. We debated whether it was relevant & helped convey Imam Husayn’s message to the rest of the world. I grew up in a very traditional azadari-oriented community & it has always been a huge part of my life. I’ve always wondered whether my non-Shia friends & colleagues would cringe at the red marks on my chest caused by my engagement in matam or self-flagellation – would they consider it “barbaric”? After all it is not a normal reaction to grief – it is a learned behavior that I cannot explain but is truly an expression of raw grief that I feel when I remember the tragedy in Karbala.

I’m not prepared to debate whether such expressions of grief should be abandoned but I do believe we need to create alternative forums for Shias & non-Shias to learn more about Imam Husayn and why his sacrifice is relevant today. After all, his message is not one that should be preserved in a time capsule or wrapped up in rituals - truly, every day is Karbala & every land is Ashura & it is incumbent on us to stand up to all forms of oppression in the world today.
Note: The Qunoot Foundation will be holding its second conference on April 1 entitled "Beyond Tears: Examining the Remembrance of Imam Husayn."