Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Shadia: Friendship goes beyond the politics

I have friends from all sorts of backgrounds.

But my friendship with Michelle Samani is the most shocking for an obvious reason: She's a lawyer, and I'm a journalist.

And then there's this: Meesh — her nickname — is Jewish, and I'm Muslim.

We're not supposed to get along, if conventional wisdom is to be believed. Yet our friendship is but one small example of thousands, if not millions, showing that people can rise above politics.

I met Meesh, who is Persian, while on an assignment covering the first Iranian-American Women's Leadership Conference in Irvine. We were seated at the same table.

Meesh and I were soon ignoring everyone else and talking about celebrated Egyptian singer Um Kalthoom, our faiths, cultures, jobs, families and how much we have in common.

We kept in touch through Facebook and began hanging out soon after. We went to Persian concerts, an event that featured true stories and experiences of Muslims and Jews, and to the second Iranian women's leadership conference, among many other outings, some just as simple as meeting up for dinner.

Of all my girlfriends, I can safely say that Meesh has become my closest. We have similarly assertive personalities and attitudes.

We take our careers seriously and want the same things in life: to make a difference in our society, to get married to good, principled and faithful men, and to raise children to the best of our abilities.

Meesh is even helping me learn Farsi, which is very close to Arabic, and it's a language I have always wanted to learn.

And while we might differ theologically in some minor areas, we choose to celebrate our commonalities — praying to one God, fasting to purify our souls, being kind and tolerant, contributing positively to our society, acting ethically and justly, and respecting those with religious beliefs other than ours, or none at all.

These are just some of the many values and principles Muslims and Jews share. Our faiths have never stopped us from living peacefully side by side. It is politics — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a fairly recent one — that has created this perception.

You might think that Meesh and I are exceptions, but friendships like ours all over the world disprove the myth that Jews and Muslims don't get along.

In fact, the prophet Muhammad befriended many Jews and even married a Jewish woman, Safiyya (Sofia in English).

According to Mohammed Ibn Faqih, imam and religious director of the Islamic Institute of Orange County, the prophet also died in debt to a Jewish merchant.

During one transaction, the prophet wanted to purchase a sack of grain, but didn't have enough money, so he pawned his armor to the man.

"He gave him something that has much more value than he took, so in case he fails in paying him back the money, he has the armor as security," Faqih said.

The prophet died before getting his armor out of pawn. His family repaid the man and took back the armor.

I too expect to die indebted to a Jew — my friend Meesh — for a great and enriching friendship.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Shadia: Muslims view Christmas with more reverence than you may think

I had only been in the United States for about three months when I experienced Christmas for the first time.

It made me long for the excitement of the holidays when they came around back home in Egypt — Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid ul-Adha, which comes toward the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

I'm Egyptian, after all, and celebration runs in our blood.

Although Jesus is a major figure in Islam — he is one of the most important prophets and his name is referenced more times in the Koran than even the prophet Muhammad — we do not celebrate his birth.

Celebrating the birthdays of prophets is generally discouraged because Islam is monotheistic and wants its followers to focus on God and prevent the idolization of people, including revered prophets.

In Islam, we learn from Jesus and Muhammad that there's no middle man, no one between you and God, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA).

"In Islamic teachings, nothing comes between any person and God," Ayloush said. "The prophets showed and taught us the way to God, but then asked us to glorify God rather than them."

This differs some from my Christian friends, who believe that Jesus is both the son of God and the incarnation of God himself.

Many Muslims celebrate the birth of Muhammad, but these festivities are considered cultural traditions, not religious ones.

I have to admit that as I become more Americanized, I certainly get carried away around Christmastime, especially with shopping, which is woven into America's cultural, though not religious, fabric.

But I also love and look forward to the kindness people tend to show toward others.

And that has a lot to do with Jesus.

Though we don't believe he was born on Dec. 25, nor that he was God or the son of God, he is honored in the hearts of Muslims.

I first learned about Jesus from my "Uncle Beautiful," the man who helped raise me in Egypt, when I was young. I was told that you can't be a true Muslim if you don't love or respect Jesus. When we say his name, it is usually followed by the words "peace be upon him," the same language we employ when we speak of Muhammad.

When my uncle shared with me the miracles of Jesus, his birth to the Virgin Mary and his ability to cure the ill, I was mesmerized. Jesus to me became something of a superhero.

There's a chapter in the Koran devoted to Mary — Mariem in Arabic or Maryam in Persian — who is considered the greatest woman who ever walked the Earth, and another chapter about her family.

Jesus is referred to as the Messiah/Christ in the Koran, and we believe there will be a second coming.

This information tends to surprise my Christian friends.

Though the political world casts the differences between Muslims and Christians in stark relief, Muhammad said that "all prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one."

Muslims are discouraged from celebrating the birthdays of prophets because their teachings shouldn't be remembered on a single day, but every day.

"A true celebration of Jesus, Moses and Muhammad is by appreciating their message and living its values every day of the year," Ayloush said.

I know Muslims and Christians have theological differences when it comes to Jesus. But we agree on some of the most important lessons Jesus taught: love, peace and forgiveness.

So for those of you who are celebrating Christmas this weekend, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas, not the watered-down "Happy Holidays."

May this day bring you peace, love and comfort; may it reinforce your commitment to one another, to your community and to your society; and may it be your best one yet.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter: @MonaShadia

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shadia: Thoughts on 'All-American Muslim'

When I first read about a reality TV show featuring the everyday lives and struggles of Muslim Americans, I immediately added it to my short list.

But my reaction to the first episode of "All-American Muslim" on TLC was mixed.

I liked some elements, especially the sense of humor — that Middle Eastern wittiness, the inside jokes that I know all too well.

But I also found myself criticizing some of the cast and wanting to challenge their understanding of Islamic concepts. Some were too conservative, some too liberal and others confusing.

I felt as though Jeff, born an Irish Catholic, converted to Islam just to please his bride, Shadia, and her father when Jeff himself didn't seem to fully understand Islam. I found myself asking, "Shouldn't he study a religion before converting to it?"

And while I belly dance with my friends from time to time, I found myself harshly criticizing Suehaila Amen when I saw her belly dancing at her sister's wedding and then smoking a hookah in another episode.

I thought, "How can she cover her entire body, including her hair, which is a sign of modesty, yet move her body this way in front of strange men and on national television? Isn't covering more about modesty than the actual physical act of doing it?"

But I kept watching because I realize the show represents a slice of my diverse Muslim world. These folks on TV, I found, represent some of us.

I also realize that I'm not even the target audience. I'm already familiar with Islam, Middle Eastern culture and how it intersects, good and bad, with life in the United States. The show's greatest strength is that it offers a window into our world that many Americans never see.

"All-American Muslim" humanizes Muslims and shows that we, like all people, are diverse and deal with ups and downs just like other Americans.

And that, um, "reality" is worth more than any of my nitpicking.


Lowe's advertising controversy

Then earlier this week came the news about Lowe's and its decision to pull ads from "All-American Muslim" because the Florida Family Assn. (FFA), a conservative Christian group, decided that the show "hides the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values."

Oh, and they called the show "propaganda."

Say what?

I'm not disappointed with the association; I expect that kind of behavior from them.

But I'm disappointed in Lowe's, which certainly has a good number of Muslim customers.

Yes, the company has the right to decide how to spend its money. But why would a giant, respected and diverse corporation disrespect the work of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson by making a business decision that essentially legitimizes the FFA's baseless arguments?

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the beauty of America's democracy is that you can openly, and freely, express love or hate for any group or any show.

"The FFA is fully within its right to hate Muslims, propagate anti-Muslim bigotry and promote fear of Muslims; we live in a free country," Ayloush said. "What is problematic is when Lowe's, as a large corporation that employs hundreds of thousands of people and benefits from the patronage of millions of people, including many Muslims, chooses to agree with such a hate group that this show is controversial because it's basically not depicting Muslims as terrorists."

Ayloush asked: How would Americans feel if large corporations had decided to pull ads from "The Cosby Show" or "Seinfeld" because they depicted African Americans or Jews as normal Americans?

Many non-Muslim groups and individuals, including Asians, Jews and Christians and the Los Angeles Times editorial board, have criticized Lowe's.

I think it's the FFA that is challenging American liberties, and Lowe's just fell into its trap.

I've never been to Lowe's. They don't sell fabulous shoes, clothes or handbags.

And I won't ask you not to go there.

But I'm just going to say this: If, say, Nordstrom pulled ads from a show that depicted Jews, Christians, Hindus, Hispanics, blacks or gays as ordinary Americans who rise and fall, succeed and fail, I would happily feed my huge appetite for fashion elsewhere.

But Nordstrom would never do such a thing, I hope. So I'm safe.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia

Friday, December 9, 2011

Shadia: Tangled in the layers of hijab

Editor's note: Staff writer Mona Shadia has gotten used to fielding questions about Islam and Middle Eastern culture in our newsroom. Whether it's fasting during Ramadan, Eid, hijabs in the workplace, the Irvine 11 or the Arab Spring, Mona has educated her co-workers (and bosses) about her faith and experiences. Those conversations led us to realize how little some Americans understand about Islam and the Middle Easterners who live among us in this era of Islamophobia in America. My hope is Mona can pass along her perspective and insights to our readers. This is the first of her new weekly column, Unveiled: A Muslim Girl in O.C.

I grew up in Cairo, raised by my mom and her six brothers.

Uncle Gamal, whom I call "Uncle Beautiful" because his name means beauty in Arabic, had the greatest influence on me. On one of Cairo's warm and sunny days, when I was maybe 6 or 7, my uncle gave me a blue hijab to cover my hair and upper body every time I went outside.

Growing up in a Muslim country, I saw many women wearing hijabs. But my mom, Shadia, whose first name I have taken as my last, was curiously not one of them.

My sister, Marwa, and I would walk fully covered next to our mom while she showed her hair, but we never really understood why her hair flowed freely and ours did not.

It was easy for Uncle Beautiful, who practiced a conservative form of Islam, to make me and my sister hide our locks from public view, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't make our strong-willed mom do so.

When I was about 12 and became more aware of my surroundings and my developing sense of fashion, I grew to resent covering my long, dark brown hair. I imagined what it would be like to walk outside showing it.

By that time, my mom had decided to cover her own hair. She said it was her decision, not her brother's, which didn't help my case.

When I asked why women have to cover, Uncle Beautiful said because your hair is part of your beauty, and Muslim women and girls must show modesty.

Then he startled me by comparing uncovered women to slaughtered animals hanging in a butcher's shop and covered women to beautiful diamonds.

With each day, I grew more resentful of having to hide my hair and of my uncle, to whom I would not speak to for a decade.


Unveiled in America

Fast-forward a few years. About two weeks shy of my 15th birthday, I moved to Southern California with my mom and sister to join my grandma, three of my mom's brothers, her sister and their families.

The first thing I did was remove the hijab, but I couldn't let go of my anger toward it. Until recently.

Although there is no specific mention of a woman's hair in the Koran, there are at least two verses where God commands women to cover their heads, according to Mohammed Ibn Faqih, imam and religious director at the Anaheim-based Islamic Institute of Orange County.

These versus are also clarified through one of Prophet Muhammad's prophetic traditions.

But here's why the hijab is such a controversy.

In recent history, as with many other religious and nonreligious expressions, the hijab became politicized.

Covering became associated with oppression when, in fact, the basic purpose of the hijab was to liberate women and protect their dignity and beauty, Faqih said.

One of the purposes of the hijab is also to identify Muslim women, he said.

It used to really bother me when I saw a woman covering her hair in America; I assumed she's oppressed by her husband, family or tradition.

But then I realized something: Hijabis in America have it completely different from those in Iran, who are forced by the government; in Saudi Arabia, where covering is the norm; in Turkey, where the hijab is actually discouraged; or in Egypt, where many women cover because of social pressures. In America, women cover their hair, or not cover, because they have the freedom to make that choice.

Are there situations here where the woman is actually being forced by her family or obligated to cover? Yes.

Are there Western women here who feel the need to dress in a certain way or get surgically enhanced to fit in? Sure.

Now when I see a woman in a hijab, I think she could take it off, but she chooses not to, just like my mom. I respect that choice.

So when you come across a hijabi in America, remember that, more likely than not, she's covering her hair as part of her faith and she's doing it freely because this country gives her choices that Muslim countries will not.

As for me and Uncle Beautiful, we made peace last summer when I visited Cairo. He wishes I would cover, but I know he never saw me as hanging meat in a metaphorical butcher shop.

He has always thought of me as a diamond.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America.