Thursday, May 17, 2012

Shadia: Pakistani women work for peace

Last week in Irvine, I met real-life superwomen.

They manage to stay under the radar of extremists and have found a magical way to moderate, even eliminate, radicalism in some parts of their communities.

Amn-O-Nisa, or Women for Peace, is an organization made up of professional Pakistani women — lawyers, journalists, teachers — who come from different regions and are working to chip away at radicalism from its roots.

Eleven of the women were in Irvine last week at the home of Anila Ali, founder of the American Muslim Women's Empowerment Council, as part of a tour sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. The women were invited to Irvine by the council and the Irvine Pakistani Parents Assn.

Ali invited me to meet the women after I spoke at the council's second annual conference in Buena Park last month.

The women's visit to the United States included face time with members of Congress and officials from Homeland Security, with whom they shared their mission and expressed dissent for drone attacks — a tactic they said increases radicalism and in turn makes their job more difficult, according to Chairwoman Mossarat Qadeem.

"There was silence and nodding" to the group's concerns about drone attacks, Qadeem said.

Before the group moved on from Washington, D.C., to continue its tour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requested a meet-and-greet with the members.

Clinton expressed her support and respect for the group's work and mission, Qadeem said.

"Hillary Clinton said, 'I wanted to tell you in person I'm impressed by your mission,'" Qadeem said. "For us, it was quite encouraging."

But it is how they fight radicalism that is truly impressive.

The women use the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad's prophetic traditions, called Hadith, to reshape people's understanding of Islam.

They do it by getting the most important figures in the Middle East on their side: the mothers.

Qadeem said the mothers are the ones who suffer the most, and they're the ones who first notice signs of changes in their sons.

"We use the same Koranic verses, but with the true interpretation to sensitize them," she said.

It's difficult for some to imagine how the Koran and the Hadith can be used to de-radicalize extremists, so I asked the women to give me concrete examples.

"It's simple," Qadeem said. "The first word of the Koran is Iqra, meaning 'read.'"

There's also a Hadith where the prophet commands Muslims, men and women, to seek knowledge and education wherever they are, she said.

It comes down to education and educating young Muslims about the facts of Islam.

"When you look at the prophet's life, I don't know what has gone wrong with those people who commit violence in the name of Islam," Qadeem said.

The goals is to create a society that's intolerant to violence, a society where an extremist has no harbor.

Qadeem said they keep a low profile and are always careful about their word choice. The women, for example, never use the word peace, but the word tolerance.

Qadeem said a lot of people there don't recognize that extremism is not a normal situation. When you say peace, she said, they tell you they're peaceful.

I was so impressed by the women. I spoke with Huma Chughtai, a lawyer by training, and Naziha Syed Ali, a journalist who produced a documentary on education in the classroom.

Ali said textbooks are often riddled with inaccurate information about Islam in relation to the two other Abrahamic faiths.

It seems like a long road ahead, but to me they are real-life super heroes. Draped in their saris and traditional Pakistani costumes, they walked together with a sense of confidence and humbleness.

This is how a real difference is made — not by force, but by true leaders who are selfless, who are willing to put their lives in danger for the sake of humanity and for the sake of peace.

I was inspired by them, and I couldn't help but feel compelled to always work toward making a positive difference in my community and society. After all, it is what Islam teaches. And I felt proud to be a woman.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. 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.

Shadia: God means love in Islam too

There are so many lies that get circulated online about Islam that are sometimes printed and repeated as if they're facts.

Some of them really amuse me, especially the one about how Muslims believe in the "Moon God, Allah." We know Allah is Arabic for God.

But the Moon God? Who is he? I've been a Muslim for 28 years and have never heard of him. If my community has been withholding a lunar deity from me, it's about time it fesses up!

Some of the lies point to ignorance, like the notion that Muslims believe in a different God than the Jews and Christians, or that Muslims are supposed to lie to and kill "infidels."

Did I ever tell you about my "infidel" friend of 11 years? I haven't killed him yet.

And some claims are mind-boggling, like the idea that the Muslims' God is not a loving God. Let me tell you, as in Christianity, he is indeed a loving God because he's the same God.

Once, while attending community college, I received one of those emails listing all the reasons Muslims and Islam are evil.

At the time, I had been looking for a topic for my English class paper and when I saw that email, I knew exactly what I was going to write about. Very convenient.

Needless to say, that paper didn't stop the mass emails, but it was hailed by my English professor, who gave me an A and said everyone should read it. Take that.

I basically fought those lies with facts using the Koran; prophetic traditions, called Hadith; and stories of Islam's prophets from Abraham to Muhammad.

I remember pausing when I came across the part of the email that read something like this: Muslims' God is not loving; none of his 99 names means love.

In Islam, God has 99 names. The names describe God's characteristics. Among them are the merciful, the protector, the gentle, the honorer, the first, the last, the guide, the grateful, the forgiving and Al Wadood, which means the loving.

I looked up what love means in the dictionary to remind myself. It means, among other things, feelings of devotion, mercy, compassion and kindness.

Muslims begin everything they do, whether it's work, eating, writing, speaking or reading the Koran, with the words, "In the name of God, the merciful, the mercy-giver."

How is one merciful, forgiving and compassionate but not loving?

There are numerous verses and words in the Koran associating God with love and describing the many ways he loves his people. They include describing God as one who loves those who are patient, kind, just, compassionate and merciful toward others.

And there are probably dozens, if not hundreds, of Hadith describing God's love and tendency to forgive his servants out of compassion and mercy for them.

One Hadith describes God as "gentle and loves gentleness. He gives to those displaying gentleness what he does not give to those displaying violence."

A woman was once running in despair, looking for her small child, whom she lost for a few seconds in the market. When she found him, she ran to him with tears of joy, hugging and kissing him as if he had been lost for ages. When the Prophet Muhammad saw her, he told those around him that God's love for his servants is much stronger than that woman's love for her child.

It's hard to imagine, but I believe it. Muslims are taught from a young age about God's love for his people.

I do get why some may think that for Muslims, God is not loving. But that's just not the case. God is loving, but not all people are.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. 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.

Shadia: Islam's influence on the Founding Fathers

Even though I wasn't born or raised here, there's a reason I feel at home in America.

America's principles align with Islam's teachings. In fact, America's principles are not just based on Judeo-Christian values, but Judeo-Christian-Islamic values. After all, the three religions share the same father, Abraham, and the same God.

After some research and a chat with a friend, who shared with me the work of a few authors and scholars, I'm convinced that this relationship and compatibility between Islam and America is not a coincidence.

It is because America's forefathers were influenced by Islam itself.

Hear me out.

There's no doubt that when the Founding Fathers were forming the Constitution, they relied heavily on thinkers like John Locke.

Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, used the terms "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," which were taken directly from Locke's "Second Treatise of Civil Government," according to a comparative religion paper written by Zulfiqar Ali Shah, an Islamic scholar.

Locke's ideas were used to form the Constitution and heavily influenced figures like Thomas Paine, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

You probably knew all of that. Locke was one of the political philosophers I studied in graduate school, and I often thought his ideas on human rights were in line with Islam's.

But what I didn't know is that Locke got many of his ideas from Islam and was often accused of being a Muslim by others, according to Shah. Apparently, accusing your opponents of being Muslim is not a new thing (ahem!).

Locke, as well as Jefferson, owned a copy of the Koran. Jefferson was the first president to host a Ramadan Iftar dinner at the White House, and, while campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, he demanded that people recognize the religious rights of the "Mohamadan," the Jews and the "Pagan," according to a Library of Congress article by James H. Hutson, chief of the Manuscript Division.

Muslims were also part of this country from its inception.

"Readers may be surprised to learn that there may have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslims in the United States in 1776 — imported as slaves from areas of Africa where Islam flourished," Hutson wrote. "Although there is no evidence that the Founders were aware of the religious convictions of their bondsmen, it is clear that the Founding Fathers thought about the relationship of Islam to the new nation and were prepared to make a place for it in the republic."

Did you know that there's a statue of the Prophet Muhammad in the Supreme Court? It has been there for many years and no one is up in arms over it.

TheCouncil on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), however, petitioned the court to remove the statue in 1997. The organization argued that the statue's depiction of the prophet with a sword was not accurate, that Islam — fearing idol worship — discourages its followers from portraying prophets in photos or any other artistic forms. CAIR also said that pamphlets about the prophet handed out to tourists were inaccurate, according to an article in Mental Floss.

Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist denied CAIR's request, saying the sword is depicted as a symbol of justice and that the statue wasn't intended for idol worship but to recognize the prophet "as an important figure in the history of law," according to Mental Floss.

Rehnquist, however, said he would ensure that the pamphlets would be corrected.
So how do Islam's principles align with America's?

The answer is they both call for a just system that suggests democracy.

The Koran never specifies which kind of a government people should establish, but lists certain principles and values that must be followed. These include the right to protection of life, human dignity, family, religion, education and property from harm or abuse in a system that is just to all, regardless of faith.

This is basically the definition of — wait for it — Sharia, Islam's code of ethics, conduct and belief.

Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, one of Islam's early leading scholars, said, "The foundation of the Shariah is wisdom and the safeguarding of people's interests in this world and the next. In its entirety it is justice, mercy and wisdom. Every rule which transforms justice to tyranny, mercy to its opposite, the good to the evil, and wisdom to triviality does not belong to the Shariah."

Most Islamic scholars agree that Islam demands justice to be at the heart of any society, and it's evident in how the prophet conducted his affairs and forged treaties with what Muslims call the People of the Book: Jews and Christians.

The Koran is clear on the issue of diversity and states that it is part of God's divine wisdom. I'd be pretty bored if everyone looked like me, thought like me, believed like me and acted like me.

And this is why America's system closely resembles that of what God intended.

It is why this is my home.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. 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.

Shadia: Islam for enlightenment, liberation

There's been a storm of controversy in the Arab and Muslim community over a recent Foreign Policy magazine article.

The essay, "Why Do They Hate Us?", outlines the atrocities many Arab women suffer at the hands of men. In short, the writer posits that Arab men hate women.

That writer isn't me, though we share the same first name (Mona) and native and adopted (Egypt, the U.S.) countries. Her name is Mona Eltahawy.

As if we needed it, this article divided the Arab and Muslim-American community into two groups: those who hailed Eltahawy for her courage, and those who admonished her for being yet another writer appealing to Western sensibilities with a subjective, narrow, emotionally gripping list of atrocities directed toward women by Arab, Muslim men.

And then there's me, hanging out somewhere in the middle, playing devil's advocate.
On the one hand, I know what it's like to be in Eltahawy's position.

My mom was married off by my grandmother to a man 22 years her senior, a man she couldn't stand and never loved. He beat her, even as she carried me in the womb, and generally humiliated and embarrassed her until she divorced him in the Egyptian courts — not an easy thing to do in that era. I remain proud of her for breaking free.

Growing up, my uncles helped raise me. One, who regular readers know as "Uncle Beautiful," hit and emotionally abused me. He once punched me in the face, dislocating the bone above my left eyebrow. He also once beat me so hard that it was difficult for me to move afterward. And he sometimes allowed the neighbors' kids to watch as he hit me.

After moving to America, I spent a decade not speaking with him.

Like Eltahawy, I too can recite a list of tragedies and injustices toward Arab women, but I also have good memories of my uncle teaching, encouraging, believing in, empowering and defending me. As cruel as his hand could be, he took pride in my achievements, and, to this day, cheers me on in my career and in life.

He made it his responsibility to protect me. He enriched my life with books and stories. He served as a role model with his honest way of life and work ethics.

Does he hate me?

I don't think so.

Is he a product of a collective, cultural ignorance that allowed him to both beat and praise me, to be compassionate and decent, to be emotionally and physically cruel?

I am leaning that way.

Yes, the Arab culture is misogynistic, but the picture isn't as grim as Eltahawy makes it sound. There are bad men, but great ones as well. And there are many great women who have been working for decades to advance women's rights and have made a lot of progress, though it has come slowly.

Her article does nothing other than, once again, put the burden, albeit indirectly, on the West, suggesting that Occidental values are all that can save these ignorant, undemocratic cultures.

I think solutions can and should be found within the Middle East.

The fact is, women have been mistreated by men of all religions and cultures for thousands of years. Remember: America needed its own women's movement — and it wasn't that long ago.

Manhood in many Arab countries is often measured by how insensitive you are and your ability to control the fairer sex.

The problem is not Islam, as some so easily and conveniently believe. It is the result of many factors, including colonialism and subsequent dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that have created an extreme culture in every aspect of life, not just when it comes to women.

When all you're concerned about is where and how you're going to feed yourself and family each day, and how to stay off corrupt leaders' and dictators' radar, being good to women, children, animals or men, for that matter, is not a priority.

And certainly, looking up your religion's teachings and history is nowhere on the list. It's not as black and white as Eltahawy makes it sound.

Not every Arab or Muslim man hates his wife. And they don't hate their mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters or nieces.

Instead of feeding the appetites of two opposing sides, why not find a way to educate men and women and make a real difference? Like Martin Luther King, who used religion to bring God-given rights to blacks, why not use religion — Islam, in this case — to empower the women of the Middle East and create a culture where women and men are working together for a better world?

We all know that the Torah and the Bible can and have been used to commit great injustices, and we also know that they can be used to bring people freedom, wisdom, compassion and enlightenment as well. It's the same story with the Koran and Islam.

The problem is a lot of Muslims are ignorant of the true teachings of their faith, which frowns upon the mistreatment of women.

None of Islam's greatest figures and stories existed without a woman. From Abraham to Muhammad, strong, empowered women were always at the heart of their existence.

More than 1,400 years ago, a 40-year-old businesswoman proposed marriage to her employee, a man 15 years her junior. He accepted. And she became his first wife — and boss.

That man was the Prophet Muhammad. They lived together for 25 years until she died.

Women, during the prophet's companions' time, voted, served in the military, gave to the mosques, worked and supported their husbands.

A feisty young woman wouldn't take no for an answer from the prophet. His second wife, Aisha, would question and challenge him to give her logical and reasonable answers. He would feed her with his own hands, help her with household chores and speak publicly of his love for her.

He died in her arms.

She delivered and shared with the Muslim community many of the prophet's traditions on marriage, family, children, women's rights and men's duties for women, and even held classes to teach the prophet's companions. This has made her, a woman, one of the most important figures of Islam.

These facts and many more should serve as a foundation to educate and empower every Muslim woman.
The revolutions happening across the Middle East are a good opportunity for women to liberate themselves if they use Islam for enlightenment and as a liberating tool, as it was intended to be.

Atrocities, such as the ones Eltahawy has listed, are less likely to happen in a society full of empowered women and educated men.

It's likely to take many years.

It took a decade for my relationship with Uncle Beautiful to change. We still sometimes disagree, but our disagreements are never contentious. They're respectful, and Islam is at the heart of our growth.

For Uncle Beautiful, evolving came as a result of his devotion to his faith and his desire to let it enlighten him. But not everyone is like Uncle Beautiful. And if change comes to gender roles in the Arab world, that's how it may have to happen — one enlightened man, and woman, at a time.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. 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.