Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Shadia: Tip-top shape is a must for Islam's boot camp

One of Islam's five pillars is Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

We also call it boot camp.

Islam's boot camp, which happened this week, is so challenging and rigorous that it would scare the toughest fitness instructor out there.

Yet an estimated 2 million to 6 million people from around the world are eager to be there each year, and millions more save up their entire lives to fulfill it.

I say Hajj is boot camp because you don't just need to be prepared physically for the minimum-two-week journey. You need to be mentally and spiritually prepared. Like praying five times a day to stay connected to God and fasting during Ramadan to recharge your spirituality, Hajj is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to seek forgiveness and start anew with God.

You also must summon the patience and kindness in the world to deal with the humongous crowd, with being in a foreign country and culture, and all that comes with it.

It's not cheap, either. The average cost from the U.S. is about $6,000, and many can't afford that kind of money, especially people from poor nations.

In fact, boot camp comes with the condition that you are physically and financially able to make it.

My mom, Shadia, who is 49, did her boot camp in 2009.

Aside from arthritis, which runs in our family, I would say my mom is pretty healthy. Although I was so happy for her, I was deeply worried when she was over there, not only because I know it's a difficult journey for the healthiest of people, but because she's my mom and I wasn't with her, and I wanted to make sure she was going to be safe every single second she's was there.

When my mom returned, she recounted her experience, and while she loved it and described it as overall spiritually fulfilling and positive, she said that it was so difficult at times that there were days when she could no longer walk. She herself doesn't even know how she made it through. My mom said there were times when she would pray to God so hard to give her strength to take the next step and to help her fulfill her duties. (She made it through by the grace of God, she always says.)

It sounds so grueling and so trying, yet since she's been back, she can't stop thinking about going back.

You may hear about an accident here or there, but considering how many people gather in Mecca, and the lack of properly trained police officers and security personnel, most of whom are foreign to Mecca because they are gathered from around the country during boot camp season, it's relatively a peaceful and successful event that has been taking place annually for more than 1,400 years.

People are on their best behavior.

And beside America, there's one other place I could easily point to as a bowl of salad, if not quite a melting pot. It's Mecca. But only during boot camp season.

While there, your gender, looks, body type, wealth, skin color, social status, citizenship, house and car don't matter. What matters is who you are on the inside. What matters is your connection to God and the opportunity to be reborn.

During boot camp, Muslims relive the journey Hagar took to Mecca with her son, Ishmael. They walk in the footsteps of the Prophet Abraham, who we believe built the house of God, the Kaaba. They walk in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad.

It's humbling that even those who have never been there, including me, are in such awe of its greatness.

Boot camp ends with the daylong stand on Mt. Arafat. Muslims around the world join the boot campers by fasting from sunrise to sunset, which is taking place Thursday.

The Prophet gave his farewell sermon on Mt. Arafat during Hajj. About 100,000 Muslims were in attendance. Some of his most famous words of wisdom were given during that sermon, including: Be good to your women. A white man is not better than a black man, and a black man is not better than a white man. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab, and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab. Nothing matters but your deeds.

Then we celebrate the day after. That happened Friday.

Muslims sacrifice a sheep or another animal and distribute the meat to those in need in their respective communities. The sacrifice of the sheep commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at God's command.

Someday, I hope to make it to boot camp. I sure hope God gives me patience to get through it, because God knows I kind of have none.

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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Shadia: Let's not empower extremists

When I heard about the shooting of 14-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai by a coward, who must think he's a real man to shoot a teenage girl while on a school bus simply because she wants an education, I felt sick.

I might sound like a broken record when I tell you over and over that Islam does not support this behavior.

When I tell you that in fact, Islam liberated women and liberates women from being subjected and used by men.

When I tell you that the Prophet Muhammad fought to stop the practice of burying newborn girls by men who believed women brought shame to families in Arabia during the pre-Islamic era. In fact, there are verses in the Koran recounting these events and prohibiting it for the believers.

When I tell you that the Prophet dedicated portions of his sermons to women, that the Koran has a chapter literally called "The Women."

When I tell you that there's a chapter in the Koran dedicated to Mary, who is considered the most important woman in Islam.

When I tell you that when God addresses the believers in the Koran, he's addressing both men and women equally, unless specified otherwise.

When I tell you that Islam empowers women through calling for their education, rights and place in society.

When I tell you that the Prophet's first wife, Khadija, paid him a salary because he worked for her.

When I tell you that his second wife, Aisha, used to hold classes to teach men, among them the Prophet's own companions, on family life under Islam.

When I tell you that women, in early Islam, enlisted in the military.

But these are just the facts.

How can a person who claims to be a Muslim justify what he did if he knew these facts about the religion?

If he and the group he belongs to, which admitted to shooting Malala and announced plans to end her life if she survives, understood just a portion of what Islam is really about, the thought of stopping women from being educated — the thought of hurting a human being, let alone a little girl — wouldn't cross his mind.

But what is troubling me is much bigger than this latest incident.

It's that the minute the Taliban or some kind of psychotic individual or group calling themselves Muslim commits atrocities, so many people around the world automatically assume that they're carrying on the teachings and mission of Islam and include the 1.6 billion of us in the same circle.

Those who say Islam is the source of these individuals' action don't realize that in doing so, they empower the criminals.

And those who expect Muslims to apologize for those psychos' behaviors put us in a corner and weaken us.

Let's see if I can provide you with a clear analogy: Say you're a devout Christian and one day you're reading the newspaper about some KKK member or skinhead who lynched an African American. Now, the KKK and its members claim to be Christians who are carrying out the will of Jesus. But are they?

Well, how hurt would you be if the next day, you and your religion are being defined by the KKK's actions or by the abortion clinic bomber, who too believes he's carrying out the will of God? What if you're expected to apologize each time one of them decides to go postal?

Does it say anywhere in the Bible that black people should be lynched or that it's OK to bomb the clinics and kill the doctors who perform abortions?

I haven't seen that.

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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shadia: Support the civilized ads

My name is Mona Shadia, and I am a savage — according to Pamela Geller, that is.

The ever-so-intellectually-challenged Geller, a blogger and the executive director of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, has been running an ad in New York and San Francisco subway stations, basically concluding that Muslims (and Palestinians) are savages.

Her message reads: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel — Defeat Jihad."

Let me tell you a little bit about this savage: I'm a 29-year-old who lives in the heart of Orange County.

I earn my living working (kinda) hard as a reporter all week, and by the weekend, my brain is usually fried.

I practice Bikram yoga. I'm a hopeless romantic who loves music and sings and dances for fun. I drive a Toyota Corolla that has more than 200,000 miles on it. (It's the life of a reporter.)

I went to college and have student loans.

I love my mom, family members and friends very much. We have two birds named Nefertiti and King Tut.

I party with my friends when I can, and after paying all my bills, it is always my goal to spend any extra money I have shopping.

In a few words, my friends would describe me as kind, just, loyal, tough, honest and good-hearted. They would also say I'm funny and a bit too girlie at times.

But you know, I'm also a practicing Muslim and an Arab, so that must make me a savage.

I can't help but find Geller's ad and word choices strikingly similar to other terms and tactics that for decades worked to dehumanize African Americans, leading to, dare I say, savage-like treatments of those people because of their skin color.

And what do you expect of an average person, who might not think for themselves, or even those who do think for themselves, to believe about Muslims when they see and read these ads and this type of rhetoric over and over again?

And is this not but one example of how, over the decades, human beings like the Palestinians, South Africans, Jews, Native Americans and many more have been dehumanized to make it easier to mistreat and misrepresent them?

Yes, of course it's Geller's right and freedom to run the ad. I wouldn't have it any other way. She did, after all, have to file a lawsuit to force the subway system in New York to run her ad.

But there are always consequences to this kind of attitude and behavior.

And a responsible, good citizen would practice reason — the very thing that distinguishes us humans from, again, savages.

The ad has been running for a few weeks now, but this week and last, a group of Christians and Jews countered the ad with a message of peace and love toward Muslims.

According to the New York Times, Rabbis for Human Rights — North America, an organization made up of hundreds of rabbis; Sojourners, which is run by Jim Wallis, a Christian author and activist; and the United Methodist Women are running ads next to Geller's in New York subway stations.

The Jewish group's ad reads: "In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors."

The Sojourners' ad reads: "Love your Muslim neighbors."

The United Methodist Women ad reads: "Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed."

It's not like they need it from me, but I'm overcome with gratitude by these groups' efforts and courage.

I especially love the United Methodist Women's ad, not only because they're women and I'm empowered every time I encounter strong women making a difference in our lives, but because these few words strike a chord in my heart.

In Islam, a person's deeds are the most important part in God's eyes.

God does not look at your wealth, beauty or possessions when making decisions. It's always your deeds that matter.

And so, when you encounter hateful and demeaning words describing Jews, Christians, Muslims, blacks, whites or anyone in between because of who they are, remember they too have a heart. They too live, feel, sing, dance, love, cry, laugh and die.

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.