Revisiting Islam

Is change on the horizon in Saudi Arabia?

Only recently did I realize that it’s a country I love to hate. I have a lot of baggage with Saudi Arabia and I so wanted to remain angry at it. But even as I got on my first flight back to the country in around 15 years, I found myself unable to quell the little bit of mounting excitement that I felt about going back.

I first went to Saudi Arabia in the 70s. I went to the 7th and 8th grades there. Before that we lived in the US. We returned afterwards to the States but went back to Saudi Arabia, where I spent my last year of schooling (11th grade) before I went off to university in Cairo, Egypt. My father remained for most of the rest of his life. He only left when his health no longer allowed him to continue teaching at university, many years after the typical retirement age.

My story with Saudi Arabia is complicated. I think I actually liked it as a young girl. During my younger years, I thrived on change. I’ve never been able to relate to children or their parents who worry about changing schools and leaving friends behind. My way of thinking was that my friends would remain my friends for life, no matter where I ended up in the world. Moving somewhere else only meant that I got to make even more friends.

Saudi Arabia was so different from anything I ever knew. But it was an adventure. (more…)

The right not to find answers with the “righteous”

Years ago, thirty to be precise, I was buddy-buddy with all the “religious” girls in university. Eventually, not only was I buddy-buddy with them, I was among their “leaders”. I couldn’t be buddy-buddy with the religious guys, mind you. Mixing between the sexes wasn’t allowed. That did not mean in any way, shape or form that we weren’t always eyeing each other up for a potential future spouse.

At the time, I was living in a new country (and loving it) without my parents and most of my siblings. For years before, I had listened to my father’s adventurous stories about revolutions and Islamic movements from when he was a school and university student. My father was a fabulous oral storyteller. He loved telling his stories and I loved listening to them. He loved telling his stories so much that he’d tell us the same story over and over along the years. I loved hearing his stories so much that I never bored of hearing the same story multiple times. The result was that I couldn’t wait to go to university in Egypt so I could go “underground”. I wasn’t sure what that meant or what I should be looking for, but by golly, if I was going to go to university in Egypt then I would be going underground. My father’s final words before he left me alone in the country were along the lines of, “Surround yourself with religious friends.” I didn’t need him to tell me that. I was going to seek them out anyways because I was pretty sure they were the key to my long-sought-after underground.

I found the underground, of course. They weren’t very good at keeping themselves secret. Actually, they were lousy at it. Not that they really meant to be totally underground anyways; otherwise how else would they recruit new members to the “righteous path”?

They were good days. I have a million fond memories from the times. I had a family away from my family. I had sisters, the numbers of whom I could not count. I belonged. I was appreciated. I was even, in a way, adored. I was listened to. All I had to do was read a couple of books and suddenly sisters and “those who like the sisters” were coming to me for words of wisdom or for rulings on whether this or that behaviour was “halal” (allowed) or “haram” (prohibited) in Islam. This thing you’ve seen in me where I spout out eternal wisdoms all the time started all the way back then.

But gradually I became disillusioned. In the beginning, I became disillusioned with various Islamic movements, choosing to affiliate myself with only one. Eventually, I became disillusioned with “the one” Islamic movement as well. As I grew, as I read, as I listened, as I learned, as I gained more experience and met more people, I began to believe there could be no such thing as “a one”. Rather, there were “many”. I began to believe that what might be right for me doesn’t necessarily have to be right for others. I started to think that just because other people’s choices are different does not make them wrong.

So I un-affiliated myself completely from the movements (as opposed to the religion). And instead, over time, I gained friends from all over the world, each of whom was different from the next. The one thing that might connect them all would be their acceptance of others despite differences. Lots of differences. Not the I’m right and you’re lost acceptance but let us be brothers anyways because by associating with me you will learn how great my path is and you will want to join me (unless you’re a lost cause, that is). But the kind that just lets people be the way they want to be. The kind that celebrates difference and embraces it.

Gradually, instead of my life seeming to focus on bringing sisters into “the light”, it became more focused on trying to be a better inhabitant of planet Earth. Instead of proselytizing and directing people to the one and only path of righteousness, I looked inward. It turned out, there was a lot that needed to be dealt with. (more…)

Hopeful Desperation in an Unjust and Terrifying World

This morning I woke up to find several of my Facebook friends sharing an Arabs Got Talent video. I’ve never properly watched the show nor have I cared to. But just as I’ll click on a link to a video that any friend recommends as interesting or funny, I’ll click on a shared Arabs Got Talent video every now and then too. So I clicked on this one to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a musical group of young Palestinian children from Gaza. They trained through the recent Gaza bombings. There were days on end when they couldn’t go to school but they would train as a group nevertheless. They described how difficult it is for them to see all the destruction in Gaza as they make their way to their institute to train. They tried several times to get out of Gaza to participate in the show but they couldn’t. The border with Egypt, the only way out, is often closed. But they eventually managed to get themselves across the border, onto a plane from Cairo Airport, and into Lebanon for the auditions. “We want to show the world that there is talent in Palestine,” said the youngest of the group. The group was composed of one singer and four children on musical instruments. The singer, probably around 13-years-old, had the hugest smile on his face throughout the whole audition. They played and sang a song by legendary Lebanese singer/songwriter Wadih El Safi (1921-2013) about the return of a loved one; the implied message in this particular case being one of singing for the return of Palestine. The children played and sang the song beautifully. The judges were all very impressed; so much so that one of them, a Saudi comedian, pressed the golden button that allows them an automatic go-through to the next rounds. Gold confetti dropped all over them as they continued singing the song to its end, with the youngest player on the classical Arabian instrument, the zither, crying tears of joy.

I always have a good cry when I see people accomplishing their dreams. So it isn’t strange that I had a really good cry while watching this video. But this time was different because of the context of the past few days. I’ve had a very deep-sitting feeling of loneliness and frustration since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I feel as if I’m not understood – by hardly anyone. I feel like I want to sit the people of the world down in front of me and slowly explain to them why it is that we’ve reached the situation we’re now in. I want to tell the Western powers-that-be what they have been doing and continue to be doing wrong. I want to tell my fellow Muslims what they have been doing and continue to be doing wrong. It’s all so clear in my head but because there are so many intermingled and complex reasons for it all, they get jumbled in the area just before my throat so that it feels like it all just comes out in a putrid spew of vomit. I can’t seem to find the energy or the willpower to put together a proper, evidence-based argument to be able to clarify things the way I see them. (more…)

Terrorism and the Need to Acknowledge Accountability

I have a mixture of feelings of relief, angst, and anger following yesterday’s dramatic end to the search Earth_Western_Hemisphere_transparent_backgroundfor the Charlie Hebdo attackers.

Relief, because two psychotic murderers no longer roam the streets of France.

Angst, because of the brutal backlash that has already started against Muslim communities in the West.

And anger, partly at my fellow Muslims for seemingly wanting to fully distance themselves from any accountability for the current state of the general Muslim mindset/culture. And partly at the general Western world for not wanting to take accountability for a whole context they have played a huge role in creating.

I was glued to the television set as I watched events unfold live yesterday in Dammartin-en-Goele and Porte de Vincennes. I was awash with relief to see them come to an end. But at the same time I was horrified that yet four more had died in the midst of it all. For some reason I need to know who those four people are. I woke up this morning and the first thing I did was to turn on the news, hoping more information had been released. It hasn’t. There is a connection I need to make with those remaining four.

Yesterday night, just as the events ended, I learned that a friend of mine had recently moved to France. “Today they put a pig’s head in front of the mosque,” he told me. “Several women had their hijab pulled off their heads and there is a horrifying incitement campaign [against Muslims]. People are directing their anger at Islam and not just the murderers,” he said.

Early this morning I woke up to a status from a Dutch Muslim friend reporting that within her own limited network two mosques were firebombed, two women were soaked in beer by a co-passenger on the train while being called “fucking terrorists”, the mother of a friend was pelted with coca cola bottles, a young woman was told at the supermarket register that she should feel ashamed to still wear “that rag on her head”, numerous friends of friends were cussed at, slapped, lectured on their obligation to apologize, violated, etc., while bystanders did nothing. All the victims she had heard of were veiled women, she said.

I fear for my friends’ lives and for their families’ safety.

What frustrates me the most, I think, is the constant blame game that ensues after these sort of horrific events. No one wants to take responsibility for the mess we’re all in.

There is no simple answer to the question: what makes a person become a terrorist. Terrorism is the result of a very large number of complex factors. What acutely annoys me is that most of us have a very good idea what they are.  (more…)

When a Culture Makes Information the Enemy

When I began my career as a journalist, working as a science editor at an online media organization that unfortunately no longer exists, I fantasized about becoming a war correspondent. I wanted to go into war zones and cover the truth about conflict. My naïve view was that all I needed was to be savvy about staying out of the line of fire. And I’ve always figured I’m pretty savvy. People at war, I wrongly thought, don’t target the people communicating the truth about a conflict they are involved in. It’s in their best interests for the truth to get out. Or so I naively believed.

It wasn’t until the middle of Egypt’s 2011 revolution when I experienced first hand and witnessed the targeting of journalists. My personal experience was fortunately very limited: a thug pounced on me and broke my video camera while filming the renowned Battle of the Camels, when men on camelback raided Tahrir Square.

But since then, I have become acutely aware that journalists are constantly targeted in my region and by people from my region. Journalists covering Israeli insurgencies in Gaza have been targeted and killed by the Israelis. Journalists covering the situation in Egypt are killed and jailed by the state for doing their jobs. Journalists covering the situation in Iraq and Syria are kidnapped and then brutally beheaded by IS militants.

And today, 12 people working at French satirist magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were killed by masked gunmen apparently saying God is Great.

Targeting journalists is not, obviously, something only people of Arab or Islamic origins do. It is incredibly frightening to me as an Arab Muslim, though, to see this happening in significant numbers in my region and by people from my region and religion.

I can’t help but see that much of this stems from a culture of enmity towards knowledge and information. (more…)

Understanding Sterlina

That was me in the mid-90s. Was I that different from Sterlina?

I often get nightmares. I used to blame them on the murder mysteries I read as a child or the police drama series I used to watch as a young adult. I stopped doing all that but the nightmares never stopped. I think my subconscious is strongly linked to my conscious. It turns all my real-life worries into horror-movie-worthy nightmares.

Last night I had nightmares of war. The part of the nightmare I remember was about me walking into a room and discovering it was full of Iraqi fighters. They were all pointing huge weapons out of a large balcony, focusing on something, people probably, not far below. I went to their leader, a rather stocky woman wearing a flowery dress with henna-painted fingernails. I was told that if I wanted to leave the room I had to have her permission. I gave her the most innocent I’m-of-no-matter-to-anyone look I could muster and told her that I really needed to go home PLUS I had to go to the toilet anyway. She looked at me very briefly, she was busy, and told me that it was dangerous out there. How was I planning on making my way home? I told her I’d walk to my father’s house which was not far away. I promised her I’d be fine. She allowed me to leave. There were many other woman in that room who were being held captive who were not as lucky. Perhaps they hadn’t tried to ask for permission like I had? Perhaps they knew too much already and could not be allowed to leave for that reason? A very young friend of mine was there. Her father’s house was close to my father’s house. She asked me to ask permission from the leader to take her with me. I woke up just as I started explaining things to the leader. I’ll never know if we both managed to leave.

When I woke up this morning, I tried to figure out what it was I was thinking about the day before that would have stimulated this nightmare. An aspect of this dream is reminiscent of the days of revolution in Cairo in 2011. But I realized that wasn’t what brought this one to the surface.

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook posted an article about an 18-year-old Dutch girl who converted to Islam, wore a face veil, and soon after fled from the Netherlands to Turkey by train, crossed the border into Syria, and married a Dutch-Turkish fighter.

Her story freaked me out.

This morning I figured out why.

Had the Internet been around when I was that age, that girl could have been me. (more…)

The Commonplaceness of Brutal Death

Yesterday morning I woke up to the news of yet another man, a Brit this time, being brutally beheaded by IS militants somewhere in Syria. On the face of it, my reaction was, “Oh my! That is absolutely horrible!” Then I went on with my daily activities. Underneath, however, my mind was in a whirlwind, partially because of my apparent reaction.

Brutal, violent deaths have become so commonplace now in the Middle East. There are so many innocent victims regardless of who is doing the killing. I am someone living in a safe environment who receives this news, feels horrified by it, but is able to continue with my life as normal afterwards. So many people like me are in the same position.

I try to put myself in the shoes of all those people who are under constant threat of a horrific death. I think what it must feel like to believe that my life is so transient, so worthless in the grand scale of things, that beyond a few of my close friends and relatives, the heinous crime that will be enacted against me in the next few minutes will have such an insignificant impact on the rest of the world that the most they will do is utter words of disgust and then they will go on with their lives. (more…)

Can the Ice Bucket Challenge Teach Us Anything About Muslim Extremism?

Like anyone else in the world with a Facebook account, I’ve been bombarded for several days by videos of celebrities doing the ice bucket challenge. The first one I saw was that of Bill Gates. I then slowly began to see videos done by non-celebrities. In the beginning I could not understand what it was all about, even after watching some videos from beginning to end. Why were people throwing cold water on their heads? Why were celebrities doing it? There were no explanations in any of the videos I saw. I then saw a few media reports about the challenge. It was only then that I began to understand that it was somehow linked to a disease called ALS.

 

I Googled ALS and learned it was a degenerative disease of motor neurons that results in its latest stages in full paralysis. Someone eventually posted a video on my Facebook feed of a young man affected by the disease explaining what ALS was, how it affected his life, and what it had done to his mother. He said that people were doing the ice bucket challenge in order to raise awareness about the illness and to raise funds for more research on the disease.

That did not make sense to me. How does a video of a person dumping ice water on their heads create awareness about ALS or get people to donate if no one in those videos mentions the disease, what it is, or how to donate? They also made no mention whatsoever of the fact that they had donated themselves. I was just seeing silly videos of people pouring water on their heads.

And so, as is my nature, I began to get upset.

Instead of sharing the many ice bucket challenges appearing in my feed, I posted the video of the young man affected by the disease. I wrote that this was the kind of thing I would rather be seeing if people really wanted to create awareness. I also posted a video of Sir Patrick Stewart in which he sits in front of an ice bucket writing a check, and once done, takes some ice out of the bucket, puts it into a glass, pours himself a drink, and raises his glass to the camera in a toast. That made sense to me. This was someone whose aim was to show people that this was not about having fun. It was about donating money.

Now watch me link this to the deaths of hundreds of people in Gaza, including women and children, and to the beheading of an American journalist by a Muslim militant extremist. (more…)

Hijab and Western Discrimination

Do Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries face discrimination? They certainly do. The fact of the matter is theyIMG_4506 face discrimination in Muslim countries as well. Heck, women face discrimination for the mere fact that they are women in most countries of the world.

I ask you, nevertheless, this: Do Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries face discrimination wherever they go and from most everyone? Absolutely not. Neither do women generally.

The Huffington Post published an article a few days ago written by a young Muslim woman who wears the hijab. Because of the very cold weather in the U.S., she added a knit hat over her head and a scarf around her neck that virtually hid her hijab underneath. In the article, reprinted from her blog, she explains how differently she felt people treated her. The Muslim taxi drivers were “cold and dry”. She was not acknowledged by her fellow hijabis the way she was accustomed to. On the other end, [non-Muslim] women started talking to her as if she’d “known them forever.” And men looked at her as if she was “approachable”.

I had never realized that with my hijab, I am given less respect and love and am not as accepted. I had always thought that the type of treatment I am exposed to is just how the world is. I didn’t know that people could be nicer.

I have no desire to undermine this woman’s experiences or how she analysed them.  Her experiences are her own. My personal experiences, however, and thus my opinions on the matter, are very very different. (more…)

Should You Be My Valentine?

I grew up in a conservative Muslim family in the United States. Except for my early years as a child, we did not celebrate

It is a positive thing, in my view, to have an annual reminder that your spouse, parent, or child deserves that extra bit of special attention.

It is a positive thing, in my view, to have an annual reminder that your spouse, parent, or child deserves that extra bit of special attention.

birthdays. We never celebrated Christmas. We didn’t do anything special for Thanksgiving. New Year’s Eve was never a proper big deal. But we always went all out on Eid. Eid was our special day as Muslims, my father taught us. The house was decorated and we received loads of presents. My mother made special foods and desserts. We had lots of people visiting and the Muslims in our town all gathered for a special Eid celebration.

As I grew older, and later as I became a mother myself, I had no issue with continuing my own family life this way. It was the lifestyle I knew. What one knows is one’s norm. My birthday, for example, would pass and I wouldn’t even remember it. That has always been perfectly fine with me. I feel uncomfortable when too much attention is placed on me. Age, to me, has always been nothing more than a number. It is how I feel about myself inside that counts.

But also, as the years moved on, I began to recognize that I had a need to be acknowledged every now and then by the people I love.

Is it religious or cultural?

Several times a year, the Muslim community worldwide rises in an uproar about the un-Islamic nature of the many special days the mainly Western cultures of the world celebrate: New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, and the list goes on. Bid`ah (innovation)! many shout. A long rant may follow about the pagan origins of this holiday or the Christian origins of that.

Read the rest of my article where it was originally published on OnIslam.