My Views on the (Misnamed) “Ground Zero Mosque”

What is it exactly?

Many of the opponents to the new Islamic center that is to be built in Manhattan  have misleadingly been using the term “Ground Zero mosque” and have even been saying that the mosque is being built right on Ground Zero, as if it is to be built exactly where the World Trade Center once stood. That should be the first misperception that is cleared up. (The original name was The Cordoba House and it is now being called Park51, for its address).

Another misperception is that the building itself will be only a mosque. I can see where those who are wary of Islam would object to a 13-story mosque, no matter where it was built. It’s just too threatening and smacks of being some kind of monument to Islam, instead of merely a place to worship. Opponents usually refuse to address the fact that the proposed building is only to have a mosque in it; the rest of it will be given over to community-oriented activities and will be open to everyone, not just to Muslims.

Doubt about its purpose

People who refuse to believe that a religious center (specifically a Muslim one) would be open to all people regardless of their religion, forget that another organization known for its community centers is the YMCA, which stands for “Young Men’s Christian Association.” It was founded on Christian principles, yet its community centers have been used widely since the middle of the nineteenth century by people of all faiths.

Skeptics also conveniently overlook the existence of Jewish community centers, which are also open to the general public. No one is afraid that these centers are going to try to convert everyone who uses them to Christianity or Judaism. They exist to serve the needs of the community. That’s what Park51 wants to do, if its opponents will allow it.

Some people believe that Park51 is going to be a breeding ground for terrorists. Why? Just because it is near Ground Zero? (That would be kind of stupid of the terrorists, wouldn’t it?) Or is that what they think about any mosque or Islamic center? If so, then their objections seem to be based more on paranoia and prejudice against Muslims than on anything else. Their argument is related to the belief that “all Muslims are terrorists,” which is patently not true.

Hallowed ground

One reason opponents object to the Islamic center is that they consider Ground Zero to be “hallowed ground.” Again, Park51 is not being built on Ground Zero. But I challenge the idea that it is hallowed ground. Yes, a terrible tragedy occurred there. But terrible tragedies have happened in many places; are we to designate them all as sacred?

Some people consider even the area around Ground Zero to be sacred, because the remains of victims settled on the streets and buildings for many blocks. But how many blocks can you claim as sacred before the idea becomes unrealistic? Four blocks? Six? Ten? All of Manhattan? And does it follow that a mosque can’t be built anywhere the ashes fell?

There are many who think that any mosque is an affront to the American people and they would have them banned everywhere. So what about Muslims themselves? Do they want them banned from the U.S. because of what happened on 9/11? If they were honest, that’s probably exactly what they want.

Muslim opponents

Some Muslims have sided with the conservatives, Islamophobes and yes, grieving relatives, about whether or not a mosque should be built near Ground Zero. Their reasons are 1) that Muslims should always do whatever leads to peace; and 2) that Muslims should be sensitive to those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001 and not do anything to exacerbate their pain.

First of all, Muslims are supposed to seek peace. But not at all costs. Muslims have a right to practice their religion and a mandate from God to pray five times a day. Those who seek to make it hard for Muslims to do so should be resisted, even if it makes Muslims look difficult. Keeping the peace does not mean giving in to everyone who disagrees with you. Peace can only come through understanding and tolerance. Muslims are not being intolerant when they establish a place for their own worship. If that were the case, then every church and synagogue is also a symbol of intolerance.

Also, how are non-Muslims ever going to understand Muslims if they are never exposed to them? In my opinion, there should be more mosques and Islamic centers and Muslims should not be afraid to practice or speak about their faith. The more Muslims try to stay in the background, the less chance non-Muslims have to get to know them. I think the opponents of Park51 (as well as other mosques around the country) would be surprised by how much Muslims can add to the community.  But for that to happen, Muslims need to make an effort to be involved in the community and not stay locked up in their own.

Caring about others

This, too, is a mandate from God. We are set on this earth to worship Him and serve His creation. A Muslim is to always care for the needs of others. But there have to be other ways to be sensitive without doing away with an Islamic center. If anything, such a center would show the world that Muslims do care and want to be a source of healing. The presence of Park51 may seem hurtful at first, but given time and effort on the part of Muslims, it can also be a place where non-Muslims can go to find out more about Islam and perhaps learn to forgive.

I understand that this topic is sensitive right now, but that’s partly because those who oppose Islam are whipping it up into a media sensation. After all, it has been nine years since 9/11. Isn’t it about time to start building bridges between the non-Muslim and the Muslim worlds? Further antagonism only serves the purposes of people like Bin Laden. Whenever Muslims and the West can’t get along, critics of the West use that as proof that the West should be obliterated. If the terrorists are shown that the West and Islam can coexist peacefully, then what reasons will they have for continuing to hate and target the West? If they no longer have fuel for their fire, then the flames will eventually die out.

An opportunity for healing

I feel for the families of the victims of 9/11. I do. But healing doesn’t come from keeping the object of your anger out of the picture. It only comes when there is honest dialogue between the aggrieved and those whom they are having trouble forgiving. This isn’t easy, but it’s part of the healing process. Maybe it’s a good thing that non-Muslims are protesting the Islamic center so vigorously right now. It gives Muslims the chance to speak about how they themselves feel about 9/11 and Islamophobia. When someone is being criticized, he or she has the right and, in America, the opportunity, to set the record straight.

Park51 gives Muslims the opportunity to squarely face their accusers. We need to take this opportunity and make the most of it.

My First Year As a Muslim

I became a Muslim on the last day of Ramadan last year, so I’m coming up on my one-year anniversary.  It’s hard to believe that over 11 months have gone by since I said my Shahada in the masjid. I often complain about how slow my progress has been, but when I look back at this time a year ago, I can see that I’ve come a long way.

A year ago, I had no idea how to pray, let alone one word of the prayers themselves. I didn’t know the names of the prayers or the prayer times. I knew what wudu meant but not how to perform it. I didn’t know what it meant to dress hijab. I’d never worn a headscarf and didn’t think I’d ever learn how to put one on. And I’d only read a few verses of the Qur’an.

In other words, I was totally unprepared to be a Muslim. But I did have one thing going for me: I’d been a Muslim before.

I love the idea that I was born Muslim. That explains a lot. It explains why, even though I’ve found a lot of things about my new lifestyle to be strange and difficult, I still feel like I belong here. Every new thing I’ve learned about Islam only confirms what I’d already suspected was true. It feels like it was written on my heart. And come to find out, it was.

Continue reading My First Year As a Muslim

Share Your Ramadan Story on CNN

CNN is planning a four-week series on modern Islam that will run daily through the month of Ramadan, and they want you to get involved!

The series will look at what it means to be Muslim and how people live as Muslims in 2010.

CNN invites you to grab your camera and show the world how you are embracing your faith. Show and tell what it means to be Muslim today, how Ramadan is observed where you live, what your life is like during Ramadan, including special customs or traditions.

Your story can be told through photos or video. The best images and stories will appear on air or online as part of CNN’s global coverage.

To see others’ stories, or to share your own, go here.

What Does It Mean to Be Charitable?

It might sound weird, but even though I’d been a Christian all my life until I converted to Islam, I’ve never gotten into the habit of giving to others. Oh, I’d do anything for anyone who approached me for help, but I never systematically gave to any organization or individual, except for the offerings I gave at church.

Christians are supposed to tithe 10% of their income (it’s not clear whether that’s net or gross), but the closest I ever came to that was when I pledged to give a set amount each year. But it wasn’t 10%. From time to time we would have extra collections for special causes. But there’s less emphasis on the individual giving directly to other individuals.  Most denominations have committees that direct their charitable and missionary activities. Christians are used to giving to the church and letting the church decide how the money is going to be spent.

Nor have I done much volunteer work. When I was married to my first husband, the minister, I went on mission trips with the youth group to help the poor in rural Tennessee, but that was part of my “job” as a minister’s wife. I used to give gifts to children at the local children’s home every Christmas. But that was about it.

Now I belong to a religion which sets charity on a equal footing with my confession of faith, my daily prayers, fasting and the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Especially during Ramadan. I am to be generous in aid and hospitality to family and friends and to the poor. And I haven’t the slightest idea how to start.

I know there is something called zakat, which is 2.5% of one’s wealth to be spent to alleviate the suffering of the poor and eliminate inequality. Since I don’t understand exactly what constitutes “wealth,” I don’t know how to figure the amount I’m supposed to contribute. But even if I wasn’t required to pay one penny in zakat, I’m still mandated to practice charity. Paying zakat doesn’t let me off the hook, the way paying your tithe or pledge does in Christian churches.

That doesn’t mean that Christians are not supposed to personally help others. After all, there’s the story of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament. It’s quite clear from that story that Jesus (pbuh) felt the same way about charity as Muslims do. (Small wonder, since Muslims believe that Jesus was one of Allah’s prophets.)

So, what qualifies as charity in the eyes of Allah? I know that the Prophet (pbuh) considered even the way we treat others as a form of charity. Treating others kindly is something I can do. But if I’m going to be serious about being a Muslim, I feel that I have to do far more than be a nice person.

My temptation is to find something to donate money to and let those organizations do all the work. And I’m sure that would be acceptable. But how much better it would be if I, as a Muslim, actually gave of my time and energy to do something for others, especially if those I help are not necessarily Muslims? Then I could practice charity and da’wa at the same time.

I pray that Allah would show me what He would have me do, that He will give me the strength to do it, and that I will let go of my self-centeredness and willingly open myself up to other people, Insha’allah.

Ready, Set, Go! Preparing For Ramadan

Some people get ready for Ramadan by “pre-fasting:” a couple of weeks before, they start fasting one or two days a week just to get somewhat used to the idea.

I have a different approach. It’s based on the principle called “feast or famine.” I’ve been justifying my over-eating by telling myself that I’ll soon be going without food every day for a month, so I can afford to eat what I want to ahead of time.

Probably not the best way to prepare for Ramadan.

But you see, I don’t really know how to prepare for Ramadan. I’ve read a lot of advice, both about how to prepare and what to do (or not do) during Ramadan, and all I’ve come away with is the feeling that I’ll never measure up. The only way I know how to do this is to jump in feet first. Like when I’m trying to prepare myself for that first shock of cold water when I go swimming at the lake. Doing it a toe at a time and gradually working up to my head just prolongs the agony.

Not only am I going to stop eating for Ramadan (until after sunset, that is), but I’m also going to stop smoking. Completely. I only celebrated five days of Ramadan last year (I officially became a Muslim on the last day) and I quit smoking then as well. That lasted for about six months and then I started up again. This year I’m going to quit for good, inshallah.

I can’t say the same for eating, of course. In thirty days I’ll go back to eating during the day. But will I have learned anything from fasting? Will it teach me to permanently give up my obsession with food the same way that I’ll be giving up my addiction to nicotine? I pray that it will. I’m thirty pounds overweight (at least) and although that’s partly because of medicines I take and my the post-menopausal weight gain, I can’t hide from the fact that it’s also because I overeat. I love food. Especially ice cream and fresh-made bread. And I eat for the wrong reasons, mainly boredom and depression.

What I hope to accomplish during Ramadan is to give up my weaknesses to God. I know that I can’t develop my strengths as long as my weaknesses overpower me. Allah wants me to use my strengths (that He gave me) to do His will.

I guess what I’m really talking about is self-discipline. I know that Ramadan is about more than that. That it’s supposed to get me to concentrate on Allah and my fellow human beings. But I find that it’s hard for me to do that when I’m being controlled by bad habits.

So, for me, Ramadan is about seeing myself with Allah’s eyes. And listening to His voice. Only then will I have the power to change into a more faithful believer.

I will be praying for that. Hard.

My Position on Covering

As a Muslim woman, even as a convert, I’m well aware that some people pity me for being “oppressed.” My husband isn’t even a Muslim, yet supposedly he is forcing me to “cover.” Or else I am so hung up about men’s lewd thoughts, all I can think of are ways to prevent them from seeing my “charms.” Either way, the implication is that I allow myself to be put in a box that limits my life and my freedom.

Yes, there are a lot of Muslims who believe that the main reason women should cover is to prevent men from fantasizing about them. Although I understand their concerns, their argument just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Men are going to fantasize about women no matter what. In fact, if reports are to be believed, one of the places where women face the most sexual harassment is Saudi Arabia, where all women are required to cover, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.  The truth is, men are going to objectify women no matter what women wear.

At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the thoughtlessness that many women display when they wear clothes that are extremely revealing. They just aren’t playing fair with men. It’s as if they’re saying, “We know we drive you crazy, but we don’t care.” At least Muslim women who dress modestly (and that doesn’t necessarily mean the full abaya or even the headscarf) are being sensitive about what men go through sexually.

I dress the way I do (I wear the hijab and loose, long-sleeved tops or tunics over jeans or slacks, and I have abayas for certain occasions) because it makes me more mindful of God and His ummah (community). In the same way, when I was a Christian, I frequently wore a cross, but since that is also considered to be just decorative, it didn’t carry the same connotations as the hijab does. Strangely enough, that’s beginning to change, because some women wear headscarves as a fashion statement. Because some of my hijabs are brightly patterned and aren’t always secured in traditional ways, I’ve had people ask me if I’m Muslim as if they’re not quite sure I look Muslim enough. I’ve actually considered wearing an abaya more often so that there wouldn’t be any doubt. But for now I’m content to take it one step at a time.

Continue reading My Position on Covering