Giving Islam a Bad Name

malala yousufzai 2Today, on her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai addressed the United Nations about her experience of being shot by the Taliban for speaking out on the importance of education for girls. On the day she was shot, she said, “nothing changed in my life except this—weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”

I can’t even imagine the courage it took, and still takes, for girls to attend school in northwestern Pakistan. There have been more than 800 attacks on schools in the region since 2009. Schools are routinely bombed in the middle of the night. Existing schools have armed guards during the day. And yet many girls still attend; their desire to be educated is that strong.

But this post isn’t primarily about their courage or Malala’s message. I’m writing today because of the great sadness, and yes, anger, I feel about the dishonor the Taliban and other like-minded organizations bring on Islam.

The Pakistani Taliban says that the education of girls is a symbol of Western decadence and governmental authority. They also bomb schools to keep the military from being able to establish temporary bases in them. But of course their motivation isn’t really about politics, it’s about protecting the sanctity of Islam.

Excuse my language, but that’s bull***t. And I’m sick and tired of organizations like the Taliban using Islam as an excuse to acquire power and intimidate enemies.

I accepted Islam as my religion partly because I admired its emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. To me, education is almost as sacred as worship. For what good to Allah is a Muslim who is ignorant, especially willfully so? And why would Allah want women to be ignorant when they are the very foundation of the family?

It’s bad enough that some Muslims kill in the name of Allah. But most non-Muslims realize that these are the actions of a few deluded fanatics. However, when they hear that whole Islamic organizations advocate the repression and mistreatment of women, they find it hard to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt.

I’m tired of non-Muslims looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that Islam is an egalitarian religion and that Mohammad admonished his followers to treat women with justice and respect. I despair of ever convincing them to give Islam a chance when the news is full of stories about honor killings, female genital mutilation and deadly attacks on schoolgirls.

The media are partly to blame for sensationalizing the negative, but not as much as fundamentalists are for perpetrating the myth that Islam is patriarchal and misogynist. I feel like a mother whose child has been wrongly accused of wrongdoing; my heart breaks at the damage that is done to Islam’s reputation in the world.

Sometimes I imagine the day when all these “pious” Muslims will be judged for how they distorted Islam’s message. We all have sins we dread being confronted with on Judgment Day, but I hope that making the lives of half of Allah’s children miserable won’t be one of mine.

The Invisible Woman

I have recently become the editor of an online Islamic magazine and one of the things I have asked for from the writers is a picture of themselves to accompany their articles, if they felt comfortable with that.

One of the sisters who writes for the magazine sent me a thoughtful email about this policy:

I was wondering if we should encourage this at all. A Muslim women should remain hidden as she’s precious. Since [the magazine] is not exclusively for sisters, it will also be read by brothers and I don’t want it be a source of fitna instead of education. I’m sure everyone on [your staff] as well as the readers are really nice people, but it’s the shaitan we cannot trust.

It took me several days to send a reply because I wanted to carefully consider my answer, which was in part:

I do understand your arguments and I’m not saying that they are without merit. I agree that women are precious and need to be protected to some extent, but I lay some responsibility at the feet of the brothers to withstand the temptations of Shaytan. I also think it is awfully difficult (although not impossible) for a woman to have a voice when she does not have a face. My personal opinion is that we hurt the cause of Islam more than we help it when we make women invisible, not to mention what it does to the individual woman who is being told that she cannot be seen.

What is your opinion about this issue? Should Muslim women practice modesty to the extent that they are not seen at all? And if so, then does that mean that they shouldn’t speak in public or appear in a video, even if they are teaching or advancing the cause of Islam? And how do women feel when they have no role models that they can see and identify with?

As a feminist, I reject the idea that women should be invisible when men are not required to be as well. I also can’t help but wonder if both sexes would profit from being invisible, at least publicly.  After all, it could be a form of self-aggrandizement to have your picture in a public venue. What do you think Mohammad would do if he was here today?

Let me know what you think!

 

A Time to Celebrate

One of my best friends had a party last Friday night which I was fortunate enough to be invited to. It was partly a going-away party because she’s moving to another state in three weeks. But it was mostly a party to announce and celebrate her marriage.  She was married a couple of months ago but hasn’t been able to have the big wedding back home because of the situation in Libya right now. So she had a party here so that she can celebrate with her friends, both old and new, here in the U.S.

Other than baby and bridal showers, I’d never been to an all-women party until I was invited to one by my friends from Libya. Not all Muslims are strict about the separation of the sexes, but Libyans definitely are. The first time I went to a party where the men and women celebrated in different rooms, it felt strange. But I’ve become used to it and discovered that I don’t really mind it. Even at mixed parties in the non-Muslim world, men and women tend to split up into separate groups. So it wasn’t all that different.

The party Friday night was unique for me because I got to see my Muslim friends in all their finery. Off came the hijabs and niqabs and abayas and what emerged was dazzling. Everyone looked so beautiful, especially the beaming bride. The atmosphere was festive. Which was wonderful because Allah knows the Libyans have a lot to be worried about right now. But when isn’t a wedding a time of joy and hope?

We visited for over two hours before the meal was served, but it was well worth waiting for. I only took one portion of each dish and I still stuffed myself silly. I would love to learn how to fix Libyan food, but I doubt I could make it as good as Libyans do.

It was wonderful to see all my old friends and meet new ones. My youngest daughter came with me and I proudly introduced her around. The women made over her because she’s pregnant. There were a lot of “Mashallahs” and “Alhamdulillahs” going around!

I love the way Muslim women greet one another. There are the “asalaam alaykums” and “wa alaykum salaams” and a flurry of hugs and kisses. It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced before. One of the things I’ve been most impressed with about Muslims in general and Libyans in particular is how hospitable they are. You never feel like a wall-flower when you’re invited into a Muslim home or to a party. My daughter and I left feeling very blessed. Alhamdulillah.

It’s not that long before Ramadan will be here again. The fasting is difficult, but the fellowship is amazing. I’m looking forward to celebrating it with my fellow Muslims.

What Motherhood Means in Islam

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) made it very clear what he thought of mothers. He taught that “Heaven lies at the feet of a mother.” Then there is the well-known hadith about the importance of mothers:

A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?’ The Prophet said: ‘Your mother.’ The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your mother.’ The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your mother.’ The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: ‘Then your father.’ (Bukhari, Muslim).

With great honor comes great responsibility. These words were not said just to make mothers feel good. If anything, they should make mothers even more aware of how important their role is. For a bad mother could just as easily bring Hell to her children. And if children are going to look to their mother for companionship, then she needs to be the kind of person Allah commands her to be.

Both parents are necessary to teach a child what he needs to know to become a mature and righteous adult. And indeed, the Qur’an and Mohammed both stress the importance of honoring our parents. But because of the unique relationship mothers have to their children, they are in the best position to teach them one of life’s most important lessons: how to be loving and caring.

But a mother cannot teach these lessons unless she earns her children’s trust. That is the very essence of the bond between mother and child. If a child doesn’t learn at her mother’s knee what it is to trust another, she will have a hard time trusting anyone, even (or especially) God.

When I had my first child, someone sent me a card of congratulations. But it also contained a prayer that asked God to “help me to be worthy of the trust in those precious eyes.” I framed the prayer and kept it through the births of all four of my children. There were many days when I needed that reminder! It’s a heavy responsibility to be the face of love to a child.

Which brings me to Mother’s Day. I read an opinion the other day that Muslims shouldn’t celebrated Mother’s Day for two reasons: 1) The Prophet (PBUH) taught us only to celebrate two Eids and anything else is an innovation and thus outside of the will of God; and 2) Mother’s Day is a holiday established by kuffar (non-believers) and is therefore haram for Muslims.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not the strictest Muslim in the world. For one thing, I don’t know enough about what is and what isn’t haram. I’ve only read the Qur’an through once so far and I am familiar with only a few ahadith. For another, it is extremely difficult for me to suddenly throw off a lifetime of traditions and experiences and become an entirely different person.

But if I was to just use my common sense, I would say that the Eids Mohammed (PBUH) instituted were meant to be part of our worship of Allah and are therefore religious. Obviously it would be haram for us to celebrate religious holidays that are not Islamic. I completely understand why we’re not to celebrate Christmas or Easter, for instance. But what about secular holidays? If the country we’re living in has holidays that have national, but not religious, significance, what is the harm in at least recognizing them?

I don’t believe in cutting myself off from non-believers by insisting that anything they do is somehow unclean and unrighteous. In my opinion, the more we say to non-Muslims that what they do is wrong, the wider the wedge we drive between us. How is it possible to witness to the truth of Islam when we repeatedly tell non-Muslims that we can’t have anything to do with them or their ways?

I’m not proposing that we should accommodate ourselves to the non-Muslim world. But if we are to encourage non-Muslims to enter our world, where is the sin in showing them that we have beliefs and customs that reinforce, or at least do not negate, some of theirs?

Muslims make a special point of honoring motherhood. So do non-Muslims on Mother’s Day. So why can’t we see Mother’s Day as common ground between us?

It’s true that Muslims believe that mothers should be honored every day and not just one day a year. But by celebrating Mother’s Day, non-Muslims aren’t saying that they only honor mothers on that one day. What they are saying is that mothers deserve a special day of recognition. Is that really an attitude that is incompatible with Islam?

My daughters took me out for brunch yesterday for Mother’s Day. Can you imagine if I had told them that I couldn’t celebrate Mother’s Day anymore because I’m a Muslim? I think they would get the wrong impression of Islam if I did that. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t help but think that they came away with a favorable opinion of Islam by the fact that their hijab-wearing mother wanted to share a special day with them.

After all, Mother’s Day is also about my gratitude to God for the children with which He blessed me.

 

 

 

 


My Faith Journey: The Lost Years (Part 3)

No matter what has happened to me in my life, I’ve never stopped believing in God. If anything, I stop believing in me.

After my divorce from my children’s father (the minister), I felt unworthy to be in God’s Kingdom. I stopped going to church for several years. I left my children’s religious education up to their dad. (Which only made me feel worse, as if he was the “good” Christian and I was the “bad” one.) I certainly didn’t feel forgiven for all my sins.

But when things got tough, I still prayed to God for strength and comfort. I knew He was still there, waiting for me to…what? Return to church? Was that all it took to be a good Christian? Or was it enough that I believed in the Trinity? There were times when I felt like anything but a Christian. But I clung to that definition of myself, because what else could I be? I believed in Jesus and I still thought that he had died for my sins and brought me eternal life.

Even so, I had doubts. How could Jesus be both God and man? Was it really true that only people who believed that were going to Heaven? What about all the other people in the world who weren’t Christians? Were they condemned to Hell, no matter how much they loved God and tried to live according to His principles?

And then there were the Christians themselves. I knew plenty of Christians who were sincere and loving people. But I also knew just as many (if not more) who were narrow-minded and judgmental. If Christians were supposed to be transformed by their faith in Christ, where was the evidence?

Not that I thought I was a good example of a Christian. I made a lot of poor decisions during this period. Six months after my divorce was final, I remarried, and of all people, I married the man I’d gone with in high school. The one I’d gotten pregnant with. I think now that I was feeling guilty because I’d aborted his baby. I was also feeling very vulnerable: my first husband had rejected me, the Church had rejected me and most of my friends had rejected me. It felt good to have someone come along who really wanted to be with me. Plus I was feeling shaky about raising my children alone.

Turns out, I’d been right to break up with him the first time. He was verbally and sometimes physically abusive to my children. I tried to make excuses for him—he’d never been a dad before, he was frustrated that the children didn’t warm to him right away, he’d been physically abused by his own father. We all went into therapy and I thought it would get better.

And I felt trapped. I didn’t want to admit that I’d made such a huge mistake. And I was terrified at the prospect of being a single mother. How would I support myself and my children? I couldn’t go back and live with my parents. I had no education and no job prospects.

And then I got hired by the post office and suddenly I had the ability to get out of the marriage. Fortunately my husband agreed to a dissolution and moved out of the house. I had a chance to start over.

Part One

Part Two

Part Four

 

 

 

My Faith Journey, Part Two

When my grandfather died, I was devastated. I’d always considered him my best friend, my advocate and my ally in a world that so often seemed hostile to me. I was a lonely child and I often felt like an outsider. My grandfather made me feel accepted and unique. And more than that, he represented God to me. Most of what I knew about God, I’d learned from him and I would forever equate him with godliness and mercy.

I was seventeen and was still dating the Jewish boy who by then was in college. It was a very unhealthy relationship, to say the least: he was most probably mentally ill and he frequently threatened to commit suicide and take me with him. While he was away on a theater tour of Europe I mustered up the courage to break up with him.

After that, I fell hard for another boy who rejected me and finally ended up dating another boy who was my age. In the fall after I graduated from high school, I went away to college but I still saw my boyfriend on weekends. The one time we had unprotected sex, I got pregnant and had an abortion when I was nineteen. I felt guilty and confused and didn’t really want to be with my boyfriend any more, but I didn’t know how to end it.

In my second year of college, I met the young man who would become my first husband. I was attracted to him partly because he was planning to become a minister. In my state of mind, that felt like a sign from God. I broke up with my high school boyfriend and started dating the prospective minister. Nine months after we met we were married. We were both twenty years old.

What’s probably obvious to you, my readers, is that my husband was a replacement for my grandfather, but I didn’t see that until years later. I still considered myself to be a Christian at this point, but I didn’t really feel very close to God. Being married to a divinity student made me feel closer. But our marriage wasn’t made in heaven and we found ourselves wondering why we’d gotten married.

About this time I met a “born-again” Christian and she impressed me with stories of how much God cared about and loved me. I realized that I’d never allowed God into my heart and that I needed to know Him personally. My husband and I both came to the same conclusion at the same time and a few months after we were married, we, too, became “born-again” Christians.

My mother didn’t understand my new-found religious devotion. In her eyes, I’d always been a Christian. But I knew that I’d been seeking something more and I felt that I’d found it by finally accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior for myself. I felt that before that I hadn’t really known what it meant to be a Christian. I was finally learning what it meant to be in a personal relationship with God.

But all was not smooth-sailing. My husband took on a very rigid view of what it meant to be a Christian, especially a Christian wife and mother. (We started our family a year and a half after we married.) He insisted that he was not only the head of our marriage but that he was also my spiritual guide and counselor. The problem with that was that he was extremely critical and I constantly felt judged and found wanting.

We struggled to make our marriage work, but after ten years and four children, we separated. He had his own church by then and I had to move, with the kids, out of the parsonage. We moved in with my parents. I was blamed for the break-up and lost all my former friends in the church. I was suddenly a black sheep in God’s kingdom.

See My Faith Journey, Part One

Part Three

 

 

Bill Maher: Misinformed Islamophobe

I know that Bill Maher can be crude and insensitive, but I admire the way he blends his brand of humor with skillful panel management on his new show “Real Time With Bill Maher.” He’s very good at giving each panel member his or her time to make a point and treats each guest with respect and civility. What I cannot stand about him, though, is his Islamophobia. It’s not just that he’s against religion in general; he is. But he makes no secret of the fact that he utterly hates Muslims and Islam.

What makes his Islamophobia even worse is that he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. Either that or he doesn’t care if he’s getting it wrong. On his last show (2/18/11) he was trying to make the point that all Muslim men mistreat women, but he kept referring to Arabs as the men he was talking about. If he’d done his homework, he’d know that only about 20% of all Muslims are Arabs.

I’m sure that if I pressed him on this point, he’d answer that all Muslim men want and try to control and even abuse women because their religion teaches them to. In his eyes, Islam is the real culprit. I think he’d also admit that all religions seek to control and abuse women to some extent but that Islam is the absolute worst.

What does he use to prove his point? In this last show he brought up the February 2009 incident where a Muslim man beheaded his wife six days after she filed for divorce. (The man was just found guilty of second-degree manslaughter.)  That’s not playing fair. There’s no evidence to suggest that the man used his religion to justify his actions. (His defense was that he was a battered spouse and that he acted in self-defense.) This was not an “honor killing,” which many people insist is a hallmark of Islam. It was the act of a sick person. I can’t count how many cases of domestic violence I’ve read about over the years where the man killed his wife or girlfriend because she left him, or was threatening to. In fact, there was a case just recently of a Swiss man who allegedly killed his twin girls and then himself because he was distraught over his separation from his wife. No one suggested that he did it because of his faith. But if he had been a Muslim, you can bet that his religion would have been blamed for his actions, especially by the likes of Bill Maher.

Bill Maher contended that Arab nations won’t ever be ready for democracy as long as they treat their women so abysmally. One of his guests, Tavis Smiley, countered by saying that if we were to judge nations by how they treat their women, the U.S. doesn’t exactly win any prizes. Maher was outraged that Smiley would even suggest that American women have it as bad as Muslim/Arab women. (If he hadn’t prefaced his comments by saying how dangerous Muslims are, you’d think he was just targeting Arabs.)

Smiley responded that any mistreatment of women is inexcusable, even the kind that is not obvious. Yes, we let women drive cars in America. No, we don’t punish women (or men) for infidelity (except perhaps in some divorce courts).  But as Smiley said, “The patriarchal system is live and well in America.” We might find some of the restrictions on women in other countries and cultures as incomprehensible, but that doesn’t mean that Americans are blameless in this area.

We have Christian women who never leave the house without their husbands’ permission. No one talks about them. We have women who are expected to have as many children as possible (see my post, “The QuiverFull Movement: Family Non-Planning“). We have plenty of domestic violence (including murder) and rape and incest. We have women being underpaid and rarely promoted. And no one can deny that we sexualize our females (even little girls) for the gratification of males.

I’ve met many Muslim women who have healthy, mutually respectful marriages and they’re not just the ones who were born in America. I know Muslim women (from Libya) who work, who are doctors and dentists and optometrists and scientists. They are funny and outspoken and politically aware. They have not settled for second best. And they definitely are not in fear for their lives.

It’s not all bad that Maher is so vocal about his Islamophobia. In tweets the day after the Feb. 18th show, many people commented on his  “hate-filled rant” and his bigotry about Muslims. Maybe if people see how unreasonable, even ridiculous, he is about Muslims, it will make them question their own preconceptions and prejudices about Islam. One can only hope.