Can Pamela Geller work with straight and queer Muslims?
Dr. Junaid Jahangir
Recently, San Francisco public officials and queer community leaders expressed concerns that the anti-gay bus ads backed by Pamela Geller would denigrate the city’s Muslim community. Indeed, by emphasizing the outrageous comments of controversial Muslim leaders, these ads incite fear and demonize an entire minority.
Instead of stereotyping and generalizing, can the likes of Pamela Geller recognize the immense work being done by both straight and queer Muslims? Instead of creating divisiveness, can they work with Muslims towards affecting positive change?
The ads include the controversial opinions of President Ahmedinejad — ‘In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals’ and of the influential Sheik Qaradawi of the Muslim Brotherhood — ‘the punishment for homosexuality is death’.
However, such selective references provide a misguided view of the current Muslim position on queer rights issues. By putting the spotlight on President Ahmedinejad, Geller’s ad ignores the work of queer Iranian activists like Arsham Parsi and developments like the Iranian Gay Pride that took place in Turkey in 2011.
Geller’s ad also does not account for the academic work by Iranian Professor Arash Naraghi, who has argued that it is possible to be a devoted Muslim and believe that homosexuality is morally permissible.
It does not seem reasonable to quote Sheik Qaradawi without mentioning that over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries not only called for an international treaty to counter such clerics but also for a tribunal set by the United Nations Security Council to put them on trial for inciting violence.
It is also noteworthy that Muslim Professor Scott Kugle argued in an academic article how Sheik Qaradawi churns out his homophobia as part of ‘an agenda to reinforce perceived threats to Muslim masculinity’.
Cherry picking quotes from homophobic Muslim leaders and projecting on the entire Muslim community is akin to stereotyping the entire Christian community by referencing equally influential evangelical leaders who believe gays should be put to death and the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose links with American fundamentalist Christian groups has led to the immense persecution of the Ugandan queer community.
It is also noteworthy that instead of referencing Muslim leaders from the United States, Geller’s ads make use of quotes from fanatical Muslim leaders who are living through upheavals in Egypt and economic difficulties in Iran.
Both American political and religious Muslim leaders have very different views on queer rights than what the Geller ads would have us believe. In 2009, the Council on American-Islamic Relations supported the hate crime bill that sought to incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity.
Among Muslim political leaders, Geller may quote Ako Abdul Samad, the Iowa State representative from the 66th district, as saying ‘if standing up for equal protection under the law is a sin, then all of us in this room are sinners’.
Geller can also reference the first Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison, representative of the 5th district in Minnesota, as stating, ‘I am proud to be vice-chair of the Congressional Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Caucus’.
He can also be quoted as saying, ‘It is not your place to judge and condemn others’ and ‘If the person you happen to love and want to be with happens to be the same-sex and gender as you then I say God Bless you and try to be as happy as you can in this very difficult world’.
Likewise, Geller can reference the second Muslim Congressman Andre Carson, representative of the 7th district in Indiana, as stating, ‘As a proud member of the LGBT Equality Caucus, I am committed to the Caucus’ mission to “achieve the extension of equal rights, the repeal of discriminatory laws, the elimination of hate-motivated violence, and the improved health and well-being for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression”’.
Among Muslim religious leaders, Geller can quote Imam Johari Malik, director of Outreach at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Centre in Northern Virginia, as stating, ‘If someone says, “gay sex is nasty”, just ask them, “how do you know?” … “It’s time to get past our homophobia to help human beings”’.
Likewise, Geller can also reference Imam Suhaib Webb of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in the New England area, as stating, ‘If someone who’s a homosexual comes to the mosque, wants to pray, wants to worship, be part of the community, I have no issue with that,’ and ‘Ultimately, people who have whatever inclinations in their life, no one has a right to bar them from their experience with God.’
It would be academic dishonesty and intellectual sloth to quote classical Muslim texts to represent the current conservative Muslim opinion. Just as the Jewish halacha changes with new knowledge and moral sensibilities so does the Muslim Sharia.
Even conservative leaders like Imam Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County in California, one of the largest mosques in the U.S., who had earlier proscribed queer people and stated that ‘no one is born a homosexual’, have slightly shifted their view point on the issue.
In a recent interview, he mentioned, ‘many Muslim jurists today are inclined to accept on the basis of modern research that it is quite possible that people may be born with this [orientation]’ and that ‘we all have to learn and understand things more, so we do change our minds on the basis of understanding the human situation’.
Indeed, by accepting same-sex orientation but prescribing permanent celibacy for queer people, the conservative Muslim opinion is somewhat similar to the Vatican ‘hate the sin love the sinner’ position.
However, Islam is not a monolith. While, acknowledging the classical Islamic position, Professor of Islamic Law, Dr. Mohammad Fadel mentioned in the context of the 2012 U.S. Elections, ‘I think one can certainly take the view, and I know a lot of Muslims might find this to be controversial, that we can support the idea of same-sex marriage because what we want is to make sure that all citizens have access to the same kinds of public benefits that other people do’.
Fadel’s opinion is not novel in this regard, for the late Imam Zaki Badawi had expressed in the context of U.K. civil partnerships that queer Muslims could take advantage of such relationships provided they were not sexually active.
Similarly, Dr. Omid Safi recently weighed in on same-sex marriage in the U.S. He has clearly stated ‘Love is love. Family is family, though they come in different shapes. My children have gay and lesbian friends. They belong a social club at school that is an alliance of straight, gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual students’.
Referencing the Prophet’s saying ‘Do not do onto others what you dislike for yourself’, he has come out in full support of marriage equality by stating ‘Live and let live. If it’s important to you to be married and have your love recognized by the state, recognize that it is important to others’.
The strongest support for queer Muslims in the U.S. comes from the community Muslims for Progressive Values, which has chapters and gender and queer inclusive mosques in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Salt Lake City and Columbus, Ohio. Their Board of Directors includes Imam Daayiee Abdullah, who leads the Mosque for Enlightenment and Reform and who has worked for the queer Muslim community for over two decades.
Where the Geller ads fail to recognize this diversity of positions amongst Muslims in the U.S., some commenters on the news articles on the Geller ads, exhibit a lack of nuance in their understanding of the queer Muslim situation.
Instead of obtaining information from queer Muslim groups both in the U.S. and abroad, commenters on the Geller ads news articles expressed alarm on the “emergency” situation for queer people in places like Saudi Arabia, mentioned the stoning of a Somali gay man and referenced the Prophet’s saying that prescribes the death penalty for ‘homosexuals’.
However, unlike the emergency situation in Uganda, Nadya Labi depicted in her article ‘The Kingdom in the closet’ how gay life flourishes in a place with religious and cultural taboos. Likewise, it is noteworthy that Muhammad Aslam Khaki, a lawyer who specializes in Islamic law, assisted the Pakistani transgender and inter-sexed community – the Hijras, at the Supreme Court, which eventually recognized their equal rights as citizens of Pakistan.
Referring to the execution of the Somali gay man, queer Muslim activist Afdhere Jama has stated that queer Somalis ‘have all agreed this story is fake’. Likewise, even conservative Muslim religious leaders like Imam Muzammil Siddiqi have expressed that the Prophet’s saying that prescribes the death penalty for ‘homosexuals’ is inauthentic.
Instead of being a Debbie Downer, and instead of showing half-baked concerns for the queer Muslim community, Geller and the commenters can show genuine concern by talking to queer Muslims, who despite facing both Islamophobia and homophobia, continue their work with dignity.
Indeed, Geller and the commenters will find that tactics that include cultural imperialism, which include the June 2012 Pride celebration held by the American Embassy in Pakistan only imperil the queer Muslim community living in places whose laws were shaped by the Victorian morality of their colonial masters.
Geller and the commenters will also find that if they are genuinely interested in helping queer Muslims, they would listen to queer Palestinian activists like Haneen Maikey, who has expressed on the Israeli occupation, ‘Stop speaking in my name and using me for a cause you never supported in the first place … stop bombing my friends, end your occupation, and leave me to rebuild my community’.
Geller and the commenters can also help queer Muslims causes by supporting the Iranian railroad for queer refugees, U.A.E. based queer Muslims with their concerns with the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, or the closer to home 2013 Philadelphia LGBTQ Muslim retreat.
In short, instead of creating fear mongering and divisiveness, will Geller and the commenters overcome their limitations to work with Muslims, both straight and queer, towards affecting positive change?
Dr. Junaid Jahangir is a Lecturer of Economics at MacEwan University.
An earlier version of this article was published on March 28 in the Huffington Post.
For a different perspective on Islam and Homosexuality, check out Gareth Bryant’s piece in Altmuslim
Here’s a collection of 3 great poems reflecting the extraordinary beauty of an “ordinary” town. Thanks to award-winning poet Melanie Simms for her submission.
(“SUNBURY,” “Ode To A Lover On the Susquehanna,” and “The Return”)
These are the recollections of an old town
Where streets are encumbered with uneven pavements
And small businesses face uncertain economies
Yet it is here, in the midst of faces, hardened by poverty
That the rich tones and memorable notes of Sunbury must be remembered; the
Susquehanna shifting alongside her shore, as lithe boats flit across iridescent waves
And an old grey wall stands sentinel, offering testament to the tales of a great
It is here where the moans of the daily trains chug down the old tracks,
And the air, electrified with the past, still echoes the librettos of Lorenzo Da Ponte
This is where you breathe the daily Market Street aroma of the Squeeze In, where
even now one can feast on hotdogs, chips and soda for a beggar’s fee
While enjoying its notoriety for its inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records
For its smallness.
There are other memories not to be forgotten; a certain Hotel Edison whose
ghosts whisper of a time when Edison arrived, searching for new
Methods of light, and photos, still clinging to the hotel lobby walls
Depicting an image of a little ghost boy, still mesmerizing guests and reminding us
That even in the fires of regret, one can still arise victorious!
Ode To A Lover On the Susquehanna
“Ever newer waters flow on those who step into the same waters”
Love needs no language,
Along the Susquehanna, watching as she twists and bends
Returning to mouths,
Where sunlight and lovers meet.
Where the silver maple and black cherry sway patiently,
Amidst the romantic odes of the meadowlark,
Or the ecstasy of the osprey,
As they dive and reemerge,
Fed by the river.
Where the haunting tales of lush mountains
record through the ages,
Those first seedlings of love.
Here, along the river, she reveals us to one another,
As we confess our love, baptized between her gentle waves.
How has she found us?
Here along the Susquehanna, reflecting in our gaze,
the memories of our ancient love’s return.
The voices of seers
Wage war with their lips
Foretelling a certain defeat
“He won’t return”
Their proclamations beat like Thor’s hammer
Nailing the lid to the coffin
Of our love’s final hour.
But even in the place where love dies, I will look for you
And find us a shelter against the harsh words of those who witness against us.
Defying the fates of Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis
And amidst the tranquil world of dreams, between the veil of life and death
You will greet me, and we will rejoice and embrace, freed from the shackles
Of time’s inequities.
Until then, I will weep in the world of mortal men
Weep against their cruelties
But even in my weeping,
I will stand strong against the ragings of life, knowing the wisdom of the ages:
“A tree that does not bend with the wind, by the wind will be broken”
And oh how I will bend to survive, and reclaim you!
Melanie Simms is an award winning international poet. Her poems have been featured in numerous magazines, literary journals and newspapers including the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, CLAM (UC Berkeley) and Taj Mahal Review. She has been a guest poet on PCN Television and several radio shows including WITF, WKOK, WVIA, WMNF and recently the World Poetry Cafe in Canada. Currently Melanie attends Bloomsburg University where she studies Creative Writing. She currently lives in Sunbury, Pa. Her website is at: http:www.poetmelaniesimms.wordspress.com
Adeel Ahmed – “Muslim Men Can Be Feminists”
Living in local pagan society in the 7th century Arab world, the Prophet Muhammad was seen as a feminist. Women were given little to no rights. It was custom to bury unwanted female newborns. Women were property of their husbands and they weren’t allowed to vote. The Prophet Muhammand preached and advocated against these actions. Islamic law made the education of girls a duty, giving the right to women to inherit and own property. Even the Prophet’s wife, Khadija, was a businesswoman.
Of course, 14 centuries later these advances may not seem like much. But, now, living in the 21st century, it seems like Muslims are stuck in the 7th century. We’ve heard about the honor killings, the lack of rights given to women in Muslim countries, and of course, shooting of girls like Malala all in the name of Islam. Yet Muslims defend their religion saying those who are using Islam as a justification to these actions are misconstruing the religion. Only to lead one to ask, “then where does this come from?”
The problem starts within the Muslim community itself. Go to a mosque and a woman will find herself entering through a separate entrance, usually a back door of some sort, into a small cramped room or the basement of the building. I’ve even witnessed a women’s room that didn’t have air conditioning during the summer while men did. The women of this mosque had to raise money through a fundraiser to get their system working, even though there were funds within the mosque that could do this.
Recently, at a local mosque, I was asked to join a shura, a consultation committee that puts together recreational events and makes decisions for the mosque. The purpose of this particular shura was to help promote and encourage youth and young adults to come to the mosque through programs.
It was near the beginning of Ramadan, so we planned a Ramadan kick-off barbeque in a park. As we laid out the details, I soon realized that the all-male shura was only planning to invite young men. When I raised my hand and asked why women were not invited, I was stared at with shock.
“But Brother, we cannot encourage mingling with the opposite sex,” one shura member explained. “That is bid’ah,” (innovation of the religion that is looked down upon).
I tried arguing about how unfair it was that women were being left out. Yet, no one listened. So, I decided to do research on women and their “mosque” rights.
I began sending emails to the men in the shura. First about how the mosque’s structure was flawed by separating men and women. During the Prophet Muhammad’s time men and women actually prayed in the same space. The prophet Muhammad didn’t put women behind partitions. I further explained that during the most sacred event a Muslim can partake in, Hajj, or pilgrimage, men and women stand side by side and pray together. If you believe separation is absolutely necessary, I explained to the men in the shura, there’s no need for walls and sheets as barriers. Barriers are just sexist man-made rules.
Next, I asked about the consequences of discouraging women from partaking in mosque activities. Would we also tell children they cannot come? Afterall, it is the women of these families who take care of the children. If the mother is treated like a second class citizen, how do the kids of these families get involved? The Prophet never discouraged a woman in a mosque, who are we to do that?
Again, no response.
As a consequence of these emails, I was slowly separated from the shura. No more emails about weekly meetings, I was taken off the WhatsApp group. No more text messages about upcoming agendas.
I don’t think all mosques are like this, but I do know enough to know that many women around the globe are treated as second-class citizens in Muslim communities. Living in America, it comes to me as a shock. How are second-generation American Muslims okay with this behavior and carrying on these traditions that are intertwined by culture, not religion?
As American Muslims, perhaps we should look at American history. During times when women were suppressed, men stepped up. During the woman suffrage movement, men were some of the first active and vocal supporters. Without votes by Congressmen, women’s rights would not have moved forward.
And just like the brave men who stepped up to move women ahead and help them gain rights, Muslim men must step up and push for the rights and voices of women in their communities and mosques. It is important for Muslim men around the globe to become vocal about these issues and hopefully move forward from the 7th century mentality and culture. There have been enough Malala shootings and honor killings. We must start from within our community with baby steps and start to respect Muslim women in order to see a change.
Adeel Ahmed is an actor and writer based in NY. He has performed at The Kennedy Center and his work has screened at Sundance Film Festival and SXSW. Most recently shot a pilot for HBO entitled Criminal Justice. Credits include: The Domestic Crusaders, Law and Order, Deception. He has been a guest on NPR, BBC and more.
Amrik Singh, 60 could not bear the thought of his children turning into anything other than doctors. God forbid they turn into teachers or gasp, social workers – like him. Coming from a family of farmers, he immigrated to the United States from India almost 4 decades ago. Today he beams with pride when he says that all three of his children are now doctors.
“If you are a doctor, right away you become a great achievement in both American society and Indian society,” he says confidently. He does not pretend that it is all about social status either though. The money that doctors earn in the United States is just too darn good. “You don’t know. There is economics here,” he insists. Singh is firm in his belief that a relatively high income is necessary to have “made it” in the United States. “The idea for coming here was to be economically successful. There is no point in living hand to mouth,” he insists.
Numbering at about 2.7 million, South Asians living in the United States hail from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. South Asians, and Indian Americans in particular, continue to fill many important positions in science and technology. Indians, who make up less than two percent of the American population, today make up five percent of all doctors and account for ten percent of all medical school students. There are also thousands of Pakistani Americans practicing medicine. Indians are three percent of the nation’s engineers and seven percent of its IT workers.
Many children of South Asian parents deal with what the say is an unrelenting familial pressure to pursue only certain careers, like medicine and engineering. These days, law and finance seem to be making the cut as well. What results for some of these children in their adulthood is a lack of job satisfaction and a frustration of not having pursued their passions.
These days, more South-Asian Americans are defying tradition and are taking their chances in careers that would cause Amrik Singh and others of his generation nightmares. They are becoming writers, designers and activists to name a few. They do so despite the criticisms they face from their communities, the relative lack of job safety for some occupations and the cut in pay.
“There is a construction of a cliche of what success is,” says Dr. Vijay Prashad. Dr. Prashad, professor of international relations at Trinity College says that it is no accident that so many young South Asians find themselves working in math and science fields. According to his book, “The Karma of Brown Folk,” the governmental policies of India have much to do this phenomenon. In 1947, Jawarharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India said that the “new India” would be “closely linked to science” and made it a priority to create state-funded learning institutions devoted to science. The trend has not changed even today.
The institutions created a generation of skilled workers mostly from the middle class, many of whom would make their way into the United States via the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Between 1966 and 1977, thousands of scientists with PhDs, engineers, and doctors came from India alone. The majority of Pakistani immigrants who arrived between 1965 and the early 1980s also came as skilled migrants.
Dr. Prashad argues that children tend to follow the career paths of their parents which he claims also contributes to the large numbers of young South doctors and engineers.
Despite these impressive accomplishments, are young South Asian doctors, engineers, pharmacists and the like happy in their careers? From a financial perspective, probably. Such careers continue to fetch more money than most other fields.
For some though, the money does not make up for everything. Always very close to her parents, Dr. Alka Chandna would have no contact with her’s for two months after she announced to them that she was leaving her job as a software developer to work with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) full time. Her voice still breaks as she recalls the day she told them about her decision. “They thought I was entering a black hole, a world they didn’t understand,” she says softly. “I’ve blocked the conversation from my mind,” says Chandna, who lives in Washington D.C.
Like many South Asians, Chandna was encouraged to pursue medicine but refused, believing that it was morally wrong to use animals for dissections in medical school. While her two sisters would go on to become physicians (and her brother an engineer) Chandna went on to get a PhD in mathematics, just like her father (her mother also has a PhD).
She understands why her parents wanted her to pursue a career in science. Chandna grew up in Canada experiencing racism; she remembers having her house spray painted and having eggs thrown at it. “Going the profession route was the path out of that life,” she says.
Today she is PETA’s Laboratory Oversight Specialist where she studies the regulations and guidelines that govern the use of animals in laboratory settings. Her relationship has improved with her parents since that fateful day ten years ago. “It wasn’t as horrible as they were worried it was,” she says. “They’ve come to a place where they are very pleased.”
Chandna enjoys working with PETA even though she is making about half of what she was making in Silicon Valley. “Working for PETA makes the world a kinder place,” she says.
Husna Butt, a 24 year old Pakistani-American from Chicago felt that she was “living a lie” while a student in medical school a few years ago. She decided to quit medical school about 20 minutes after taking a makeup exam for classes she failed in the previous semester. “I was not new to failure, that’s not what bothered me,” she says. “What bothered me was that I did not want to make the effort anymore.”
An artist at heart, she loved drawing portraits as a child. She remembers her father, an engineer, telling her and her two sisters that they should become doctors when they got older. Feeling “lost” as an undergrad and yearning for independence from her parents, she gave medical school a chance. “I enjoyed every second of it, especially in the beginning,” she says. “But I was not serious about any of it and I realize now that’s because I was not passionate about medicine itself.”
Today Butt is pursuing a career in graphic design and completed a certificate in fashion design. Her parents are supportive. “I think they worry about me though but I also think that’s normal,” she says. Her two sisters, meanwhile, are both physicians.
Farhana Huda Islam, 29, from Queens, New York was also a budding artist as a child. She started a magazine in college that continues to be published after her graduation. She expressed her desire to become an English teacher to her Bangladeshi parents but was met with swift disapproval. “They thought it was not prestigious,” she says. “That I would not make much money.” She was encouraged to pursue pharmacy, like her father.
At St. John’s University’s pharmacy program, she found many South Asian students, some of whom were just as upset about their predicament as she was. A whopping 62 percent of the students in Islam’s pharmacy program today are of Asian origin.
She felt frustrated with having to follow a curriculum that was, not surprisingly, largely science based and left little room for her to take liberal arts courses. At one point she created a Facebook page called “I Hate Pharmacy! My Dad Made Me Do It!” attracting others who could resonate with its message.
Islam eventually graduated from her pharmacy program and has been a pharmacist for the past five years. She says that her experience has not been all that bad. “I have a passion for people, making a difference in their lives.”
But the writing bug has not gone away, and the mother of two wants to go back to school to get a Masters in Fine Arts someday.
“I always wonder what would have happened to my potential if I were in classes that sparked my interest,” she says. “I still want to write.”
Wajahat Ali, 31 wants to see more South Asians take their chances in the liberal arts and he is quick to explain that he is not trying to bash doctors and engineers. “If that’s your passion, talent and choice, go for it,” he says. “But we kind of already have enough engineers and doctors.”
Born and raised in California, his family immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. He remembers when he wrote his first story at the age of ten. “I brought it home and my father said you should be a writer. My mother overheard it and she said ‘yea but first become a doctor.”
Ali went to law school (“I missed the doctor boat,” he says) though he admits that he did not have an extreme passion for the subject.
After being unemployed for months following his graduation, Ali embarked on his “unorthodox” career as a new media journalist. He developed a following with his blog, Goatmilk.com where he wrote essays about politics, Islam and contemporary affairs with a humorous spin. In the midst of his unorthodox career, he also briefly practiced law, work he found rewarding.
Today, he has nearly 7,000 followers on Twitter and his play, The Domestic Crusaders, has been published into a book. In addition, his essays frequently appear in the Guardian, The Washington Post and Salon.com amongst other leading publications. He recently edited a book about prominent Muslims in America and is currently writing a TV pilot with Dave Eggers for HBO about a Muslim American cop in the Bay Area. He is also a consultant on issues related to Muslims and civil rights.
But getting to this point was not easy. Members of the Pakistani community mocked his efforts while he built his career. Women initially ignored him too. (However, he is now happily married.)
Ali says that he could be making more money as an attorney but is sticking to his “unorthodox” career for the time. “You learn to live lean if you pursue this career,” he says. He worries about the future sometimes though and wonders about money and how he will take care of his parents when they get older.
Dr. Prashad encourages South Asians to become more adventurous in their career pursuits. “There is a need to venture out. We are human beings, with imaginations,” he says. “It is an incredibly healthy thing to promote a variety of occupations.” He discusses exciting prospects of careers that weave science and the arts, such as software design and computer animation.
“These days, South Asians are actually making waves in the world of arts and humanities,” says Prashad.
Ali says that the initial disdain he received from his community has been replaced by a realization that more people like him are needed. “Some old school uncles are now saying ‘No one is telling our stories, what you’re doing is valuable and important.”
And the compulsion to create remains strong for him, despite the challenges. “There’s a joy there. There is hard work. Yes it’s brutal. But it’s fulfilling.”
Farah Akbar is a freelance writer from Queens, New York. She has written for Salon.com, The Gotham Gazette, City Limits and CNN.com. She graduated from Baruch College.
Nasruddin’s Coat, thoughts on ‘Muslim Art’ and why you should support Lena Khan and Ridwan Adhami
Bilal Hassam 02/08/13
“Hodja Effendi,” the classic short tale begins, “last night I was passing by your house and I heard a lot of commotion. What was all that racket?”
“Nothing serious. My wife just threw my coat down the stairs,” the wise man replied.
“But Effendi, how could a coat falling down the stairs make that much noise?”
“Ahh. You see… at the time, I happened to be in it!”
The gregarious tales of the legendary Nasruddin Hodga have engaged and amused people for centuries. Beneath the mystical slapstick and mischievous satire, however, bubbles timeless wisdom. I’ve often chuckled at this short story without giving it much thought. But just what is Nasruddin telling us? What is all the noise and commotion? What does the coat represent?
A couple weeks ago, The Leaf Network co-hosted American playwright, author and commentator Wajahat Ali and renaissance man, actor, musician and activist Riz ‘MC’ Ahmed (star of Four Lions and upcoming Hollywood film adaptation of the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist) for a provocative and interactive exploration of the power of storytelling. The second event of our Staging the Ummah series, a collaborative effort between The Leaf Network and Radical Middle Way, began with live unplugged storytelling, with the audience enjoying comic, theatrical, poetic and occasionally sombre offerings. For the second half of the evening, we moved on to an intimate discussion with Wajahat, Riz and the audience in our absolutely packed-out venue — we’ll have the video up on YouTube soon.
Wajahat spoke about empowering Muslim writers, producers and others working in the arts, imploring Muslims to be the protagonists of their own stories; to write more instead of just being written about. He shared his personal struggles of seeking validation within his own community and made some jovial comments about moving career aspirations of the Muslim community beyond the usual suspects (such as medicine, engineering or accounting). Riz highlighted the challenges of imbuing emerging artists with the confidence and determination to succeed. He spoke of working towards a normalisation of Muslims within television and cinema – both in front of and behind the camera – when someone being a Muslim would be simply coincidental rather than overtly defining.
What followed in the conversation with the audience was a deep sense of frustration with how Muslims are depicted in film and the media in general. “It’s one thing having Muslims portrayed as dangerous foreign terrorists, but it’s another when Muslims themselves take on these roles… It’s counterproductive,” one person remarked. Another member of the audience spoke about the lack of women playing positive roles, and the real difficulty of Muslim women breaking through multiple layers of the proverbial glass ceiling, first and foremost within their own communities and later within the arts industry itself. We noted how the “otherisation” of Muslims in film perpetuates the false notion that Muslims are foreign, disloyal or a burden to society. Furthermore, it tells Muslims that they are not welcome and permits a culture of prejudice, flaming the fires of anti-Muslim sentiment already rampant through society. A brilliant article entitled “Hollywood Loses the Plot” by Professor Hamid Dabashi on the Al-Jazeera website takes this further, as he considers the dangerous political ramifications of the culture industry, particularly the role of Hollywood.
What was interesting for me was the sense of healing that took place simply by providing that safe, alternative space to candidly explore and share reflections on the state of ‘Muslim art’. Much of the framing of this conversation was inspired by the likes of Usama Canon, whose pioneering work with the Ta’leef Collective in California has brought to life the power of the third space. It was as if the questions from the audience, particularly those involved in the creative industry, unearthed the bruises they had taken as the Muslim narrative itself had been battered on the big screen.
I then recalled Nassrudin’s coat. The story suddenly made sense.
It would seem the Muslim community at large has, for so long and for so many different reasons (some almost justifiably so), disregarded the critical importance and power of the arts. Just like Nassrudin’s coat, we carelessly throw our ‘art’ down the stairs without much thought — even if it is by our inaction alone. Our concept of art is cheap and unsophisticated. We’d rather not pay for it, let alone value its production or nurture emerging artistic or create talent. ‘Islamic’ art is reduced to beautiful Arabic inscriptions made out of plastic and run off a production line in China.
This is where Muslim community institutions, movers and ‘Sheikh-ers’ can play a critical role. The Muslim narrative is battered, bruised and lies there almost lifeless at the bottom of the stairs, sometimes humiliated, and exposed for all to see.
The truth is that we’re all guilty of this. I recall spending some time driving Isam Bachiri, lead singer of the Danish band Outlandish, around London a few years ago. As we spoke casually, he sifted through my CD collection and with tongue-in-cheek grace, he asked, “What’s this, bro?” He was holding up a pirated CD of his latest album, with the words “Outlandish – new stuff” scrawled on the bottom. You can imagine how embarrassed I was, so I’m glad he laughed it off, but I see now how damaging this behaviour is.
Nietzsche wrote, “We have art so that we may not perish by the truth.”
Art is so powerful because it is able to articulate something deep inside of us, concealed truths, better than we could ever express ourselves. It is beauty and majesty manifested. It shapes the way we think, sense and perceive the world. It is all around us. In becoming producers of art, and not just being consumers, we can learn more about ourselves and our stories. We can be honest about our past, realistic about our present and hopeful about our future trajectory.
“Copy a movie give it a twist and we call it our own” raps Pakistani-Danish Waqas Qadiri, raps Pakistani-Danish Waqas Qadiri, another of the Outlandish trio. Waqas here sheds light on the culture of imitation and plagiarism that is ironically rife in much of the creative industry; Muslim creativity sadly falls prey to this time and time again. This is evident beyond the arts and culture world, and is even present in our religious programming and teaching. There is a great brilliance in authentic expression; during our event, Wajahat powerfully remarked that in being true to your story you allow others to feel safe to authentically express their stories too. In the words of Marianne Williamson, “…as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same” — but I digress.
Time and time again, we fail, as a community, to nurture our artists. We reduce them to merely entertainment addendums. Singer songwriter Dawud Wharsnby Ali tackles this beautifully: “I’d like to think there’s more to be than just a human MP3. More to see and more to do than offer up a song or two.” Canadian duo, The Sound of Reason, lament on another reality that faces so many Muslim artists, as they open a track on their new album with the words: “I’m so down and tired, I wonder if it’s worth our time. It’s kinda hard to get by getting paid in smiles…” Thankfully they go on to sing about why their art is so important to them. As a community, we owe it to ourselves to serve our artists better.
Where is that spirit that inspired Rumi, who, even seven hundred years after his passing, remains America’s bestselling poet? Where are the minds that made the majestic Alhambra Europe’s greatest tourist attraction? In every capital city you will find museums in which ‘Islamic Art’ enjoys a high status, yet almost all of it is historical. The beauty and transcendence that we have given the world through our art remains one of Islam’s greatest legacies, but can we harness this spirit to make our art a living legacy for all to experience and enjoy?
So what now? What needs to be done? Well, there is good news: there’s something you and only you can do, and so I hope you’ll indulge me. American curator Thelma Golden asks us in a TED talk entitled “How Art gives Shape to Cultural Change” to:
“…think about artists not just as content providers, though they can be brilliant at that, but as real catalysts… not always just simply about the aesthetic innovation that their minds imagine, that their visions create and put out there in the world, but more, perhaps, importantly, through the excitement of the community that they create as important voices that would allow us right now to understand our situation, as well as in the future.”
Luqman Ali, playwright, poet and founding artistic director of the UK-based Khayaal Theatre Group, delved into the subject in an address to Muslim leaders at a Forum in Italy in late 2012. He said, “The greatest asset we must liquefy to forge engagement with the world today is in our art. It is this soft and subtle power that is the perfect antidote to all the hard and cold power we see on our televisions and in our politics. It may be subtle, but it is powerful. Communicating through the prism of art and culture is higher than any other discourse; when you speak to people through a discourse of dogma you automatically create a dichotomy; us and them. When you communicate through story you transcend this dichotomy, your audience has no choice but to live some aspect of your story. The Arabic word ‘Qasa’ for story means to follow in the one’s footsteps, so to engage in story is to invite people to experience your very footsteps… We have plenty of people spewing dogma unless we balance this equation we will find ourselves continually complaining about stories that our antagonistic to the spirit of our faith… We must empower and support our artists; believe me, this is what the world is waiting for.”
His words ring true in so many ways. Just a couple weeks ago, it was announced that Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) will be making key contributions to the soundtrack of the forthcoming biopic starring Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs, the founder of technology giant Apple.
Muhammad Ali, after giving a lecture at Harvard University one evening, was famously asked to give an impromptu poem. He paused for a second and then replied, “Me. We.” A simple but profound sentiment: the individual is inextricably tied to the wider community, and when the ’we’ is suffering, it’s time for all the ‘me’s to step up. The Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, likened his community to a body — when one part aches, the whole body aches. There is a great wisdom in this. The question is, what can we do?
I’d like to put forward two brilliant projects that are seeking support from the wider community. Your support may be minimal but you could really make a massive difference. Truly, every little helps, and I’d like you to consider these two initiatives as communal projects for the benefit of all.
First is Lena Khan’s film “The Tiger Hunter.” Set in the 1970s, this story features a clever young man who comes to America on a quest for success and love in a hilarious story of ambition, failure and misfit friends. Lena has spent almost a decade working tirelessly on this film, and after raising several hundreds of thousands of dollars, she needs your support to cover that final stretch. Your investment is crucial and her Kickstarter page allows you to see exactly how your pledge will be used to turn this unique film into a reality. Please visit her site and make a contribution: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/879784241/the-tiger-hunter-a-feature-film Little or large, you can be a part of the Tiger Hunter story that is, God willing, coming to a cinema near you soon.
The second project is Ridwan Adhami’s “366* Photos a Day Limited Edition Art Book.” In an artistic struggle spanning a whole year, photographer and creative director Ridwan, who works under the name ‘RidzDesign’, took one photo every day during 2012. He now wants to create a coffee table art book to share the images and stories. I’ve been following Ridwan online since he began the project at the beginning of 2012; it really gave me a newfound appreciation for the intricacy and beauty of photography. Ridwan is not trying to make money. He simply wants to share his art, and I really hope you can help turn that dream into a reality. Just $40 gets you this hardcover 12×9-inch-high quality case-bound colour print book. There are just hours left to support the project and get your hands on this one-of-a-kind unique initiative. Don’t delay, pledge today! Here’s the site: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ridzdesign/ridzdesign-366-a-photo-a-day-2012-limited-edition For those who can give more, Ridwan has put up some great incentives. Check out and share the page, and most importantly, buy the book!
Just like Lena and Ridwan, there are so many artists around the world striving to remedy the state of Muslim art. They are essentially picking up the dusty, tattered coat and marching on with pride. Muslim artists both local and international, need your support. It may start with a ‘Like’ on Facebook, a re-tweet, a Kickstarter pledge (seriously, support Lena and Ridwan now!) and a song download, but if we are to truly realise the potential we have as a dynamic global community raised to serve the world, then each and every one of us must critically engage with, in some way or form, the wondrous world of art.
On Friday, I buried Muneer Unisa Begum, a woman who has lived with me my entire life.
Her capacity for love was like her appetite: large and generous.
Born in Hyderabad Deccan, India on April 8, 1925, she moved to Karachi, Pakistan during partition and then joined her two eldest sons in Amreeka in the late ‘70’s, where she rocked bell bottoms, South Asian bling, and a strange, enduring love for Tom Jones, The Doobie Brothers and Sabri Brothers’ Qawwalis.
She also made it a point to throw down hard for the Mawlid, ensuring its place as a perennial tradition in our family since that time. She always stood up for the Prophet (pbuh) even when she later could not due to severe arthritis of the knees. She loved the ahl al bayt and Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani immensely and on demand bestowed stories and wisdom about these beloved personalities.
Her plentiful stomach provided many salutary benefits for the young, “healthy” Wajahat Ali. During my entire childhood, I slept on it every night. While watching the terrifying “Kali Ma, Shakti Dhay!” heart- ripping scene from INDIANA JONES: TEMPLE OF DOOM, I lay on the generous mound of flesh averting my gaze behind her shawl and sheets. I also used her body as a successful shield against potential beatings. She could always be counted on to defend and protect me.
Until the last moments, I played with the soft, voluminous flesh that hung from her underarm. Some folks have plush toys, I had Dhadi underarm fat. She became so accustomed to my constant underarm love that she never flinched and simply proceeded with her activities as I sat there playing with it. (I did this even she was sleeping in the hospital a few days ago.)
With the aid of her walking stick, she took me to watch my first movie at Cinedome 7 on Stevenson: SUPERGIRL. We waited for Superman to make an appearance, but he only showed up as a stupid statue. Our cinematic excursion was redeemed when we went and saw GOONIES at Cinedome 8 on Mowry. I also forced her to take me to TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES at Fremont Hub – she enjoyed the movie more than I did.
She single-handedly inspired my childhood obesity, which has left me many traumatic scars, but also fond memories of excellent meals. Convinced I was malnourished even when I was morbidly overweight, she kept feeding me authentic Hyderabadi dishes.
When our biryani supply ran out, she deceived me by putting food coloring in plain, white rice.
In the last few years we tried unsuccessfully to limit her diet. She persisted in eating her beloved achaar every meal, every day. We went to her doctor and I complained that she refuses to stop eating achaar. “But, without achaar, I cannot swallow the food! I need it!” she pleaded. The doctor smiled and replied, “OK, OK, just eat a little less.”
She endured many tragedies with grace, tremendous optimism and resolve. This includes surviving the premature death of her husband and two adult sons. She is survived by three remaining children, 7 grand kids, and 7 great grand kids.
In the last months of her life she wished to see me married to a kind woman with a pulse who would appreciate my “eccentricities.” Sarah Kureshi obliged that request. Two months ago, they had their formal introduction as Biwi and Dhadhi. She was ecstatic and decided she had to live a bit longer to see her future grand kids.
Her nickname was “the prayer factory.” Every day, she sat and gave long, stream of consciousness, jazz-like prayers for anyone and everyone that asked. This includes college and professional friends, who had never met her, but knew of her through me. They used to call and ask me to have grandmother pray for them. I just handed over the phone to her and she went on for a good 15 min giving my friends good vibes and well wishes. Her prayers, for what it’s worth, were always sincere from beginning to end.
I wish I had more time with her. She kept asking for a few minutes to sit down and eat achaar with her, or to talk, or to watch overproduced, melodramatic, terrible SONY TV shows. I obliged, but upon reflection, I could have given more time.
For this, I swim in an ocean of regret.
And yet I am grateful for the time we had. It was an honor helping her, in some small way, during the last few years of her life.
I am thankful for having the opportunity to be next to her during her last conscious moments. After suddenly suffering from a massive stroke last Saturday, she was in and out of consciousness. On Sunday night, I returned to the hospital and found her completely alert. Unable to speak, she saw me, smiled and extended her hand. I held it and she smiled. An hour later she feel into a deep, comforting sleep from which she did not awake until her soul departed early Thursday morning.
My request is twofold: if Muneer Unisa Begum did anything to offend or hurt you during her life, please find it in your heart to forgive her. We should all have clean slates on the Day.
Secondly, for those who have kindly asked how they can help during this sad time, I have one request: be generous, forgiving and mindful to your living grandmothers, grandfathers and elders. Spend a little more time with them. Ask them for some prayers and advice. They are endearing, odd, funny, wise creatures who have a lot of mileage. You’ll be surprised what you can learn by simply being in their company.
This includes learning the many benefits of Vicks Vapor Rub and Metamucil, but also wise gems that can help steer your life towards purpose and clarity.
So, the lady known as Muneer Unisa Begum has passed away.
But, I simply knew her as Dhadhi.
And as long as I remember her, Dhadhi lives forever.
So the story goes The Natives saved the Pilgrims and in return they broke bread and ate a gobbling, red-wattled Goliath as neighbors at the first Thanksgiving feast – unique to us Americans but a caloric and spiritually rich tradition that can be embraced by anyone with a heart capable of gratitude.
A holiday feast that combines the best of this messy, strange, sloppy, constantly evolving rough draft of a nation – a celebration of family, food, friends and, for some, faith. It’s a growing, moveable feast representative of all Americans and the potential of America – there are no rules/regulations/limits to what can be included on a family’s table – we can line up a brined Turkey next to a can of homemade achar, or elegantly place a chicken enchilada between pumpkin pie and Naan bread; the possibilities are endless.
So, if you are blessed, privileged, entitled, gifted, or serendipitously touched with lucky charms and fated to enjoy a Turkey day meal with loved ones, then please take a moment of gratitude, and if possible, remember all those who are simply content sleeping one peaceful night without the fear of bombardment or death; or those hungry bellies scuffling for scraps of food, or the many broken down men and women simply seeking shelter from a cold night.
If you’re in the company of an elder, take a moment to listen to their story, because time is fleeting and you’ll be surprised at how much wisdom they can dispense in addition to curses, laments and monologues about the joys of Metamucil. Give your parents a hug; they aren’t perfect, but most of them tried their best. For those among who are spiritually and emotionally wounded, allow your friends to heal you; that’s why you keep them around… and for the occasional $5. For others enduring financial pain and hardship, take a day off from the worry and bask in the fatty juices of a dry bird beckoning to be eaten.
And if you able-minded and able-bodied with functioning lungs, a heartbeat and a pulse, be grateful for the ability to keep moving along on the interesting journey known as life – especially if you’re lucky to be in the company folks who love you.
I know I am.