Friday, 3 January 2014

Thought for the Day

January 3rd 2014
BBC Radio Scotland
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
University of Miami, FL.
A new year, a new beginning, a clean slate.  These are just some of the sentiments that I’ve heard or read over the last few days.  Leaving the past year or years behind seems to offer hope to some of us.  I have heard more than once from people that they want this year to be, a sort of, brand new beginning.  But can this actually happen.  I can see that there are some memories that we would all rather forget but should they be completely forgotten?  If the past linger on in our lives does it strengthen our understanding of self, our living?  My thoughts also turn to some of the most horrific events in history that we might all wish had never happened or attempt to forget but the reminder and memory of these do infact play a role in how we shape ourselves and the society that surrounds us.
As a Muslim, I have found it helpful in lingering in the past where often I have found that our current hot potato issues have a history.  Take for example some of the most contentious issues facing Muslims today, such as gender and sexuality.  If the slate is wiped clean they become ‘new issues’ but I’ve found that the murkiness of the old slate (and possibly upsetting past) actually helps to understand where we are today.  I believe that there is much danger in ‘living in the past’ or even ‘life in the now’, the two should always meet, in some way. 
Maybe our very own, Robert Burns, was pushing us all to connect the past as we move forward when he wrote, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind ? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne”.  Happy new year.   

Monday, 30 December 2013

Top 5 Religion Stories... Of All Time! by Gary Laderman Chair of the Department of Religion, Emory University and Editor of Sacred Matters Magazine

Published in Huffington Post
All Rights Reserved, Copyright 

We are in the season of lists that look back on the year and designate best books, blogs, films, music, and other items. This is a ritually consoling way of taking stock of the previous 12 months, highlighting those events and stories and products that stood out as special or unique, and reminding folks that as one year passes, another is about to begin.

Religion lists are especially prominent this year, with authors claiming the obvious about what stood out in the world: a new Pope; disappearing Jews; gay marriage; Muslim violence; the death of Mandela, and so on. It's an easy and fun task to pull up these stories, rank them, and say a few words about each to remind readers of the incessant, often easily forgotten, news cycle of current events that fade from view almost as quickly as they emerge in public consciousness.

The real story about religion is that it won't go away, and whatever blips and blasts make it to CNN or Fox or The Huffington Post will inevitably be pushed aside by new stories that fleetingly capture the imagination. Perhaps this year we can look at religion and identify some stories that never die, that are not simply events that happened over the course of 12 months but are, in a sense, eternally returning and deeply rooted in human cultures and consciousness.

So with that in mind, let's dig beneath the surface of things and dredge up some religion stories that are thousands of years old. Here are the top 5 religion stories of all time:

5. The sacred is elementary. The sacred is always present in societies, a basic elemental way of thinking about the world, identifying what is of greatest importance, and unifying groups of people together. Totems, taboos, territories, time, and so on are all tied in to what counts as sacred and how that is differentiated from the profane. Nothing is more important to social identities and solidarity than the sacred -- it is both the glue that binds individuals together and the source for profound and meaningful religious experiences that shape cultural values and ideals. Gods and spirits, texts and flags, animals and landscapes are only a few examples of sacred phenomena found throughout human history.

4. Religious conflict is inevitable. While the sacred can unite groups around shared values and common rituals, unfortunately it can also divide people against each other and justify competition, conflicts, and killing. The engines of human history are fueled by contestations over the sacred; because we can't agree about this elemental fact of social life and so much is at stake in protecting the sacred from threats and profanations, it has been a perennial force in establishing enemies and ensuring warfare. The sad truth about religion through history is its centrality as a source for violence and bloodshed and hatred. History proves this point without a doubt, and anyone informed about current global conflicts knows this fact continues to be so.

3. Religion is inspirational and can transform humans and societies. On the other hand, religion is not all bad and can, at times, bring out the best in people as a force for social justice, individual transformation, and cultural regeneration. The sacred has long been a constant and powerful source in human societies that can heal and restore those who are sick and suffering; inspire leaders and artists to create new ways of seeing the world and its mysteries; and rally individuals to unite and overcome obstacles that threaten the social order. Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and the Buddha, Muhammad and Black Elk are just a few names that come to mind in this regard.

2. The monotheists can't figure out human sexuality. Monotheists have had a lot of problems through history with their one God, but perhaps the most vexing and longstanding has to do with human sexuality. Of course not all Jews agree with each other; no do all Christians; nor do all Muslims, yet even with a variety of perspectives within these monotheistic religious cultures, sexuality remains a heated, contentious, and confounding human reality that leads to contradictions, confusions, and ambivalence. Is procreation the sole purpose of sex? Are gender roles fixed and certain? Can sexual transgressions lead to damnation and divine retribution? Take a gander through the sacred texts and the theologies interpreting them through time to get a sense of the ongoing and vital preoccupation with these questions, and how much is at stake in how they are answered.

1. We all die. Ok, a little depressing for all the holiday cheer, but as the great ESPN sports segment exclaims: "C'mon man!" What would you expect for the number one spot on this list of top religion stories of all time? Death, like sexuality, is a universal reality for all humans. What fuels the fires of the religious imagination and instigates the necessity of religious ritual like death? Mortality is what shapes morals and meaning, challenges the nature and substance of identity, and forces humans to confront and transcend that most sacred of objects, the corpse. Death is at the heart of religion, and how societies have responded to death--how they dispose of the dead, glorify them, keep them at bay, and live with the unavoidable reality of one's own death--is a never-ending collective task that is both compelling and fascinating.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Female carpenter carves new role for women in Jordan

Carpentry is a profession which has long been associated more with men than women.  But Aida Al Qurna is a Jordanian woman who decided to break that mould by becoming her country's first professional female carpenter.  She hopes to inspire women to reshape gender roles by taking on more traditionally male-dominated jobs in her country.

Rafid Jabbouri reports.

Vegetarian Muslim: Turning Away From a Meat-Based Diet

My reasons for moving towards a plant-based diet didn't happen overnight as some people I know. As I gained awareness of the different issues involved in getting that piece of steak on my plate my dietary choices slowly changed. First went the red meat then dairy, chicken, fish and finally eggs.

My first glimpse into the slaughterhouse industry came when I read Fast Food Nation and discovered how animals where treated in factory farms. I was horrified to say the least. Prior to that point in time I was shamefully clueless.

Part of my ignorance may have been due to a romanticized notion I had about how my government would protect farm animals who are used for food. I could understand the abuse of animals and the environment in the U.S., but surely we Canadians were different. Right?

The reality is there is virtually no legislation in Canada to protect farm animals in factory farms from abusive practices. Animals can be beaten, mutilated and cramped together in nightmarish conditions for their short existence. What standards the Canadian Food Inspection Agency expects slaughterhouses to adhere to are often lost in the rush to produce more meat. The little legislative protection that remains is even now being eroded as our government reduces slaughterhouse regulations. The reality is factory farms in Canada, as in other areas around the world, are linked to a host of serious environmental, health, animal welfare issues and rural community sustainability.

As information about the practices of factory farming, its impact on our environment and related issues to human health and animal welfare has made its way to the public, there has been a steady movement of individuals, including Muslims, who have been opting for a plant-based diet.

Is Being a Vegan or Vegetarian at Odds with Being Muslim?

Interestingly enough, the idea of Muslims being vegetarian or vegans has prompted some debate. Islamic scholars such as the late Egyptian scholar Gamal al-Banna agree that Muslims who choose vegetarianism/veganism can do so for a number of reasons including a personal expression of faith or spirituality.

Al-Banna has stated "When someone becomes vegetarian they do so for a number of reasons: compassion, environment and health reasons. As a Muslim, I believe that the Prophet (Muhammad) would want followers to be healthy, compassionate and not destroy our environment. If someone believes not eating meat is that way, it is not like they are going to go to hell for it. It may be the right thing to do."

Hamza Yusuf Hason, a popular American Muslim scholar has been warning against the ethical and environmental dangers of the factory farming industry and the health related issues of over consumption of meat (at 35 min mark).

Yusuf believes the fallout of industrialized meat production -- the abuse of animals, the detrimental impact to the environment and human health, the link of such a system to the exasperation of global hunger -- is at odds with his understanding of Islamic ethics. In his view animal rights and protection of the environment are not foreign concepts to Islam but a divine mandate. And his research indicates that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and most early Muslims were semi-vegetarians, consuming meat on occasion.

Vegetarianism is not a new concept for some adherents of Sufism. Such as Chishti Inayat Khan, who introduced Sufi principals to the west. The late Sufi Shaykh Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who did not permit any animal products at his fellowship. Rabia of Basra, one of the most revered female Sufi saints.

The Environment, Animals and Islam 

On the other spectrum there are scholars, such as one at the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments who believe "Animals are slaves for human purposes. They were put here for us to eat, so talk of vegetarianism is un-Islamic."

This unfortunate view of animals, as things to be used and consumed by humans, exists within many cultures. I believe this idea may exist among some Muslims as a direct result of the misinterpretation of the concept of Khalifa in the Quran.

"And lo! Your Sustainer said to the angels: Behold, I am about to establish upon earth a khalifa." (Quran verse 2:30)

"And it is He (God) who has made you successors (khalifa) upon the earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you. Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty; but indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful." (Quran verse 6:165)

A quick reading of these verse may lead to the conclusion that humans are somehow superior to other forms of creations. Hence, have the right to use the earth's resources and it's non-human animals at their discretion.

Israeli and Palestinian Women Crossing the Divide by Diana Bletter Writer, Author, 'The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle'

Published at Huffington Post
All Rights Reserved, Copyright

Against the backdrop of the Boston Marathon bombings, the spiraling violence in Syria and the continuing conflict along the Israel-Palestine fault line, a group of 28 women (mostly Christian with a scattering of Muslims) from Bethlehem, Palestine, made a pilgrimage on April 23 to meet with a group of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Druze Israeli women in the city of Acco during a four-day visit in northern Israel.

"I was surprised," said Huda Salem, a Muslim social worker from Bethlehem in a telephone interview after her visit. "We always think that Jews think we're only terrorists, but they think differently than what we see on TV."

The women's visit -- a combination of hopeful interchanges and seemingly intractable differences -- was sponsored by the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center in Haifa. Since 1995, the Center has welcomed more than 1,000 Palestinian women to meet with their Israeli counterparts for what the Center's leaders describe as "intensive days of debate, discussion, soul-searching and friendship forging."

"The women don't have to agree," said Bracha Steiner, the Social and Cultural Coordinator at the Center. "But there is a willingness to do things together."

At the Community Center in Acco, funded in part by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the Bethlehem contingent met with Dr. Janan Faraj-Falah, an effervescently optimistic Druze woman who is a professor of Gender Studies at Haifa Teachers' College and leader of a volunteer women's group in Acco that includes Christian, Muslim, Jewish women and Druze women. The 30 or so members of Faraj-Falah's Acco Vision work together to forge connections among the 40,000 residents of the coastal city. The group has held city-wide student writing contests in Arabic and Hebrew, festivals for Jewish and Arab artists and has even built a peace playground in the city.
"I'm very satisfied with this visit," said Faraj-Falah. "If not, I wouldn't spend so much time organizing these events."

The women, coming from in and around Bethlehem, were pulled together by a one-woman powerhouse, Antoinette Knesevitch, a 78-year-old Christian and resident of Bethlehem who remains tireless in her efforts to have women in Israel and Palestine connect with one another. The distance between Bethlehem and Acco is about 113 miles, yet most of the women have never had the chance to meet one another. "Women can change the idea that we can't live together," said Knesevitch. "Because we can."

In Acco, after the obligatory Middle East welcome of fresh loquats, oranges, pastries and drinks, the women divided into small groups to bring the discussion about peace down to a common denominator. Sort of like macro-economics crunched into micro, the women were asked to look at violence in their daily lives. What do they do to stop violence among children, neighbors, spouses and friends?

The atmosphere was friendly and cordial with occasional tense drifts into politics.

During one small group's discussion, for example, a Palestinian woman said that she wants to help people who still carry keys to their houses in Israel -- which they left during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 -- and "they're waiting to go back to them."

"If you're waiting to take back your houses then your goal isn't peace," countered a Jewish woman. "My family was thrown out of Egypt in 1948. They can't go back to their houses there, either."
The inevitable impasse.

The women's words hung in the air until the group moderator moved the discussion to safer ground: violence between husbands and wives. That was one subject about which all the women could agree. Huda Salem, the social worker from Bethlehem, deals with domestic violence in her work in a Palestinian refugee camp outside of Bethelem. "We counsel men that it's better to talk to their wives than to hit them," Salem said.

While the women's encounters have not yet changed governmental policies or even activities on the ground, and some might argue that rubbing shoulders and making nice to one another does not accomplish much, both guests and hosts seemed outwardly content in one another's company, even if it was only to make small talk about children, husbands and family.

"One part of me says that these kind of meetings don't accomplish anything," said Yael Goldenberg, a Jewish participant who lives near Acco. "But then again, it's better to do something than nothing at all."

'Unmosqued' Debate: Muslim Millennials Explore The Problem With American Mosques

Gay Muslim Movie 'Naz + Maalik' Explodes Stereotypes

Associate Editor, Huffington Post Religion
Published at Huffington Post, All Rights Reserved, Copyright

Since 9/11, my "Muslim" name has been the cause for the suspicion of countless airport security agents, the frowns of teachers at my Catholic girls' high school, and the tapping of my home phone line in Phoenix, Arizona, even though my family had absolutely nothing to hide. I'm sure many American Muslims can relate to the stereotypes that spring up simultaneously with introductions.

"Naz + Maalik" share the same experience, growing up under the surveillance that is our post-9/11 reality. However, these two young men really are hiding something-- but it isn't what the FBI agent trailing them thinks it is.

An upcoming independent feature film borne out of director Jay Dockendorf's reaction to hearing about the FBI's program of secret spying in mosques in Brooklyn, "Naz + Maalik" explores the world of two closeted Muslim teens who have their Friday afternoon ruined by FBI surveillance.

Dockendorf was appalled by NYPD and FBI tactics, which cast suspicion on perfectly innocent groups of people without cause. He says, "Mosques and prayer and devotion and love are beautiful things. Per NYPD rules, though, a business can be labeled a location of concern if police can expect to find groups of Middle Easterners there."

"Mosque-goers are not committing a crime. How can you not take issue with the government spying on its own people just because they're praying in a mosque?" he asks.

He interviewed people in Brooklyn about their real-life experiences with surveillance, including some closeted Muslims who must still conceal their lives from conservative communities. The secret of their sexual identity even landed one couple on a watch list in real life.

Their reality requires privacy, though as attitudes progress, more and more gay Muslims are coming out into accepting mosque communities. The face of American Islam is changing, and this film reflects that truth without beating you over the head with it.

Though the American Muslim community is becoming increasingly diverse, the problem of ignorance and bigotry towards Islam is still an issue. In that sense, American Muslims share a history of prejudice with the black and gay communities, which all intersect in this film.

"The film considers Islamophobia through the lens of homophobia and homophobia through the lens of racism," comments Dockendorf. "I know they're very separate issues, but for some people, real people on whom these characters are based, they're completely linked and the balance is delicate. "

The trailer for the film states, "While deciding whether to tell their community about their homosexuality, Naz and Maalik's ambiguous and secretive relationship unknowingly sets an FBI agent on their trail. As the agent grows convinced that the boys are engaged in 'violent radicalism,' her pursuit becomes increasingly menacing and the stakes surrounding the boys' hapless hustling and lies grow." The premise is all-too convincing, and for me, it's easy to imagine something like this happening in real life.

We're all being watched, but some of us have the gaze of suspicion directed squarely upon us as soon our skin meets the eye, or our names fall upon the ear.

"Naz + Maalik" is currently raising funds for post-production, now that shooting has been completed. The team says, "Our overarching goal is to spark dialogue on a macro-level. We intend to reach wider audiences invested in issues of surveillance and civil rights, the social and political difficulties facing minority communities in the United States, and the ongoing challenges of all ranges of expression."

You can donate to their Kickstarter campaign here.
Follow Yasmine Hafiz on Twitter:

Muslim 'Last Supper' Photo Offers Interfaith Tribute To Da Vinci's Masterpiece

BBC News - Egypt's first veiled rapper, Mayam Mahmoud