Why I cried in Arabic class

Though the conflict in Syria is raging less than 50 miles away from my home in Amman and the effects of the war can be seen and felt in countless ways throughout the country, I have lacked much of any emotional reaction to the horrific humanitarian, cultural, and environmental destruction that is occurring just beyond Jordan’s northern border. I think this is a pretty natural human response, to become numb to news of the ‘same old’ tragedies we hear bits and pieces about everyday.

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The news of Fr. Frans van der Lugt’s assassination—and the emerging stories about his prophetic ministry and witness—is what shook me out of my emotional apathy about the Syrian conflict. It’s not Fr. Frans’ European background and white face that makes his death so striking. Rather, what makes his murder so salient is that despite his apparent otherness (and his opportunity to escape) he decided to accept the same fate as his adopted Syrian family, with whom he’d lived almost fifty years.

Martyr and missionary

Many people have already written essays about Fr. Frans, who “liked ice cream and Zen and hiking retreats with Mass and reflections.” Particularly moving pieces are “What Martrydom Means” and “A Man of Peace.” These accounts and remembrances describe a life of complete service of and total communion with the people of Syria. The more I read about this Jesuit missionary, the more I am convinced that he is a true example for our time, a modern day prophet who reminds us by his life and death of the complete self-giving Passion of our Savior.

He has been called “a martyr for interreligious dialogue.” He founded Al-Ard (which means, “The Land”), “an organization that cares for the mentally handicapped and provides one of the rare spaces where the three Abrahamic religions can come together and pray.” He was also famous for his eight-day maseer, a retreat/pilgrimage/hike, in which he led Christians and Muslims in Zen meditation. The Jesuits in Homs also hosted a social club and a bread baking operation for the needy.

What I hope to share here is a translation of an Arabic-language video Fr. Frans recorded, which I’ve translated into English with the help of my Arabic tutor. Fr. Frans recorded many of these videos, talking not only about the plight of his starving and wounded community, which has experienced a blockade for nearly two years. I chose to translate a video in which he describes the “communal” or “sharing” spirit of the Syrian people.

The translation is below. You can see the original video at this link. Notice how Fr. Frans continues chattering away as bombs drop incessantly nearby.

Hello! I want to talk to you about my experience with the Syrian people whom I love so much. I came to Syria in 1966 and I came to know the people through many activities and different fields. First through the schools, camping and hiking trips, and later I got to know them through psychological assistance, yoga and Zen Buddhist meditation, and through the ‘Ard Project (‘ard means “land” in Arabic), a countryside development program, and after that through the Spiritual Exercises, lectures, meetings with different groups, meetings with individuals, and visits to people. 

Thanks to this presence, I came to really love the Syrian people. I took part in beautiful things and I received the abundance and generosity of the people! Now we see a people who are really tormented, and with them I share in their treasure and in their sadness, their fear, their pain, and their death. The communion is about being present, connections, and closeness, and because of this I want to be in the heart of the people, until I move with you from hardship and loss to a new horizon—from fear to peace, sadness to joy, and death to life. I want to be with the people in the bosom of these circumstances even as we face together the labor pains, the passage, and the new birth.

If someone asks me, “Why do you love the Syrian people? What do you love in them?” I say “I love so many things about this people. Really beautiful qualities.” So I thought in these sessions (video clips) I will talk about “What do you find in the Syrian people that you like?” Today I want to talk a bit about the spirit of sharing and communion that exists in the heart of the Syria people. They like to share with others what they are living.

First we’ll look at what is around us [in our neighborhoods]. We see a mother in hard circumstances, she is cooking, but she doesn’t cook only for her own family. She is also thinking about others! After they eat they send half of the food to others, a gesture done without pretentiousness or condescension, and without feeling like “you owe me because of what I’ve given you.” No, with simplicity. 

The second thing is if we are taking a trip, and the people we meet are also living in hard circumstances and they don’t have much in the house. But we notice that they always keep something in the house for a guest. It is impossible not to give the guest something better than you what you have for yourself. They always give the guest the best of what they have. Sometimes on trips, they tell us about their pain and suffering, but always after the question they ask is, “And you, how are you?!” They love to share also the things that you are living! They can be at the peak of their own pain and still be open to the other and being together with them. 

We discover the willingness to share in our daily life, but we discovered this willingness even more in our trips and hikes outside! For example, [during a trip on foot,] we enter an orchard. And on our trips we do not allow our participants to take fruit from the trees. But sometimes, the owner of the orchard comes, and he invites us in sharing. He says: “A hundred welcomes! Here you go, young people! Eat! And a thousand ‘healths’ to you! The orchard is yours! The property is God’s [not mine].” He’s not annoyed that they ate his fruit, but he’s happy. He’s happy because he offered this opportunity to share, and he is happy to see them happy. He doesn’t think of money and he doesn’t count the cost, but he lives a partnership which is innate, brotherly, and unguarded, which flows like water from a spring. After they leave, he does not say “Thank God they left! I wish they’d never come or never been born!” No one in our society has this attitude. I’ve never heard anything like this.

For today, this is enough. We will continue talking about this sharing spirit of the Syrian people another time. 

The “Most Generous”

This Syrian spirit of generosity is not just one I learned listening to Fr. Frans’ accounts. I have also learned it from my tutor, who himself is Syrian—from Homs—and whose name means “the most generous” in Arabic. Every day I walk into class he offers me tea (which I usually accept) and he even helped my roommate and I find our current apartment. It’s thanks to him that I’ve progressed considerably in the spoken dialect, and he can’t be blamed for the fact that, like Fr. Frans, I still often mix up gender agreement of nouns and adjectives.

As we listened to and reflected on Fr. Frans’ poetic language about the Syrian people, my teacher began to share about the beautiful atmosphere of pre-war Homs. He lived much of his life in Homs, and his wife is from al-Hamidiyyeh, a Christian neighborhood famous for its charming and walkable streets. (The al-Hamidiyyeh neighborhood association is responsible for posting many of the videos of Fr. Frans.) Before the war, Homs had a vibrant culture of weekly concerts, plays, and outdoor activities. Fr. Frans was an active part of this community.

A number of years ago, my tutor and his wife attended a youth performance of Hamlet. This adaptation of the play was modern and comical, and following the show Fr. Frans delivered a lecture on the philosophy of theatre. This was my tutor’s only encounter with Fr. Frans, but he, like the rest of the city, was aware of this saintly man and his perpetual optimism. My teacher’s former neighbor in Homs knew Fr. Frans quite well, and felt he was like a father or close friend.

A misty mystery

I don’t know what exactly brought tears to my eyes, but the combination of the beautiful culture and its tragic loss; the foreign sound of bombs and the familiar sound of Shami Arabic; and the human goodness that somehow persists in the midst of evil made a lump rise in my throat. I looked over and noticed that my teacher was fighting back tears, too.

Since encountering Fr. Frans, the Syrian people, and what they have to teach us about generosity, solidarity, and communion, the tears I lacked before have started flowing more freely. I find myself crying in anger and sadness because the injustice and pain that seem unending. And I find myself crying in hope and joy because people like Fr. Frans and my tutor exist.

And I anticipate that I’ll continue crying throughout this week, this Holy Week that somehow affirms and gathers up these conflicting feelings. During the next seven days, we are invited into this paradox of tears, a place where we cannot discern whether our emotion is due to sadness or joy, death or life. The Paschal mystery of Christ’s Passion, death, and resurrection tells us that these opposites actually go hand in hand.

But this mystery also teaches us the most important lesson of our faith, which an Arabic saying captures so strikingly. That, in the end, regardless of death and sin’s pervasive power, “still, the world is good.”

Thank you Fr. Frans, and you, my Most Generous teacher, for reminding me that the blockade will be lifted, that the stone will be rolled away, and that what appears to defeat is in fact the means for everlasting life.

We are preparing ourselves to Easter, reflecting on crossing from death to resurrection. We feel like we are in the valley of the shadows, but we can see that light far away, leading us to life again…We hope that Syria experience resurrection soon again… and let’s move forward. –Fr. Frans

 

dotCommonweal: “Mercy-ing: A Starting Point for Dialogue”

In the Qur’an, God’s mercy is referenced most often in Sura Maryam, which recounts the stories of Mary, Jesus, and other Biblical characters familiar to Christians. This painting, completed by the author, features an image of Mary with the word “al-Rahman” written upon her womb. The painting is intended to spread awareness and spark conversation about the place of Mary, and the importance of mercy, in both Christianity and Islam.

In the Qur’an, God’s mercy is referenced most often in Sura Maryam, which recounts the stories of Mary, Jesus, and other Biblical characters familiar to Christians. This painting, completed by the author, features an image of Mary with the word “al-Rahman” written upon her womb. The painting is intended to spread awareness and spark conversation about the place of Mary, and the importance of mercy, in both Christianity and Islam.

My newest blog post on dotCommonweal. Start reading here and then continue by clicking “Read more.”

Amid all the excitement from the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis published by Jesuit journals worldwide, many Catholics may have missed one of the Pontiff’s more subtle communiqués: a letter sent to the head of al-Azhar University, a highly respected institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the humble style of Francis’s papacy, the Vatican did not widely announce that he had sent the letter; the press only learned of the message—which was delivered by the Vatican ambassador to Egypt and expressed his hope for “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice”—when Ahmed al-Tayyeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, made the sentiment of the letter known to the world.

While the letter’s content (only some of which was shared with the media) is not groundbreaking, Francis’ gesture has been perceived by some, like Father Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Alexandria Patriarchate of the Catholic Copts, to signal a desire for resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar. The two institutions engaged in bi-annual talks until 2011 when al-Azhar officials cited comments made by Pope Benedict as justification to discontinue the dialogue. (Read more about the freezing of the talks here.) Upon Francis’ election to the papacy, Imam al-Tayyeb sent a message to the pope, congratulating him and indicating al-Azhar’s renewed desire to restart talks.

Read more.

At a loss

When I arrived back to my apartment late on Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, I opened my laptop to find a burning, bright orange image of a man stoking fire and a New York Times headline reading, “Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt.”

As I read on about the violent demonstrations in Cairo and in Benghazi, and as I watched the offensive, bigoted video that apparently sparked these riots, my stomach began to drop.

I was at a loss for words, didn’t know what to say or even think.

How could this be happening? And why the hell was it happening on September 11th?  And what can I do that will ever, in some way, pull us out of this cycle of bigotry and violence?

Over the past week, as I’ve thought about how to comment on these unraveling events and answer these questions, no clear explanation or response has been easy to find.  Instead, I keep coming back to the place I was just before I opened my laptop to discover this terrible news—in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

“I wish you didn’t…” said the Jesuit priest who was giving the homily at the nightly 10pm Mass.  About thirty of us, mostly students, were seated in a semi-circle in the small, arched space, where faint gold light rests on the curved walls.  The stained glass windows, depicting the martyrdoms of North American Jesuits like Jean de Brebeuf, let in only darkness from outside.

“I wish you didn’t live in this time, this era, where things are so hard and unclear. I wish you were graduating at a time like the one when I did—when walls were falling down and a man was released from jail to lead his country.” Our priest graduated from Georgetown in the nineties, optimistic that the Cold War had ended and that Nelson Mandela was free.  Things seemed to be looking up—and then 9/11 happened.

“But you are living in this new, troubled world.  And our world needs you.”  He was crying, and I began to cry, too.  On the anniversary of 9/11, I’m always reminded how much my life, my passions, and my career have been shaped by that event and what’s happened after.

Our priest then spoke of the group of us gathered there for Mass, about the difference we must make.

And it was then that I became completely overwhelmed by the good that will be done (and is already being done) by the thirty-some people sitting with me.  To my right and left sat two of my closest friends, who have dedicated their lives to address two of our generation’s most pressing issues: migration and climate change.  I thought of others in the room, and my friends who weren’t there, who are going into education and business, medicine and healthcare, just to name a few.  My eyes welled over not just with amazement at my friends’ love and self-sacrifice, but also with a heavy sadness at the challenges we face and the suffering experienced by those with whom we walk in solidarity.

The priest concluded his homily, explaining why we come to Mass.  He said that it’s not inside the academic buildings on campus where we can be transformed to make the difference our world needs.

“It’s right here, with Jesus,” he said.

The crucifix in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

I’ve come to learn that becoming closer to God doesn’t mean becoming happier or even more at peace.  It means coming face-to-face with, and even entering, suffering.  Jesus was at his best on the cross, and in order for me to be a better, more loving human, I have to meet him there, both in nightly Mass and in the work I do during the other 23 hours of my day.

The loving Catholic community and the time of prayer that helps orient me toward a more Cross-centered life are the reasons I continue going to nightly Mass at Georgetown.  But I wouldn’t even be there in the first place were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics are participating in the nightly 10pm Mass, the Muslim students are completing their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah next door. Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed my Muslim friends’ devotion to prayer, and it’s made me want to have the same commitment to my own prayer life. That’s why I decided to become more active in my own Catholic community, and to make nightly Mass a regular part of my day during my senior year.

As I sort through and begin writing about these confusing, troubling “eleventh anniversary” events, which mark a new low in the downward spiral of Muslim-Christian tensions, I remember the good that will be done by those on both sides of the chapel wall, and the support we will provide one another as we take up our crosses.

When it seems that violence and bigotry will win out, the passionate commitment of these Catholic and Muslim communities remind me of the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every evening: God is greater.

Trends we can’t ignore: 4) The threat of white supremacist hate groups

The recent terrorist attack on the Sikh gurdwara was committed by Wade Page, a white supremacist and member of the hate group, Hammerskin Nation.

The attack highlights the threat of white supremacist hate groups, a threat that has been consciously sidelined by the federal government, whose leaders are cowing to political pressure.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups and hate crime in America,

Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 69 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.

Currently, there are 1,018 known hate groups operating across the country.

They also highlight the “resurgence of the antigovernment ‘Patriot’ movement,” which was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing and the other domestic terror plots in the 1990s.  “The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, grew by 755 percent in the first three years of the Obama administration – from 149 at the end of 2008 to 1,274 in 2011.”

In the past few years, groups that are specifically “anti-Muslim” have also emerged.

These are frightening statistics, and one might wonder why we haven’t heard more about them.

On a recent episode of the Diane Rehm Show, Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland Carey School of Law explains why.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report which said the greatest threat, in terms of domestic terrorism, was the growth of these white supremacist groups that is the greatest threat to stability within the United States. And it was an analytical framework of how the department and other law enforcement agencies should focus on these white supremacist groups, militia groups and hate groups. When it was issued, there was an uproar from the conservative community.

… And House Majority leader John Boehner, House minority leader at the time, now speaker, said the Department of Homeland Security owes the American people an explanation for why they have abandoned the term terrorist to describe those such as al-Qaida, who are plotting overseas to kill Americans, while our own department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking. In fact, faced with the siege of criticism, the secretary [Janet Napolitano] withdrew the report—it actually had been published—and she apologized.

… And so there is a debate right now about the analytical force of the Department of Homeland Security. There’s a lot of information that they dropped from six analysts who were looking at this problem there to one analyst. Now, I saw yesterday at the department challenges that fact, but, nevertheless, it’s in the year that this has not been a priority.”

Because of political pressure, the federal government is intentionally ignoring issues of real security. This is unacceptable and puts all Americans—and especially minorities like Muslims and Sikhs—in danger.  The federal government must not cow to pressures from right-wing extremists, whose anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric protects and legitimizes white supremacist hate.

I’ll end this post and this series on “trends we can’t ignore” with the following quote from a Huffington Post article written by Riddhi Shah in response to the terrorist attack on the Sikh gurdwara: 

Today, if we don’t ask why a small religious community in the Midwest was targeted by a 40-year-old white man, if we don’t make this discussion as loud and robust as the one that followed the attack on Gabby Giffords or on those young people in Aurora, we’re in danger of undermining what America stands for.

This series is a call to attention and awareness, a plea for a national dialogue about issues that have been ignored for far too long.

 

Note: The Norwegian terrorist who went on a politically-motivated and Islamophobic killing spree in Oslo last summer recently received his sentence–at least 22 years in prison (it should be much longer, and likely will be.)  Read Nathan Lean’s important commentary on the portrayal of the attack and the threat of white supremacist hate: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-lean-breivik-hate-groups-u.s.-20120826,0,7942204.story

Trends we can’t ignore: 3) The recent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes

My last post discussed post-9/11 hate crimes against American Sikhs, many of whom were targeted because they were thought to be Muslim.  It’s no surprise, then, that American Muslims too have experienced a wave of hate crimes directed at their own community.

The remains of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri that was destroyed by hate-motivated arson.

In the year after September 11, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by a staggering 1,600 percent.  While they decreased and remained fairly low (but still disconcerting) between 2002 and 2009, they rose by a sharp 50% in 2010 (160 reported crimes up from 107.)

Sadly, the FBI statistics are almost certainly a low estimate of the total crimes, because many go unreported or unprosecuted.  Working in an Islamic civil rights and advocacy organization last summer, I combed through pages and pages of bias incident reports and read countless articles from small, local news outlets reporting on incidents ranging from vandalism, to threatening notes, to bullying in schools.

Some may find a jump in anti-Muslim crime in 2010, almost a full decade after September 11, puzzling. But it actually makes perfect sense. 2010 was “a year marked by the incendiary rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists, especially over the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ in New York City.”

This rhetoric hasn’t let up since 2010, a point I won’t elaborate on more here because I’ve written extensively on it before.  (See “Sharia: A Fabricated Threat,” “Thoughts on King’s ‘radicalization’ hearings,” and “The Oslo Opportunity: Parts 3 and 4.” If interested in reading a paper on anti-Muslim discourse that I wrote for a course at Georgetown, I’m happy to send it to you.)

As community members fought the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee using hateful rhetoric about Muslims, the site was vandalized and the construction equipment set on fire. The mosque finally opened a few weeks ago, after years of setback due to the Islamophobic campaign. (CNN did a good piece on this last year.)

Though statistics on anti-Muslim hate crimes for 2011 and 2012 are not yet available, the dozens and dozens of individual cases I’ve read about over the past two years indicate that the numbers will likely be just as grim as they were in 2010.

After the attack on the Sikh gurdwara on August 5th, a shooting likely motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Muslim bias attacks skyrocketed. Over the course of eight days, 11 major attacks were reported across the country.  Mosques were sprayed with paint balls and rubber bullets, hit with lemons, eggs, and pigs’ legs.  The home of a Muslim family, and a mosque, were fire-bombed with Molotov cocktails.  The grave of a prominent Arab leader was desecrated with the words “raghaed” (sic) and “killer, and the headstones of other Muslims were also graffitied.  And a mosque in Joplin, Miss. was burned to the ground (and this was the second time in about a month it had been targeted in arson.)  And these are only incidents that have occurred in the last few weeks.

One of the many desecrated headstones in Chicago 

cemeteryDid perpetrators have some sort of sick notion that the success of one attack (in Wisconsin) legitimized more? Who knows.  Was the spike in attacks intentional, given that they occurred during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan? Maybe.

Quoted in a Salon article, Ahmad Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago asks:

How long are we going to go pretending like there is no relationship between this acquiescence of hatred and politics and the inclination of violence on the ground? …You cannot demonize a community and then be surprised when they’re under attack.

Many of the aforementioned attacks took place in Illinois, shortly after a notoriously Islamophobic congressman, Joe Walsh, alleged at a town hall meeting:

that “radical Islam” had made a home in the suburbs of Chicago; that “it’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here”; and that radical Muslims are “trying to kill Americans every week.” Walsh’s warnings were met with applause. (Salon)

Sadly, Walsh is only one of many politicians, media personalities, and “activists” spewing this crap.  In many parts of America and in many sectors of the media, this kind of talk is mainstream and goes unchallenged.

But this wave of attacks—this trend sparked by “acceptable” anti-Muslim rhetoric—hardly ever gets media attention outside of local community where it takes place.  It’s a national problem that isn’t being treated as such.

Though it received attention among Muslim activists and some interfaith leaders, the arson at the mosque in Joplin, Miss. was not covered like the Sikh tragedy was.  Most Americans were probably unaware of it.  True, no one died as a result of the arson.  But it is one frightening example of anti-Muslim hate that, like the Sikh shooting, must be treated as an opportunity to illuminate and address the roots and implications of racism and xenophobia in our country.  I wish more human rights and faith organizations had stepped up, like they did with the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara, issuing press statements about the mosque attack (and this trend of hate crimes I’ve discussed,) not only to rightfully condemn it, but also to push the issue into the national spotlight.

In a New York Times op-ed entitled, “If the Sikh temple had been a mosque,” Samuel Freedman writes about how anti-Muslim hate is (disturbingly) more expected—and maybe even more acceptable—to many Americans.

The mistaken-identity narrative carries with it an unspoken, even unexamined premise. It implies that somehow the public would have — even should have — reacted differently had Mr. Page turned his gun on Muslims attending a mosque. It suggests that such a crime would be more explicable, more easily rationalized, less worthy of moral outrage.

“Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it,” said Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar on religion. “And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.”

Convinced by the media that Muslims are violent and threatening, some white Americans may see threats and violence committed against Muslims as a logical response.

A sad and sick example of this logic was illustrated by someone who commented on one of my YouTube videos.  Calling Muslims “scum” and claiming that “one day we will be throwing their muslim (sic) butts out of America,” he told me to stop “betraying” my “own people and country.”  I visited his YouTube account, where I found his public list of his “Favorite” videos.  One of them was called “Top ten mosques to bomb.”  It showed photos of large, beautiful mosques around the world, and then a big mushroom cloud would appear in their places. This man was advocating violence against Muslims, so (wrongly) convinced that they were a danger to him.  This man had become the barbarian that he claimed to be fighting.

The trend of rising anti-Muslim hate crimes in America is one that can’t be ignored.  When the public sees the concrete (and horrific) effects of anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Islamophobic language that is so mainstream will become quickly become unacceptable.

Tomorrow’s post, the final in the series, will discuss the threat of white supremacist hate groups in America.