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.

Islam & women piece: Seeking questions from my readers

“Why do you cover your hair? Do you have to?”

“You’ve never had a boyfriend. Will you ever date before you get married?”

“Why do you and the other girls stand behind men when you pray?  Why don’t women lead Friday prayers?”

“Muhammad had several wives.  Is polygamy still ok in Islam?”

Before coming to Georgetown, these are some of the questions that I had for Muslim women, but I didn’t have any way to get real and thoughtful answers.  I knew of a few women in my community, but not well enough that I felt I could talk to them about these deep and complex topics.

Sadly, for many Americans, this image defines their understanding of the relationship between Islam and women.

Despite the fact that we as Americans hear so much about “Islam” in the news, good resources about Islam and its female followers are hard to come by.  The only resources we have to guide our understanding about Muslim women are books like A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (the author of The Kite Runner) and news articles like TIME’s recent cover story about abused Afghan women—accounts which are not representative of the lives lived by many American Muslim women.  The most important means for understanding—daily interaction with real people, in this case, Muslim women—is not something that most people have.  I didn’t have it either.

Since coming to Georgetown, I have fortunately had those daily connections that have helped me answer my questions about Islam and women.  Spending classroom time my Arabic professor and TA; meeting female leaders and mothers affiliated with the campus; and forming friendships with students have provided me with a perspective of Islam and women that I wouldn’t have possibly received by simply watching the news or reading popular fiction.

However, many other Americans still have many of the questions I did, and they lack the daily interactions that can help provide answers.

In order to remedy this in the smallest way, this winter a Muslim friend and I will be writing a joint piece for my blog about women and Islam.

Finn (left) and Sam (right) from Glee

It is this friend* who initially provided me with this interaction. During my first semester, we became instant friends and she is now one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.  In between watching hilarious Youtube clips and arguing over whether Sam from Glee has an awkwardly big mouth, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what it means for her to be a Muslim women in America today.   She and I both think that her first person accounts can help give non-Muslim Americans a new, much-needed look into the lives and perspectives of Muslim women.

The piece (which will probably turn into a series of smaller pieces) will look like this:  I will organize a series of questions that my friend will respond to based on her personal experiences.  I will add any context that may be useful to a non-Muslim or Christian audience.

Because of our deep immersion in these topics, it is difficult for her and I to step back and identify what specific questions should drive the piece.  We don’t know what many Americans want and need to hear about.

This is where my readers come in.  What questions do you have?  Is there something you’ve heard relating to women and Islam that discomforts you or makes you curious?

I will be happy to receive any and all questions you may have.  To encourage you to ask whatever is on your mind, I will keep your questions anonymous when I use them in my piece.  Even my friend, who will be responding to the questions, will not know their origin.

So please do not worry about sounding insensitive, uninformed, or politically incorrect—all questions expressed respectfully are valid.  Meaningful and productive discussions require that we address all of our thoughts and questions.

If you know of a family member or friend who may have questions but who doesn’t read the blog, send them the link so they can submit a question.

My friend and I greatly appreciate your questions and support of this project.

My email address is jed56@georgetown.edu.  You can send me your questions there, or post them in the comments section of the blog.

*You probably noticed that I did not use my friend’s name in this post.  Because she doesn’t want her name floating around in the blogosphere, she has decided to work on this project under a pseudonym (we haven’t picked it yet).  Also, given the nature of this honest discussion and the increased hostility we’ve recently seen directed toward Muslims in America and Europe, this will allow her to respond without worrying whether her statements will be taken out of context and used against her later.

Reflections on 9/11, Part 1

This weekend is a unique one.  Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan.  Tomorrow, Americans of all faiths will mourn the ninth anniversary of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

It seems quite ironic that these two days–arguably the most significant days for Muslims in America and around the world–fall on the same weekend.  Clearly, these days are important for different reasons.  Ramadan and Eid mark a time of self-sacrifice, community, friendship, and peace for Muslims, while the anniversary of September 11th marks a day of slaughter and the beginning of a trend of fear, suspicion, and division.  At a time during which Muslims are celebrating the vitality of their peaceful community, many in America are using Islam’s (distant but exaggerated) connection to the September 11 attacks to cast a shadow of fear and mistrust over the religion and its people.

The fact that this holiday and day of memorial fall on the same weekend–that they are connected and unable to be separated–is symbolic of the relationship between the Muslim community (here and abroad) and post-9/11 America.  One cannot be understood without the other.

The occurrence of these two events on the same weekend offers me the perfect opportunity to address many of my recent concerns about America’s response to Islam in the post-9/11 world.

I’ll break up my thoughts into three topics and post them over three days:

PAST: Today, on September 10th, I’ll discuss the U.S. reaction to 9/11 and the steady increase of Islamophobia over the past nine years.

PRESENT: Tomorrow, on September 11th, I’ll discuss this current moment of crisis in the relationship between Islam and post-9/11 America.  I’ll specifically make comments about the recent events like the Park 51 controversy, planned Qur’an burning, hate crimes, etc.

FUTURE: On Sunday, September 12th, I’ll talk about the actions that we as individuals and as a country must take in order to reverse this trend of Islamophobia, and I’ll offer a historical example after which we can model our actions now and in the future.

I urge you to share your views as well, or at least give yourself some time to think about these issues.

9/10: Looking at the past nine years

In my International Relations lecture last week, the professor asked my classmates and I to identify the event that first caused us to think about international relations–the event that made us realize there was a bigger world outside our city or country.  I, along with over half of the class, responded that September 11, 2001 was this event.

Though we didn’t realize it as 10-year-old fifth graders, the attacks would greatly change the spirit and culture of our country.  Before the attacks, Americans were confident about our country’s rising status and power in the world.  With the fall of the Soviets 10 years before and a booming economy, it seemed nothing could stand in our way.

On September 11th that changed.  It appeared that our way of life was being challenged by a mysterious and hostile entity.  The climate of confidence reversed completely, becoming one defined by fear.  Suspicion and judgement were tools we were urged by our government to use, or else we’d risk being attacked again.  A pall of xenophobia began to descend slowly over our country as foreigners and even citizens of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage were questioned about their patriotism and motives.

This climate of fear prevented our country from having a much needed national discussion about the key question surrounding the attacks: Why did this happen? If this question had been grappled with–if knowledgeable scholars, journalists, activists, and civilians had been consulted–then the second important question, “What can we do to prevent this from happening again?” might have been answered in a way that didn’t result in two foreign wars that have only increased hostility toward the U.S.

One thing that didn’t change on 9/11 (something that desperately needed to change) was American ignorance, and our tendency to act on that ignorance.  Before 9/11 we were unaware the implications of our policy decisions in the Middle East and South Asia, and how often those military and political actions produced feelings of anti-American sentiment in the places we affected.  Today is no different; we act without real forethought and with little knowledge.  Except today our actions are not driven so much by confidence but by fear, which is a much more dangerous motivator.

Our fear prevents us from learning how to better conduct our foreign policy, but even more problematic is how it affects our daily interactions with and perceptions of our fellow Americans.  The fear that stemmed from 9/11 encourages us to continue living in ignorance–to not learn about and not reach out to those who may appear to fit the ethnic or religious profile of a “terrorist”. We cling to our old notions, or ones fed to us by prominent politicians who fear-monger in order to maintain or regain power.  The media simultaneously magnifies and mystifies issues surrounding Islam through its 24-hour coverage that somehow still fails to provide in-depth and balanced information.  This news coverage only reinforces our incorrect stereotypes.

This ignorance propped up by fear has allowed many Americans to believe that Islam the religion perpetrated 9/11.  Many are unable to make the distinction between those who hijacked religion in an attempt to justify a political cause with those who practice that religion in order to serve God and neighbor.  Because of their fear, they refuse to take a close look at Islam and subsequently come to false conclusions about this religion of 1.5 billion people.

9/11 offered us an important opportunity for expelling this ignorance and we failed to take advantage of it.  Instead we only allowed it to grow quietly and slowly.  It wasn’t right after 9/11 that I heard anti-Islamic remarks from acquaintances, received anti-Islamic emails from family friends, and heard broad generalizations and unfair associations spewed by politicians.  It was several years down the road that the Islamophobia began to make its way out of the woodwork (at least in my experience.) This trend of American Islamophobia has been rising over the past decade, but it moved quietly, subtly and slowly.  Only during the past summer has it exploded into full view, as politicians hope to bring out and harness this fear in order to regain power in the fall elections.

A national discussion about Islam in post-9/11 America has begun, but the dialogue seems to be increasing tensions rather than alleviating them.  And sadly this discussion is happening nine years too late.

Also, I’d like to wish “Eid Mubarak” to all of my Muslim friends, especially those here at Georgetown University.