Diet Advice from the Caliph

The walls of the priest’s office were lined with black-and-white photographs of his father donning a checkered Jordanian kufiyyeh and his little sister wearing her white First Communion dress. Newer pictures of Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, Roman Catholic bishops of Jordan, and Pope John Paul II, flanked the family shots. 

But the most striking images in Fr. Hanna’s office were the plainest ones: white sheets of paper with Arabic and English quotations spoken by famous individuals. There were sayings by Martin Luther King, Jr., Aristotle, and even a character from the film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But the most commonly quoted leader was someone less familiar in the Western world: Ali bin Abi Talib, one of Islam’s most important caliphs and Fr. Hanna’s “beloved friend.”

Fr. Hanna is a scholar of Christian history in the Middle East and an ecumenical and interfaith leader in Jordan. I visited his parish in outskirts of Amman to talk about my research on Muslim-Christian relations and the media in Jordan. For Fr. Hanna, like every Jordanian, interfaith dialogue is not simply an interest, but a way of life. For over a thousand years, Muslims and Christians have lived together—drinking coffee, doing business, watching each others’ kids, and even celebrating holidays—without a thought. They’ve rubbed off a lot of each other, both theologically and culturally, and Fr. Hanna’s affinity for the caliph Ali demonstrates that.

The words of Ali were scrawled in loopy Arabic calligraphy, so Fr. Hanna deciphered and translated them for me into English. One phrase talked about rejecting a wealthy lifestyle, and another warned about getting overly attached to worldly relationships. But Fr. Hanna’s favorite quote of Ali’s is a bit more practical: it was diet advice.

We walked into the kitchen, where the phrase was pasted above the table and next to a sparkly, woven image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It read, “Whatever you limit yourself to is enough.” He told me that the phrase keeps him from eating too much. “If I limit myself to a banana for dinner, and tell myself it’s enough, then it will be,” he said.

But Fr. Hanna does not just eat small meals just to watch his weight; he, like Ali, recognizes the spiritual benefits of fasting. We talked about how many Catholics in the West have abandoned the practice which Muslims, who fast for the entire month of Ramadan, and ِEastern Orthodox Christians, who have a number of strict fasting periods, have maintained. We agreed that Western Christians should re-adopt fasting, which diverts the mind from the body and instead directs it toward God.

Still standing in the kitchen, Father told me a final Arabic saying which illustrates the deep connections between Christians and Muslims. “We say that ‘the heart of a Muslim is a little bit Christian, and the heart of a Christian is a little bit Muslim.’ It’s because Muslims receive so much of their religious heritage from Christianity and because Christians here have been so influenced by Islamic beliefs and culture.”

This sharing, or “enculturation” as Fr. Hanna put it, is at the heart of religious life  in Jordan and in the Middle East more largely. How beautiful it was to be reminded of it there, standing beside the ornate words of a beloved Muslim and an image of Jesus, whose glittering, open heart is made up of a little bit of all of us.

The image of Jesus' Sacred Heart and Ali's quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.
The image of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and Ali’s quote depicted in two styles of Arabic calligraphy.

To learn more about Ali, click here.

To read more about surprising similarities between Christians and Muslims, check out my latest post for Commonweal.

9/11/11: A new American anniversary

In my most recent posts, I’ve discussed the terrorist attacks in Norway, offering quite a depressing analysis of their causes and implications, many of which are related to Islamophobia in America.  Fear of Muslims existed in the American psyche before September 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks ten years ago only amplified and cemented those feelings for many Americans.

Despite the horrible backlash we’ve seen against Muslims in the wake of 9/11, I am quite optimistic about the future of America and its relationship with its Muslim community.  The United States, unlike Europe, has an identity rooted in diversity and faith, and re-embracing these values will allow us to fight back against the Islamophobic forces in our society.

Diversity

When immigrants began coming to America 400 years ago, they sought a place that would embrace their differentness.  When they established our country decades later, America’s founders intended to make our nation a place for diversity and the mixing of cultures.  Unlike those in Europe, our identity as Americans is defined by the fact that there is no one language, ethnic background, or religious affiliation that we all share.  Ironically, our unity stems from our differences.

Some Americans want new immigrants (like Latinos and Muslims) to ‘assimilate’ into American life and culture.  But is it possible to assimilate into diversity? Participation in our society doesn’t mean conforming to arbitrary standards that the often too powerful majority would like to set.  Rather, being an American means adding one’s unique history and perspective to the already-colorful American landscape.

If we look back on our history, most minority ethnic or religious groups have experienced discrimination and marginalization, especially during periods of economic uncertainty and war.  Catholics, Japanese, blacks, and Jews were perceived to be un-American and their racial, religious, or national heritage was seen as incompatible with being a loyal American.  Today, labeling members of these groups as un-American seems laughable—these people are irreplaceable contributors to American life.

Today, we see the marginalization of Muslims in the movement to ban sharia, attempts to block the construction of Islamic centers, and hate protests and crimes directed toward Muslims and their institutions.  But looking back at our history, we see that it is possible for us to outgrow our fear of the ‘other’ as we begin to see the important contributions that minority groups make to our society.

My hope in American progress and the eventual acceptance of the ‘other’ lies in stonework that was recently erected on the Washington Mall: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  Fifty years ago, the persecution and marginalization of African-Americans was rampant and deemed appropriate by many Americans, and today, an African-American prophet is honored among the founders of our country and a black man leads our nation as president.

Faith

The United States is also fortunate to be a country rooted in religion.  In a recent Pew report, over 80% of Americans identified themselves with a particular religious tradition.  This is in contrast to the increasingly secularized Europe, where most citizens say that religion does not play an important role in their lives.  The levels of religiosity in America and Europe directly correlate to the regions’ level of acceptance of Muslims.  Religious people in America have something in common with Muslims—a belief in God and a devotion to their faith life—as opposed to Europeans who lack this point of commonality.  Thus, the marginalization and discrimination of Muslims has been far less in America than in Europe.

The founding fathers wanted America to be a place of vibrant and diverse religiosity, and explicitly included Islam in their vision for the country.  Thomas Jefferson praised the Virginia commonwealth for including religious protections for all people in its constitution, saying: “[the lawmakers] meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim].”  Proud to own a copy of the Qur’an, Jefferson was the first president to hold a Ramadan iftar at the White House.  John Locke, George Washington, and others whose ideas shaped our nation were accepting of and welcoming to Muslims in England and America.

Building unity

Recognizing and embracing America’s unique claims on diversity and faith will help us respond to the Islamophobia plaguing our country.  Thanks to these two values, America has a chance to reverse anti-Muslim sentiment before it escalates to the level it has in Europe (where we see openly Islamophobic political parties, infringements on Muslims’ religious freedom, and violent attacks, culminating the terrorism committed by Anders Brevik in July.)

Gospel choir at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.

Yesterday, diversity and faith were brought together at the 9/11 Unity Walk in Washington.  Teenagers in yarmulkes, mothers in hijabs, small children, and little old ladies strode down Embassy Row, visiting houses of worship, asking questions, andsharing their experiences of faith in America.  We heard from religious leaders and interfaith activists like Tony Blair, Karen Armstrong, and Arun Gandhi, Mohandis Gandhi’s grandson.  A D.C. gospel choir sang on the steps of the mosque, nuns gave out cookies at the Vatican embassy, and the Islamic call to prayer was recited at the synagogue.

I was most struck by my experience at the Islamic center as I stood in a long line of girls and older women, waiting to enter the prayer room.  As a sign of respect, women must cover their arms, legs, and hair in the mosque (traditionally men dress conservatively as well,) and girls like me, who were clad in shorts and t-shirts for the hot weather, had to wait to be offered a long jellabiyya and colorful scarf before going in.

Many American women misunderstand Islamic covering and feel that it is demeaning, and knowing this I was overwhelmed almost to tears by the enthusiasm of these non-Muslim women, who chose to cover themselves to enter the mosque.  These women chose to challenge the deep assumptions Westerners have about Islam and women, and decided to be open-minded and curious, withholding judgment until they’d had the experience.  While it was clear that all the women were not fully comfortable with covering (myself included—and I cover quite often,) that didn’t stop them from participating or asking questions respectfully.

The line of women waiting for scarves.

This attitude of openness and respect imbued the walk, and I wish that more Americans could have seen this wonderful example of how we must engage with those who are different from us.

9/11/11: A new date to remember

September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade of divisions—political, religious, and social.  It will remain on our calendars and in our hearts as a day of mourning for generations.

Now, September 11, 2011 offers us an opportunity to begin a new decade, one in which we choose to foster unity through an engagement with diversity and faith.  Let’s make sure we remember this new date, too, and hopefully in ten years, we’ll look back on September 11 not only with sadness, but also with joy.

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. Arun Gandhi, center.

The souls of our shoes: A reflection on Egypt

On Thursday night, as Mubarak defiantly refused to step down from the presidency, the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square held their shoes high above their heads, making

Egyptians holding up their shoes in Tahrir Square on Thursday night.

visible their soles and directing them symbolically toward Mubarak.  In the Arab world, this action—showing someone the sole of your shoe— is a sign of upmost disrespect.  Raising these shoes seemed to be a final act of frustration in a thirty-year, and a three-week, struggle against the Mubarak regime.  And as we saw yesterday, Mubarak has left (Alhamdulilah!/Thank God!).

What is amazing about this revolution is that it wasn’t only the Egyptians holding up their shoes—the world was doing it with them. By Tweeting messages of solidarity, watching live Al-Jazeera coverage in Arabic class, and posting relevant articles on our Facebook pages, we were virtually shaking our shoes and shouting “Huria” (Freedom) along with the democracy protestors across Egypt.  If the Iranian protests of 2009 showed us the potential of social media in fighting oppression, Egypt showed us social media’s power in action.

Youtube clip: American girls protesting in solidarity

My favorite example of Internet solidarity was a YouTube video posted by an American family.  After watching the protests on TV, the man’s four daughters didn’t want to go sleep; they were too excited and wanted to participate in whatever way they could.  So these four little blonde girls marched around their living room with signs of support and shouting Arabic phrases, and their dad taped it. I almost cried while watching it.  I commend these parents so much for educating their young children about current events and the importance of standing in solidarity with others.  As a parent, I hope I can encourage this kind of curiosity and compassion in my kids.

While the Egyptian people did receive support from many Americans and others around the world, their movement lacked support from most democratic governments, most notably the US, who claims to be a beacon of democracy.  Our government has advocated democracy in word and in deed in other countries, yet regarding Egypt, the US government’s support of the democracy movement was weak.  The Obama Administration was unwilling to criticize Mubarak’s regime (an old ally), and the administration’s call for non-violence rightly fell on deaf ears when discarded tear gas canisters were found bearing the words “Made in the USA.”

Despite the fact that these demonstrations lacked institutional support and rejected violence except in cases of self-defense, the Egyptian people were able to successfully oust their president, the symbol of their oppressive regime.  This fact is utterly mind-blowing and gives me and so many others a renewed belief in the power of grassroots organizing and non-violent responses to oppression.

This event should also prove something to America and the West: that democracy can grow organically from within Arab countries; rather than being imposed on the West’s terms, internal efforts for democracy should be supported.  The US must realize and be willing to accept that the new Egyptian government is likely to be anti-American in some form.  If I were one of the Egyptians, who have experienced how American tear gas and tax dollars have been used to bolster the Mubarak regime for 30 years, I too would want my new government to have little to do with the US.

Many others and I have also been struck by the lack of formal ideology that has fueled this democracy movement.  The Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the protests initially, and though they joined later on, they were not motivating the demonstrations.  The protesters were driven to stand in Tahrir for three weeks straight—some of them even living there—because of purely practical political, economic, and civil grievances.  Even if the democracy movement becomes more ideologically driven and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the West doesn’t need to worry as much as I expect it will.  The Brotherhood is portrayed in Western media as being more radical than they are, according to a Georgetown professor who talked a few weeks back on the Daily Show.

For me, the most powerful images of the past three weeks were these:

Qur'an and Cross held high in Tahrir Square
Christian+Muslim=Egypt
Christian and Muslim women in Tahrir. (Photo credit: Joel Carillet)

On Friday, February 4th, while Muslims prayed in Tahrir Square, the Christians made a human barrier around the worshipers, who then reciprocated for the Christians as they prayed on Sunday the 6th (which was dubbed “Day of the Martyrs”).  Throughout the demonstrations, Muslims and Christians have been standing aside one another, defending one another, in order to help achieve their common goal of a free and unified country.

We in America and the West must look to and learn from this example of solidarity. Despite the tense and dangerous situation in which they find themselves, the Egyptian people, both Christians and Muslims, are able to put aside their differences and become unified.  If they, while defending their lives in a violent and hostile environment, can come together in decency, respect, and friendship, why can’t we?

In this era of mistrust and hostility between Muslims and Christians in the West, I urge all of us to lower our shoes, which we’ve held up for so long in disrespect.  Instead, we must put our shoes back on and stand side by side, so our true souls can be seen.

 

Note: I’ve also wanted to write about the journalists who have bravely covered the protests, but that will probably come at another time.  In the meantime, I thank them for the sacrifices they made and the risks they took.  Many have been violently targeted because of their noble and important work.

Also, the events in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world may have massive implications for many college students’ study abroad plans–including my own.  Hopefully I’ll post on that topic as well.