Sunday, December 28, 2008
  Why did Hamas attack?
Reports about the situation in Gaza are, as usual, so one-sided as to give an incomprehensible picture to the American populace.

We have been told in numerous reports why Israel has launched this new offensive in Gaza... hundreds of missiles raining down upon Israel. None of the news reports I have read even asked the obvious questions of 1) why did Hamas refuse to renew a cease-fire eight days ago, and 2) why have they been launching missiles at Israel, a seemingly futile gesture as only a handful of Israelis had actually been killed or injured in their attacks, and they gave Israel an excuse to retaliate, which has cost some 300 Palestinians their lives.

Since we all know that Hamas has been classified as a terrorist organization, we are left to assume the refusal to renew the cease-fire and the increase in missile attacks are out of pure hatred of Jews, the desire to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, or some other unsupportable malice.

Perhaps these are actually the reasons behind Hamas's recent moves. One suspects, however, that it has a lot more to do with the terrible situation in Gaza created largely by Israel's closure of all border crossings after Hamas seized power in Gaza some two years ago.

Back in March, eight months ago, a consortium of British aid organizations found that conditions in Gaza were the worst in 40 years due to the near total blockage of that country by Israel. This consortium reported that "80 percent of Gaza's population is now dependent on food aid and that Gaza's power, water and sewage systems have collapsed."

"In four weeks, 65,000 jobs were lost. Ninety percent of the manufacturing industry was shut down," Michael Bailey of the Jerusalem OXFAM said. "Forty thousand people in the agricultural industry are finding it very hard to maintain their jobs and eight out of ten families in Gaza are dependent on food aid."

Bailey says 300,000 people in Gaza do not have regular supplies of water and 60 tons of raw sewage is discharged into the ocean every day because sewage treatment plants no longer work. He says many schools also do not have power. As a result he says Gaza's educational system has broken down, and children there fail basic tests in rudimentary subjects. Bailey and the other groups behind the report say they blame Israel for the situation because it controls Gaza's borders.

"We are saying that because Israel is still in control, it is still the occupying power even though they (Israel) are not inside Gaza; they control all the borders, the air and the sea space," Bailey said. "Therefore whoever is in charge inside Gaza, they are really powerless to control and economy that depends 90 percent on imports for any manufacturing or productivity."

As of this November, the crossings remained closed with few exceptions. A report by the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel reported that during November, only one crossing (Kerem Shalom) had been open for four days only (17, 24, 26 and 27 November), with limited quantities of humanitarian food supplies allowed through.

Latest UN figures showed that unemployment has risen to 49 per cent and that half of Gaza City’s residents receive water only once a week for a few hours. Homes are also without electricity for up to 16 hours a day.

American newspapers rarely, if ever, report on this terribly bleak picture. Or on both sides of the story. Israel says the closures were necessary because Hamas, which ultimately seeks an end to Israel itself and the return of all the land to Palestinians, seized control of Gaza and Israel cannot allow militant terrorists to import weapons by those border crossings. Hamas says the missile attacks are in response to Israeli closures, which violate international law, and because Israel violated the cease-fire when it blew up a tunnel that was being build to circumvent these closed border last month. Israel says it has to respond to missile attacks on its civilians and that it is justified in sending 100s of tons of bombs into mosques, medicine factories, police stations, and even schools because of them. And that despite the cease fire, it had the right to bomb the tunnel because for the same reason it had the right to close the border crossings in the first place. On and on and on, around and around and around in a never ending circle of blaming the other while continuing to commit atrocities.

Until we understand the endless circle of blame, and how each side refuses to take responsibility for continuing the cycle of violence, we will never be able to successful in brokering peace. Until each side stops and says, we have done horrific things in the pursuit of our goals, in some form of the Truth and Reconciliation process as we saw in South Africa, there is little likelihood of a lasting peace.

One can only hope that process begins sooner rather than later.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
  Christmas and the lesson of Ashura
Today I'm going over to a Muslim friend's house. We are having a mid-afternoon dinner of roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, followed by a variety of pies. I'm bringing... guacamole, which is a bit of an odd contribution I admit, but probably we'll save it for early evening during the card games we plan to play. I also an invite to a potluck at our masjid this evening, which, obviously, I won't be able to go to, but I have to admit, I'm glad I'm not going to be sitting alone on Christmas Day.

Christmas hoopla can leave everyone feeling out of place. For those of us who grew up celebrating Christmas, but have now embraced a religion that doesn't observe the holiday, fond memories of family traditions create particularly bittersweet feelings. I'm glad not to be part of the whole Christmas commercial/material rat race, but at the same time, I miss the warm family togetherness, the special time with family and friends. The smell of pine, and the beauty of Christmas lights (at least some people's Christmas lights), the catchy melodies of carols, the fun of giving and getting gifts will always evoke special feelings in me. To sit by and watch the majority of society participate in the holiday makes one feel particularly lonely.

Obviously, I'm not the only one feeling this way, since several families are getting together at my friend's home, and people at the masjid are getting together for a potluck. It reminds me of Halloween, when they always have a game night for the kids at the mosque, as many Muslim families don't participate in Halloween.

Some people think these alternative "celebrations" are a sign of weakness of faith. If you were truly satisfied as a Muslim, you wouldn't need an alternative to keep you from feeling left out. The two Eids would be more than enough. But, naturally, Eid traditions differ from Christmas traditions, and Eid doesn't fall on Christmas day, when the entire nation collectively takes a breath and pauses.

Which brings me to Ashura. When the Prophet and his community came to Medina, they found that the people of Medina celebrated Ashura. It was a day of fasting (and no doubt feasting at night) commemorating the freeing of the Jews from Egypt under Moses's guidance. The Prophet told his community to fast as well because Muslims also revere Moses as one of the prophets. Some of the people asked if that wouldn't be copying the Jews, and the Prophet said, ok, so fast the day before or the day after as well. That is, celebrate the holiday, but in our own way.

It seems to me this story validates our alternative dinners, and perhaps even more overt celebrations as well. The prophet saw that his community would feel left out of a commemoration that all the other people of Medina were celebrating. It was a celebration for a good cause (the freedom from slavery for an entire people!) and remembrance of a great Prophet. So too Christmas is a remembrance of a great prophet in Islam. Christmas celebrations didn't really catch on as a cultural phenomenon until well after the Prophet died. One wonders if he would have had his community commemorate Christmas as well, if it had been a current tradition in Medina. Certainly, it seems like he might well have.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
  Buy a book by a black author and give to a non-black friend month
Ok, so you've never heard of this "month" either. Literacy month? Read to kids month? Poetry month? Sure. But give a white friend a novel authored by a black person month?

Carleen Brice makes an excellent argument for doing so in this article in the Washington Post.

She suggests a trip to one of the major chain bookstores... "Walk past the general fiction section, and you'll find the African American fiction section. The shelves there will be lined with all the same subjects you find in the rest of the bookstore. The one thing linking them is that the authors are black. It's very handy if all you read is fiction by black people. You can go right to your "special section." Someone like me, who enjoys a wider variety of reading, might look in both general fiction and the black fiction section. I'm black and would never feel out of place browsing in the black books section. A white reader, on the other hand, might not take that same look and might not know that the books exist at all."

After describing how a local bookstore is being asked by black readers to have a section for black authors she continues...

"To me, it seems a bit ironic that, at a time when black authors are fighting not to be marginalized, some black readers are asking for African American fiction sections. But I can understand their reasons. Some blacks read only books by black authors out of loyalty or a desire to keep seeing stories about themselves in print. It makes sense that they'd like to find those books in one location, but it also speaks to the way readers have come to expect a dividing line, books clearly marked "us" and "them."

Most of the writers I know, and that includes people from all races, write with the assumption that our work can touch anyone. Some of us write specifically to touch people who may not have our perspective, come from our ethnic background. The ghettoization of African American authors to a "black writers" section, while it may be an attempt to serve a particular readership, at worst excludes valuable points of view, interesting stories, and, most importantly, prevents the building of bridges.

As a writer, I believe the written word, especially fiction, has an immense power to put us in other people's shoes. White Americans, especially thoughtful, liberal and progressive types, often say, "I can't really, truly know what it is like to grow up black in America because I didn't grow up black in America." Fiction (and non-fiction) has the potential to help us understand, not on an intellectual level -- the level that talks of systemic discrimination, underfunded schools, and underground racism that no longer is fashionable to mouth aloud, but which colors every day interactions -- but on a visceral level, an emotional level. It also has the power to reinforce the idea that we are all human first, with the same loves, fears, hopes and dreams.

Brice writes, "My first novel, "Orange Mint and Honey," is about the adult child of an alcoholic and her now-sober mother. A few months after it was published this year, I got an e-mail from a reader. "I bet you never thought a middle-aged white guy would read your book and cry," he wrote.

I guess I'm naïve, but yeah, I did kind of hope that I might get a few teary-eyed white-guy readers. While I was writing, I wasn't thinking about the characters being black, and I certainly never thought of their story as "a black story.""

That, I believe, is the most important lesson fiction can teach us. We may celebrate different holidays, wear different styles of clothing, eat different foods, but fundamentally, the human experience is universal.

So, mom, what do you want for Christmas? Brice's book? Or how about a sci-fi book off one of the Carl Brandon lists. They have Black, Asian Pacific, Latino, and American Indian. Or maybe books by and about Muslims?
Saturday, December 20, 2008
  Holdren, Lubchenco and creationism
At last, some cabinet appointees to make progressives smile. John Holdren -- nominated to head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy -- and Jane Lubchenco -- nominated to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees ocean and atmospheric studies and does much of the government's research on global warming -- are both advocates for strong governmental action on global warming. Holdren with also direct the president's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology , along with Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institute of Health, and Eric Lander a professor of biology at MIT.

Holdren's position on global warming? "Global warming is a misnomer. It implies something gradual, something uniform, something quite possibly benign, and what we're experiencing is none of those," he has said. "There is already widespread harm ... occurring from climate change. This is not just a problem for our children and our grandchildren."

In announcing these new nominations, Obama said, "The truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources — it's about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology."

Perhaps we won't have to worry about those who want to add creationism to our science curriculum anymore!

Speaking of creationism, a recent article in the New Scientist talked about the challenge of teaching evolution in the Muslim world where there is widespread ignorance about what the theory of evolution actually says, and something like 80-85% of the people reject it in favor of creationism. According to the article, many Muslims reject evolution simply because it is Western, and is perceived as the underpinning of Western moral decadence -- a colonialist doctrine that undermined the Christian church and will undermine Islam if allowed (so they think).

Complicating this is the current trend to read the Qur'an very, very literally. For many Muslims, every parabale in the Qur'an is taken as historical fact. While Qur'anic literalism makes more sense to me than Biblical literalism given the different natures of the Qur'an and the Bible, I still believe that the power of the stories in both the Qur'an and the Bible comes from the lessons one can learn from them about spirituality, human nature, the relationship between the Divine and the Mundane.

Whether Adam and Eve are literally the first two humans ever to walk on earth or not, their story of sin, repentance and forgiveness* teaches us all about our own human frailities, how we should confront our mistakes and our wilfull evils, and, most importantly, it shows God's clemency towards us. The power in the story is not about how humanity was made, but about what it means to be human, and the fundamental relationship between god and humankind.

So too, other stories in the Qur'an teach us important lessons, serve as brilliant inspiration whether or not they are literally true. Another example -- Abraham's people trying to burn him alive, his composure in face of this terrible hatred, and his survival unscathed. You can take this as a miracle -- a special boon granted to Abraham by God, proof of how special he was (which is how it is often taught in sunday school) -- or you can look at it allegorically. In this day and age, when many American Muslims feel under fire from their neighbors, the story can inspire us to calm and composure, to steadfastness in the face of our challenges, and give us hope that on the other side of this trial there is wholeness and a position of peace, even of strength.

Of course, it seems so often when Muslim kids are taught these stories, it is the facts of the story that are taught rather than the lessons we can learn from them.

Back to evolution... what I find most ironic is that many of the concepts of evolution were propounded in the 9th century by an Islamic scientist, Al Jahiz. (Even more ironic is that Al-Jahiz saw black men as the end result of human progress, while the while Europeans of the late 19th century saw white men as that same pinnacle of human evolution...). Anyway, here's to hoping science wins out over Biblical or Qur'anic literalism!

*note: the Qur'anic story about Adam and Eve differs significantly from that in the Bible. Before God ever creates Adam and Eve, He informs the angels that He is making the rulers of earth. The angels object, because we will be a bloody lot, but God tells them that He knows what He is doing. Later, when Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden fruit (and, as a side point, the Qur'anic does not lay blame upon Eve, but upon them both equally, just as they are created as equals, not as prime player and helpmate), they are censured, they realize they were rebellious, seek forgiveness, are granted that forgiveness, and then sent down to Earth as it's caretakers, as God had planned from the beginning. It is not an ignoble banishment, but rather a fulfillment of human destiny to be sent to Earth. Similarly, Adam and Eve's children, like their parents are suspect to evil of all kinds (it's part of having free will), but we are not inherently evil, rather we are inherently good, yearning always for harmony with the Divine, but prone to rebelliousness, mistakes, and willfull violations of our own consciences and moral dictates. God, then, is not there to exact revenge on our innate evilness or to save us from ourselves, but to help us express the inherent goodness we all have within ourselves, and to overcome our weaknesses and failings. And when we do fall down, as we all do, God is forgiving and always responsive.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
  The Arabic Booker Prize
There is some great literature coming out of the Arab nations. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the world is completely unaware of any of it beyond a couple superstars such as Nagib Mahfouz, if they even know him.

This year's short list for the Arabic equivalent of the Booker Prize has been named:

Hunger by Mohammad Al Bisatie -- a novel that focuses on the day to day life of the starving

The Unfaithful Translator by Fawwaz Haddad -- the story of a translator who is suspected of treason because of dissident views

The American Granddaughter by Inaam Kachachi -- the story of an American woman who returns to her roots as a translator for the American army

Time of White Horses by Ibrahim Nasrallah -- an epic novel tracing three generations of Palestinians living in a small village from Ottoman times to the present

The Scents of Marie-Claire by Al-Habib Al-Salmi -- A love story about the relationship of an Arab man and a Western womam

Beelzebub by Yusuf Zaydan -- set in the 5th century, this novel looks at Rome's adoption of Christianity

For more info on the prize, go here
Monday, December 15, 2008
  Bee among the Berries
Today I got a package of raspberries, and there, nestled among fruit, was the body of a small bee. I couldn't help but think about what might have happened if the bee had decided to climb inside one of the berries. Sweet protein! Yummy!

These days it seems like we are all in the reverse situation -- searching desperately for a berry amongst the bees. The breadth and depth of corruption in our society takes my breath away. Starting with Enron, the collapse of the financial world, the corruption of Governor Blagojevich and financier Madoff, the blindness of the aircraft industry, and oil companies gleefully raking in the largest profits ever in the face of gasoline prices at $4 a gallon, intoxication with money and power seem to have overridden any sense of decency, honesty, and morality.

Even with President-elect Obama, the self-proclaimed agent of change, one has to wonder how serious he was about that claim, given that much of his Cabinet harkens back to Clinton, or worse to Bush! I can wrangle myself into seeing the idea behind keeping Gates -- he is the most familiar with the situation in Iraq, so he can best help us to get out of there -- but it sure seems an odd thing for the candidate who ran on an anti-Iraq war platform to keep on the architect of the surge. I'm with those who are saying, this isn't exactly the change we were hoping for.

The sad thing is that Wall Street, Big Business and the White House (ie big players in the Republican world order) all seem to have forgotten where their living comes from. That would be the little guy. If the little guy can't make his mortgage payments, can't afford new cars, and can't get his basic needs met by the government (like tax breaks for middle and low income people rather than the rich) your castles in the air are going to come tumbling down.

One can only hope that Obama and the Democratic party don't make the same mistake -- forgetting the role that progressives played in getting them the majority in Congress and the White House. Otherwise the Democratic bees may find their raspberries gone the same way as the Republicans' did.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
  Out of the black hole
The past two years have been difficult for me... moving from our home of 12 years to a new community and my marriage finally collapsing have made writing, involvement in the community, even daily living tough. The past year (plus a few months) was the most difficult, and I pulled into myself in ways that were not always helpful, though they did get me through the worst of it. I hope now to reach back out and establish a new normalcy. Hopefully in the days ahead, I can look back over this past year, and analyze some of what happened, perhaps to help other from falling into the black hole that I did.

On the more positive front, I have a story in a new book -- A Mosque Among the Stars. The story is sort of Amistad meets the flying Dutchman. I spent an inordinate amount of time researching for it (ah, the downfall of us research lovers and the easy accessibility of the internet - you can get sucked into hours and hours and hours of unnecessary research, but, oh! it's so interesting!!). It was definitely a blast to write. You kind find out more about the book here.

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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

What I'm reading now

Cane River
An interesting exploration of the gradual whiting of a family through slavery to modern days.

To see an archive of all the books I've read (well the ones I've read and review since I started the blog) with comments, please click here

Causes Worth Supporting

This is just a short list -- a few of my favorites.

English Language Islamic Fiction. We need more of it. Lots more.
Pay a Teacher's Salary in Afghanistan. The Hunger site actually has a lot of worthwhile programs. You can find them all here .
Muslims for Progressive Values. My organization. We can always use donations, of time or money!
Human Rights Campaign for the glbt community
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
The ACLU I'm a card carrying member. Hope you'll become one too. The organization that has done the most, as far as I can tell, to pull the countries progressive side together.
Network of Spiritual Progressives. Working to reclaim religion and morality for the religious left.

Blogs Worth Reading

Wanda Campbell also known as Nochipa A very gifted poet and a gentle, compassionate soul. Nochipa and I are on the same page on sooooo many things
Writeous Sister Aminah Hernandez, she's got some excellent latino pieces and always has good writing info on her blog.
Sister Scorpion aka Leila Montour - Leila is a fount of energy, quirky humor, and bad attitude. She's also a talented poet.
Muhajabah Very interesting commentary here. I don't always agree with her, but her pieces are always thought-provoking.
Georgie Dowdell Georgie is a great writer and a good friend.
Louise Marley Another great writer. I think Louise is one of the best sf writers exploring faith themes.
Ink in My Coffee Devon Ellington (who has numerous aliases) who is also the editor of Circadian Poems. A truly inspiring woman with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Ethnically Incorrect With a name like that, isn't a given I'm going to enjoy this writer?
Freedom from the Mundane Colin Galbraith, another excellent writer, from Scotland.
The Scruffy Dog Review This is a new e-zine with an ecclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and non-fic, some really enjoyable pieces here.
Ramblings of a Suburban Soccer Mom Lara, another gentle soul, very thoughtful.
Circadian Poems A journal of poetry, new stuff up all the time.
Ye Olde Inkwell Michelle writes romance and is one of my writing buddies.
Muhammad Michael Knight The original punk Muslim writer. Like him or love him, Mike is always coming up with the unexpected.

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