The Orlando Massacre and a Note to American-Muslims

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By Mehlaqa Samdani

Critical Connections stands in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and extends heartfelt condolences to all those affected by the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

A note to American-Muslims:

Fellow American-Muslims, please don’t let the Orlando shooter’s religious identity consume and paralyze you. He never claimed to, nor does he, represent you so please do not act like he does. This attack is not about you–it is about the people who were attacked. It is about the LGBTQ community that was deliberately targeted. Please reach out to local LGBTQ groups and stand in solidarity with them as they organize vigils in your area. It is time to speak out against homophobia as we have against Islamophobia. People who stand as allies with the Muslim community do not necessarily do so because they believe in Islam or Islamic values—they do so because they believe in the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. It is time for us to engage in the same activism in support of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Honest Conversations with our Muslim Neighbors

By Katherine Bruns (Guest Blogger)

The CT Council for Interreligious Understanding (CCIU), the Muslim Coalition of CT, and Hartford Seminary presented the seventh in a series called “Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors” on January 28th, at the First Church in Middletown, CT, hosted by the Middletown Refugee Resettlement Coalition, of which First Church is a member. It was a well-attended event with about 120 attendees, deftly moderated by Trinity College professor Dr. Janet Bauer.

The four well-spoken panelists represented the diversity of Muslim voices in our community. The list of their accomplishments and involvement in the community is extensive and beyond what can be included in this short blurb. In brief they were: Dr. Reza Mansoor, a cardiologist and founder and past president of the Muslim Coalition of CT; Linda Miller, an African-American Muslim, long-time Middletown resident and retired teacher and nurse; Dr. Feryal Salem, Assistant Professor of Islamic Scriptures and Law at Hartford Seminary whose research focuses on early Islamic thought and the Islamic scholarly tradition; and Maryam Bitar, a native of Damascus, Syria and senior at Trinity in the IDP (adult Individualized Degree Program) and volunteer with the city of Hartford’s Commission on Refugee and Immigrant Affairs (CRIA).

After each panelist gave a brief introduction they took turns answering hand written questions from the audience, presented by the moderator. In the beginning there was a minor, though jarring interruption from about eight protesters who had entered the church and had been quietly handing out pamphlets opposing refugee resettlement as well as some hate speech before the discussion started. A few were escorted out politely and deftly by the pastor of the church. The rest remained and stayed quiet. It was a sobering reminder of the reality our “Muslim neighbors” face daily.

Dr Mansoor, when asked what the biggest challenge was in negotiating interfaith dialogue, replied that poll after poll reveals that the favorability rating of Muslims after 9/11 continues to decrease despite the reality that 60% of the respondents claim they do not personally know a Muslim. He pointed out that 10% of US physicians are Muslim so rather than coming to the U.S. to try to harm, as opponents to (Muslim) refugee resettlement might assert, they represent a significant portion of the healing profession. In response to further questions about “Muslim culture” (there is no one culture! – all the panelists pointed out), Dr Mansoor said that the values in Islam are no different than values held dear by other religions and peoples. He believes that the current “clash” stems more from a lack of knowledge than from real differences. He added that Arabic words like jihad and sharia have “taken a life of their own” in the United States, and proceeded to give in-depth description of both words and how they are misused both by the U.S. media and by ISIS.

Dr. Salem, asked why more Muslim leaders haven’t spoken out against ISIS, responded that indeed they have and encouraged attendees to read both the “Marrakesh Declaration” (http://marrakeshdeclaration.org/about.html) and “Letter to Baghdadi” (http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com). She also pointed out that the media help this misperception by focusing only on negative news and headline grabbing sound bites. She answered many questions about male/female equity and said that the Qur’an clearly states that women are equal to men and, like any religious text, Qur’anic scripture is sadly either taken out of context or interpreted in the narrowest terms. When asked about the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, she gave an explanation but made it clear that current fighting in the Middle East (a Euro-centric term, she interestingly pointed out) is political in nature and gave a historical rundown to the current situation.

As the only American-born, and African-American Muslim Ms Miller brought an important lens to the discussion. She pointed out that non Muslims should not look at the very small minority of Muslims represented by ISIS, other terrorist organizations or extremist clerics and think they represent the vast majority of Muslims any more than she should have looked at the KKK in the 1950’s and 1960’s and let them represent all of white America. When asked about how communities could help welcome refugees she gave several suggestions including volunteering with refugee resettlement organizations, offering to volunteer at schools and simply being kind to immigrants who clearly “look different.”

Maryam was asked if she faced discrimination. She replied yes but that she just turns the other cheek. She pointed out that she is named after (the Virgin) Mary, who is revered in Islamic scripture according to Dr. Salem, and comes from a town in Syria not far from a village that is the last that still speaks Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus. She answered a question about whether Muslim women could leave their houses unescorted by pointing out that she left Syria and flew all the way to the United States by herself in 2010.

It was agreed by all that fear, stemming from the ignorance of facts about Islam, has led to the current view of Muslims in the United States, and to the reluctance to welcome more refugees. The more “Honest Conversations” that can be had, the better.

Looking ahead: Dr Mansoor welcomes youth to his Berlin Mosque on Sunday afternoon, February 14th for a “Youth Hang-out Day” (see the event calendar and contact info at www.berlinmosque,org). Further “Honest Conversations” will be held, including on February 21st in Suffield and March 1st in Windsor. Details will be available on CCIU’s website (www.ccfiu.org ) and Facebook page. In addition, the Wadsworth Atheneum, together with CCIU, will be presenting another Interfaith Film Series in March. (https://thewadsworth.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/2016-Winter-Spring-Film-FLyer-Web.pdf)

Righting Our Narrative

By Bernie Pelletier

On December 20th, 2015, Mr. John Larson, U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s 1st Congressional District convened an interfaith panel of 4 muslim representatives (2 imams and 2 heads of Islamic centers), a rabbi, and a priest for a roundtable discussion on tolerance and inclusion. The event took place at the Hartford Public Library and panelists included Rabbi Debra Cantor, B’nai Tikvoh – Sholom, Father Michael Dolan, Pastor of St. Margaret Mary’s Church in South Windsor, Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim – Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, Mr. Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari – Head of the Greater Hartford NAACP, Imam Mirzet Ef. Mehmedovic Bosnian American Islamic Center, Hartford, and Mr. Khamis Abu-Hasaballah, President of the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center.

Representative Larson moderated a passionate 2-hour session. He started off describing a similar meeting in West Hartford where Dr. Saud Anwar, former mayor of South Windsor and Representative Larson led a similar discussion. Larson started the session saying:

“Hate has no place in America. Though we have heard some alarming rhetoric in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, now is the time for unity and tolerance, for voices of faith to rise above the fray. To that end, I am hosting a discussion with leaders in the Muslim, Jewish, & Christian communities to discuss interfaith partnerships and dispel some of the divisive rhetoric towards Islam.”

Larson’s first question seemed like a “softball” question: “If someone wants to learn more – where do they go for information?” But the question proved to be surprisingly hard to answer. The panelists suggested that interested people should visit a local mosque, find a trusted Muslim friend, find an authentic Quran with Arabic and English translation, contact the Saudi embassy for a free, and authentic Quran and read works by John Esposito. And yet, conversely, the panel cautioned not to read the Quran without a teacher who can provide the context and under no circumstances rely on “Google” searches because of the prevalence of deliberately misleading websites. The exchange underscored the importance and difficulty in countering decades of ignorance and deliberate misinformation to confound and confuse the uninitiated.

Larson made the point that some of the difficulty is as simple as language. He and others observed that Allah – is the Arabic word for God. In Arabic-speaking lands Christians, Jews, and Muslims – all use this term for their God. Yet – in the United States – many non-Muslims’ believe that Muslims worship a different God. Such basic misinformation makes clear the amount of work needed to be done.

All the panelists agreed with Father Dolan that one of the most effective ways to improve relations in the community is “to meet each other doing good”. There was also agreement amongst all panelists that given the tone of politics today, merely being inwardly-focused was not enough.

Rabbi Cantor spoke movingly of her synagogue where many members had lost family in the holocaust–they felt acutely the change in political climate and were therefore speaking out against it.

Imam Mehmedovic spoke of his life in Bosnia during the ethnic violence there. He recalled running through the woods when he was only 12 not knowing if he would live to the end of the day. When he got to the US as a young man, he felt safe – and focused on creating a mosque in the south end of Hartford. But now he felt strongly about reaching out to the greater community

Khamis Abu-Hasaballah described a very similar story. He emigrated from Gaza and like Mehmedovic felt safe and secure for a long time. Now he is working hard at the Farmington Valley Muslim Center to make it a welcoming place for all the faiths (and even atheists).

Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim and Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari spoke of their shared experience as African-American Muslims. They spoke of the need to reach across religious and racial lines on issues of economic and racial justice. Working to understand and influence the media was high on their list of steps to improve Muslim- non-Muslim relations. Imam Abdul – Karim emphasized the need to “right our narrative”.

Representative Larson ended the session with a call to action. He requested those assembled to think of “zip code 06120”, the poorest zip code in Connecticut, as an opportunity to “right our narrative” by working together on the problems of poverty, racism, alienation, and violence. He noted that the media had been invited to cover this event – and that no members of the media were in attendance. This is the struggle we all face – to address a perception problem when the media selectively covers violence and confrontation and ignores outreach and dialogue.

It is appropriate to close with a famous quote from Rabbi Hillel “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

 

Muslim Guilt and San Bernardino

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By Mehlaqa Samdani

When three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic were brutally gunned down by a white, American extremist last week, as an American, I did not condemn the atrocity. Nor did I condemn every instance of a mass shooting that occurred over the past year in the United States by my fellow Americans.

Nor was I expected to.

And yet, I am expected to condemn the killings in Paris and will be expected to do so in response to San Bernardino because Muslims perpetrated these unconscionable acts. We will hear the popular refrains: ‘Where is the Muslim outrage? Where are the condemnations? After all, these heinous crimes were committed in the name of Islam.’ (Although it should be noted that the motive in the San Bernardino killings has yet to be established)

I am a dual citizen (Pakistani and American) and both my governments commit heinous acts in the name of their respective citizens and their respective ideologies. American citizens are not expected to condemn every single instance in which the U.S. government has killed innocent civilians in drone strikes in their name. Similarly, Pakistani citizens are not expected to condemn every military operation in the tribal areas that kills innocents in their name.

I refuse to perpetuate a double-standard.

I refuse to publicly condemn San Bernardino because by condemning only those acts where Muslims are responsible, I will reinforce the notion that those who perpetrate these horrors represent me in some way. I will reinforce the notion that Muslims are one entity and that if one person commits a crime, we are all responsible. I refuse to internalize the guilt that is collectively imposed on Muslim communities. Instead, I will continue to engage my fellow-Americans and fellow-Muslims in conversations that explore structural, political and societal causes for violence in our communities and collaboratively develop programs that address them.