TIME

What a Muslim American Learned from Zionists

During a visit to an institute in Israel, I gained a new perspective on a belief that I once saw as toxic.

How probable is it to get ardent Zionists and pro-Palestinians to not just talk to one another, but love and respect one another? Not likely. That’s why the Shalom Hartman Institute launched a controversial but groundbreaking program to bring American Muslim thought and civic leaders to Jerusalem for a year-long fellowship. For many, the program was a hard sell given sensitivities and loyalties on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I hesitated joining because Hartman is an unapologetically Zionist institution and, like all the participants, I have been committed to the Palestinian cause throughout my life. Other than posing an ethical dilemma, it also required putting our credibility with the Muslim community on the line and opening dialogue with Zionists, a thought once an anathema to our sensibilities.

Zionism is a toxic word in the pro-Palestinian community; it stands for an opportunistic land-grab in the wake of the Holocaust from people who had nothing to do with that tragedy. To us, it stands for the nakba, a catastrophe, for the Palestinian people. It stands for an ethnic cleansing, a brutal occupation, militarized neighborhoods, checkpoints, political prisoners, daily humiliation, blockades, collective punishment, stolen resources. I have always been proudly anti-Zionist.

Through the fellowship I learned that Zionism means something very different for Jews. The Jewish people’s longing of thousands of years for a homeland, a return from exile, a sanctuary from being a hated minority in the diaspora, an opportunity to establish Jewish values and honor God, a Biblical promise, a chance for redemption. As someone with years of interfaith experience I should have known all this, but I didn’t. For this, I blame both the exhaustive use (and some Israelis say abuse) of the Holocaust narrative from Zionists to win over Western populations, and also because in the U.S., interfaith work means talking about everything except Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It shows the deep flaws in current interfaith models when the most burning issue remains unspoken.

But it did not remain unspoken in our program. As we learned and gained appreciation for the Biblical connection of the Holy Land to the Israeli people, the Palestinians remained at the forefront of our consciousness. In every session, dozens of times daily, we have pushed on the Palestinian issue. While we were challenged on our understanding of Zionism and the history of Jews and Israel, we challenged our professors from legal, historic, faith, human rights and national security perspectives to justify the treatment of Palestinians.

It was a frustrating cycle in which the conversation often ended at a version of one thought: “Most Israelis want to end the occupation but are afraid to.” Initially, this perpetual fear seemed like either an excuse or a deep collective pathology divorced from reality. It wasn’t until I met numerous Palestinians that I realized the fear many Israeli Jews have is not a figment of the imagination.

The despair and anger of a burgeoning population of young, unemployed, restricted, dislocated population which carries with it the pain of generations and assumes an apocalyptic end is real. We personally witnessed hundreds of Muslim men denied access to the Al-Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers, and their quiet rage, and even tears, at the young Israeli security personnel who blocked the entrances and themselves seemed scared and unsure. This pressure cooker cannot hold indefinitely.

Despite living on the front lives of this conflict, many Jewish friends at Hartman said it took the relationships built through the program for our Jewish friends to fully absorb the Palestinian narrative.

After a year we built the trust necessary for a needed exchange of admissions. The Muslim fellows understood Jewish fear and the Jews’ deep desire for a homeland after thousands of years of being a mistrusted minority. And Israeli Jews affirmed to us the daily devastation of the occupation and the shattering of Palestinians through which Israel was born. These exchanges between Zionists and pro-Palestinians were monumental.

They are also an affirmation that there is still hope for dialogue and relationships that can actually make a difference. Until now, both parties have been speaking inside their own bubbles, safe in dialogue with people that agree with them. The walls have been built so high that breaching them to reach out to the other side is tantamount to treason. Hartman and the participants both took huge risks in being part of this program with hopes to forge a new way forward. This fellowship proves that building relationships between people who fundamentally disagree can uncover empathy and mutual recognition that despite differences, everyone deserves dignity, security, prosperity and self-determination.

Rabia Chaudry is a fellow of the Truman National Security Project and the New America Foundation.

TIME Religion

An Open Letter to Bill Maher From a Muslim American

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 21
Comedian Bill Maher during an interview with Jay Leno on September 3, 2013. NBC—NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The problem isn't Islam. It's your movement to demonize Islam in the liberal left.

Hey there, Bill. You hate religion. You particularly hate Islam. We get it. Your liberal bigotry against Muslims and Islam is no secret. For a while now I’ve just avoided watching your show, which kind of stinks because for many years I was a great fan and really loved it. I wasn’t even bothered when you called out Muslims doing stupid, criminal or horrific things. You do that with a lot of groups, and it’s important to do. But I stopped watching when it became clear that you loathed a faith I was devoted to.

On your show you recently discussed the kidnapping of hundreds of girls by Boko Haram, followed by the new sharia laws in Brunei, and rounded out the segment with a nod to your buddy Ayaan Hirsi Ali—quite the trifecta of examples to support your conclusion that Islam itself is, as you said, “the problem.” Your reasoning is essentially that Muslims are doing many horrible things around the world, and they all believe in Islam, so naturally Islam is the nonnegotiable culprit.

Let’s ignore for now the numerous logical fallacies in your premise and instead follow your exact line of reasoning. If we are to accept your rationale, we have to also accept that, if many Muslims are doing good things around the world, and they all believe in Islam, then Islam is responsible for the good that they do. We also accept, given that Ali’s criticism of Islam is based on her personal experience, that the positive personal experience of other Muslims, including converts, are just as valid reflections on the faith.

For the sake of argument, and being as generous as possible, let’s say Islam has been a force of destruction for 50% of Muslims and a source of empowerment, peace and comfort for the other 50%. Where exactly does that leave us? Whose experience of Islam is legitimate? If Boko Haram is, in your estimation, an authentic expression of Islam, what do you make of the hundreds of Nigerian Muslim families who were sending their daughters to school? Why isn’t their dedication, like Malala Yousafzai’s dedication, to girls’ education an authentic expression of Islam? What do you deduct from the fact most Muslim women in the world are not circumcised? Are they just doing Islam wrong? Are all the good, peaceful Muslims doing Islam wrong?

You noted that women are treated at best like second-class citizens, but most often like property in Islam. The first Muslim woman, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, a successful businesswoman, boss-lady and wife to the Prophet Muhammad, and the other Muslim women of his time would have snickered at you. Women of the region were chattel before Islam, treated and traded as such, until the Quran freed them through revelations such as “O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will.”

I could tell you that Islam was the first system to establish women’s property rights, inheritance rights, the right to education, to marry and divorce of their free will, to be religious scholars, business owners, soldiers. I could tell you that while Christianity was debating the status of women’s souls and declaring them a source of sin, Islam had already established authoritatively the spiritual equality of men and women and absolved Eve, and womankind at large, of sin. I could tell you that the world and history is full of highly educated, successful Muslim women who are empowered by their faith, not debilitated by it. I could tell you terrorism is categorically forbidden in Islam, and that between 1970 and 2012, 97.5% of terror attacks in the U.S. were carried out by non-Muslims. I could tell you that female genital mutilation is never mentioned in the Quran; the only reference to it is found in a weak narration, and scholars find it objectionable to the point of being classified as impermissible.

Nothing I tell you would matter, though. The facts are irrelevant. That’s how bigotry operates. It’s both telling and troubling that you referred to these issues as “the Muslim question.” The reference didn’t escape me and it’s hard to believe it was anything but deliberate. Think for a second about what was unleashed by the “Jewish question” in Europe. Bigotry sometimes does that, too.

So while I support you in continuing to expose Muslims and others who shock the conscience of decent people, who destroy lives, and who wreak havoc, I caution you on the anti-Islam rhetoric. You have a massive following and are successfully leading a movement to demonize Islam in the liberal left, a place many American Muslims call home. You are leading people into rocks and hard places when you posit that Islam is the problem. You are putting Muslims up against a wall and pushing those who fear us further into spaces where little choice is left. As the mother of two American-born daughters, and a Muslim who calls the U.S. her home, I worry deeply about the solutions your followers may propose to your “Muslim question.” You should too.

Rabia Chaudry is an attorney and the founder and president of the Safe Nation Collaborative.

TIME Religion

A New Muslim Renaissance is Here

American Muslims are becoming thought, cultural leaders and reviving perspectives on religious inclusion

History is witness to a time past when the Islamic civilization produced globally unparallelled architecture, literature, science, philosophy, theological discourse, and cultural influences – influences so strong it made European nobles want to dress like Muslims. Critics of Islam and Muslims scoff at this romanticism, asserting that Muslims have not produced anything great since the Middle Ages and most likely will never again. The inherent bigotry and even fallacy of that argument aside, for those critics I have to say, look out, a new Muslim renaissance is upon us.

In the midst of growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the US since 9/11, or perhaps thanks to it, this generation of Muslims is abandoning the traditional professions expected from immigrant parents (doctors, engineers, business people) and entering fields we all once thought were closed to us. The last decade has seen a steady and sure emergence of American Muslims as artists, writers, performers, activists, media personalities and intellectuals (on a global scale Muslims rank as top intellectuals). Inside the DC beltway you see evidence of this shift as well. Young American Muslims are working in national security, public diplomacy, foreign policy, politics – we have our share of hacks and wonks now too.

In a climate where America still finds itself in an uncomfortable dance with Islam, the fact that Muslims themselves are becoming thought and culture leaders in America has tremendous prospects. Anti-shariah bills loom large across the country, violence against Muslims happens and is encouraged, the homeland security apparatus is still figuring out how to work with Muslims as partners and not suspects, and a large swath of the public cannot even stomach something as innocuous as Muslims being in a patriotic coca-cola ad. But instead of being cowed, young American Muslims have reacted by demanding to tell their own stories, become influencers, and claiming their rightful place in US institutions and discourse.

This dynamism hasn’t been limited to the intersection of American Muslims with the prevailing culture. In the past five years American Muslims are leading movements to revive or reform perspectives on religious inclusion, most notably the inclusion of women and LGBTQ Muslims in sacred spaces.

On the issue of women’s leadership, inclusion, and status in Islam, there is a clear call to revive the traditions of female scholarship, leadership, and open mosque spaces. It’s no small thing that the Grand Mufti of Egypt Shaykh Ali Gomaa has acknowledged the permissibility of women leading men in prayer in the Western context after the persistence of female North American Muslim activists and scholars on the issue. A movement to explore the spaces allotted women in American mosques has lead to a larger discussion on what it means to be “Unmosqued”, or be part of a generation that feels little relevance and connection to any place of worship. “Muslim feminism” is being taken seriously by Western Muslims as the antidote to patriarchal expressions of Islam. The long standing idea, from the colonial period onward, that mosques and religious leadership are male spaces is finding its match not in a global Muslim arena, but in a Western Muslim one.

Similar to other faith traditions in the US, Islamic orthodoxy and traditionalism is being challenged on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. A progressive Muslim movement is forcing Muslim debate and discussion on the limits of tolerance and inclusion. While the prevailing rulings of the theological boundaries on homosexual lifestyles are unlikely to change anytime soon, Western Muslim institutions have been moved to adopt a position similar to Orthodox Jewish leaders. A public recognition by a major Muslim organization of universal human dignity, and the right not to be discriminated against based on sexual orientation, would be nearly impossible to find in Muslim majority countries today, and just as difficult to find in the US a decade ago.

Social challenges such as finding suitable marriage partners is pushing conversation on interfaith marriage, traditionally an option for Muslim men, but now seriously being discussed among American Muslim women. Not just discussed, but supported by some religious leadership.

An interesting trend on these issues is that American Muslims by and large seek religious validation for revisiting and reforming rulings. They even depend on traditional Islamic principles such as ijtihad to, some may say, do away with other traditional Islamic principles. As such, a modern Islamic orthodoxy with Western Muslim scholarship at the helm, grounded in faith but embracing pluralism and change, seems to be the balance most American Muslims are gravitating towards

It’s heady, scary, and exciting to watch the face and discourse of American Muslims change and expand before your eyes. The Islam I grew up with in America is not the Islam my children are experiencing. The possibilities for their lives are much more expansive than the possibilities for my life were. The largely comfortable integration and success of American Muslims that sets them apart from their counterparts in Europe also lends space for these possibilities. From tremendously increased participation in American civic and cultural life, to pressing internal demands on religious orthodoxy, another generation or two will see a vastly different American Islam that will likely have an impact on Muslims globally. From marginalized minority, American Muslims are poised to become mainstream leaders and influencers. And it’s no small irony that while historians bemoan conquest and Western colonialism as the death knell for Islam’s “Golden Age”, this new Muslim renaissance is growing out of the West itself.

Rabia Chaudry is an attorney and the founder and president of the Safe Nation Collaborative.

TIME Religion

ABC’s ‘Alice in Arabia’ Is Racist

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Dieter Spears—Getty Images/Vetta

The pilot, which riffs on the Alice in Wonderland tale, reinforces old racist tropes in which an American girl (presumably a white girl) is threatened by scary “other” people of color.

American Muslims have lost control of their narratives both online and in the media. While violent Islamic extremists have grown increasingly adept at using social media to craft their messages – as have anti-Muslim activists – more normative voices from Muslims have been drowned out.

This lack of control over self-articulated narratives was exemplified yesterday with the announcement of ABC Family’s new pilot programs, which include a show that got the attention of Arab and Muslim Americans across social media. One such pilot, “Alice in Arabia” — a title cringe-worthy in itself — has been described as follows:

Alice in Arabia” is a high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian. Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation. Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.”

The Twittersphere exploded with the hashtag #AliceinArabia, as people tweeted their offense to ABC Family. The criticisms are plentiful and varied.

The show reinforces old racist tropes in which an American girl (presumably a white girl) is threatened by scary “other” people of color – considering the sordid history of Americans vilifying Native American men and then black men as dangerous to white women, a completely understandable objection. The entire framework of the show is through the kidnap plotline, confirming the kinds of fears about Arabs and Muslims the movie “Not Without My Daughter” established decades ago.

The show certainly pits Americans against “Arabians” (tweeters pointed out “Arabia” is not actually a place), and we can assume the “independent spirit and wit” of Alice the American will prevail as triumphant over the lesser evolved Arabians. Thus the plot both bolsters the highly troublesome binary of us vs. them (Muslims being them), a factor linked to the growth of anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes in the US since 9/11, and confirms American superiority.

But wait, there’s more. Not only will “Alice in Arabia” exacerbate the marginalization of Muslim and Arab men, it perfectly reflects Western attitudes towards Muslim women. Hear that sound? It’s millions of Muslim women snorting as Alice attempts to survive “life behind the veil.” The very idea that the veil is something to be survived strips Muslim women of their intellect and agency and makes them the subjects of this practice rather than sentient protagonists of it.

The pilot also uses the real-life difficulties faced by women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a platform for ratings, and diminishes the work of activists in and outside the country to effect meaningful reform. An imported heroine, who is both the victim and the great white hope, not only smacks of Orientalism but frames serious issues through her narrative alone. In doing so, it reaffirms the fact that overwhelmingly the stories in the West of Muslims and Arabs are not actually being told by Muslims and Arabs.

The challenges of Muslims in the West are many, but there is no question that having control over our narratives and the messages about our faith are paramount. These narratives shape public opinion, impact civil liberties, and even influence our foreign policy. In failing to self-define ourselves, our culture and our faith we lose authority both to religious extremists and anti-Muslim bigots.

It can only be hoped that ABC Family and other media outlets are paying attention. The American Muslim community is ripe with talent and voices who can actually tell these stories in relevant, meaningful, and authentic ways. Portraying Muslims and Arabs as nuanced Americans instead of foreign caricatures would be a good first step for television. Instead of reaching across the globe for “Alice in Arabia,” perhaps we should start here at home with “Ahmed in Austin”.

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