10 July, 2007


20 year-old Aniisa Karim, a Muslim woman, was denied entry into a municipal courtroom in Valdosta, Georgia earlier this month because she was wearing a headscarf.

According to the the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), contacted by Karim following the incident, "The lifelong Muslim is African-American, born and raised in Baltimore. A disc jockey for WAAC-FM Country Music Radio in Valdosta, Karim is about as apple-pie American as it gets."

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also released a statement criticizing Valdosta court officials regarding the matter. The ADL statement reminded readers that such cases are not Muslim-specific, but rather a matter that relates to several faiths.

For those of you dealing in stereotypes: Ms. Karim is NOT Arab (85% of Muslims are NOT Arab (ADC) and not all Arabs are Muslim), she IS American (none of this 'go back to your own country' garbage), she's works (gasp!) in the music business (not everybody thinks music is evil) at a Valdosta Hip-Hop radio station.

Then there's the issue of why she was denied entry. According to the Valdosta Daily Times "Karim said one of the officers told her that the denial of entry to the courtroom was due to “homeland security reasons” and that allowing her to enter would show “disrespect” to the judge..."

Let's deal with the "security" issue first. While there are several different styles of hijab, it's not really an easy place to conceal a dangerous weapon. I actually had a farcical discussion about this with a friend who does wear hijab once. She joked that the only thing dangerous that would fit in her headscarf was her "devastatingly beautiful hair", said while miming a Pantene shake-out of her hair. While I suppose anything is possible, Ms. Karim did offer to subject her head and the rest of herself to additional security screening short of removing her head scarf and otherwise proved no threat to court officers. Was she acting inappropriately, erratically, suspiciously? No, she simply wore her hijab, which unfortunately is equated by many with the previously mentioned behaviors. She even asked court officers and a court clerk if she had any options available to her that would allow her to retain her headscarf while attending to her legal matter at the court.

As for her headscarf "disrespecting" the presiding judge, I cannot figure out how a piece of fabric worn on the head is capable of disrespecting a person. That's impressive for a piece of cloth. Would the judge be similarly disrespected by non-Muslim head wraps? A bandanna?

The Valdosta Daily Times nailed the issue in one line of a recent editorial on the issues of freedom: "Too often, these days, we are willing to trade a great deal of freedom for an uncertain level of security.Disrespect is a key word here. Barring the Muslim woman’s admittance to court because of a tenet of her religion disrespects her as an individual and her faith. It disrespects the courage of the Founding Fathers. It disrespects the sacrifices of generations of Americans both in the United States and across the world."

Indeed disrespect if the key word here. Hijab is not one of the five pillars of Islam and is, in fact, a subject of dispute with some Muslims as to whether it is required and how it should be interpreted. Not all Muslim women wear hijab. Nor are those who do meek victims. Some, admittedly not all, make the choice to wear hijab on their very own. I know professors, poets, lawyers, journalists, police officers, athletes, etc. who lead full lives with covered heads. The Founding Fathers of this nation understood the need to protect religious freedoms for all faiths, descended as they were from the bloody religious conflicts of Europe. Thanks to U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, we know Thomas Jefferson owned and read a copy of the Quran. That the image and understanding of these broadminded, yet often contradictory, men have been warped into that of narrow-minded, Christian-only zealots bent on shoring up divisive agendas disrespects them and what they believed in and fought for. As for the generations of Americans who fought wars to protect the rights and freedoms this country was founded on, any infringement of those rights and freedoms disrespects them and their sacrifices.

As of July 7 neither city officials nor the nearly "disrespected" judge are talking. A Laurens County, Georgia judge issued a formal apology and amended their policy last year after a Sikh was denied entry into the courthouse due to a "no hats" policy. In the press release detailing the resolution of that case, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund President Mirin Kaur noted the importance of challenging such incidents, “The changing of the court policy will not only affect Sikh Americans but also Muslim men with skullcaps, Muslim women wearing hijab, Jewish men with yarmulkes, Christian women with religious head coverings, and all other people who wear mandatory religious attire.

It is a remarkable privilege that we are permitted to practice or not practice a faith in this country and that this freedom is protected in our Constitution. We need to remember that all faiths are protected in this country, whether you believe in them, agree with them, or not, and that those who practice those faiths have certain forms of expression guaranteed them by law and accepted understanding of basic human rights.

People, Muslim and Non-Muslim alike, need to understand once and for all that Muslim women are far more than what they do or do not wear on their heads. For that matter, so too are Sikh men, Jewish and Christian women who cover, Jewish men wearing the yamulke, or anyone whose religious beliefs include similar outward expressions, more than what they wear. Take people for who they are, not what they wear.


08 July, 2007

Have a Little Faith In Us

The woman seated across from me on MARTA stared at my t-shirt and squinted as she re-read the words. It was late, she looked tired, and it wasn’t the first stare my shirt had garnered that day.

This is what a Radical Muslim Feminist Looks Like.

The corners of her mouth crept up into a slight smile. “Ok then,” she said, chuckling a bit. We ended up having a great conversation – turns out she’s from just outside my mother’s hometown in Mississippi and is part of the Katrina Diaspora scattered across the country, struggling to reclaim their lives.

More importantly, she didn’t flinch at faith.

Unfortunately, it seems the organizers of the first United States Social Forum flinched. Outreach to progressives of faith regarding the Forum was insufficient. Local Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist friends said they knew of no outreach from USSF organizers or affiliates to their congregations. Other progressives of faith from around the country told similar stories.

Throughout the week I was met with bewildered looks, awkward silence, and even mild hostility if I mentioned pertinent issues of faith during some workshops. One young woman I met spoke of how uncomfortable she felt identifying herself as a Christian in any context during the week, despite being a committed and active progressive.

The experiences of others and myself at the Forum highlight what seems to be a lack of comfort with and inclusion of religion and people of faith with a certain element on “The Left” and within the progressive movement. This lack of cohesion and, sometimes, outright exclusion weakens both the faith-based and broader progressive movement denying them the benefits to be found in perhaps unexpected coalitions such as new ideas, energies, and partnerships.

These days religion is more likely associated with conservatism, extremism, even militarism and consumerism. The existence of a religious Left has been all but forgotten as the U.S. lurched towards the Right in recent years. The narrow, conservative, antagonistic view of religion is partly the fault of media misrepresentation.

Media Matters highlighted the issue in their report Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media, which analyzed coverage beginning the day after the 2004 election through the end of 2006. According to the report, conservative religious leaders were quoted, interviewed or mentioned 2.8 times more often than progressive religious leaders when reviewing newspaper and television coverage combined. Television, which Media Matters constrained to the three major networks, three major cable news channels and PBS, provided outlets for conservative religious leaders 3.8 times more often than for progressive leaders. Major newspapers utilized the voices of conservative religious leaders 2.7 times more than those of religious progressives. The bias is remarkable given that most in the US hold what would be considered progressive views, based on a recently released report by Campaign for America’s Future and Media Matters reviewing polling data from reputable sources such as Pew Research and Gallup.

Atlanta was selected as the host city for the US Social Forum because of the city’s significance in the US civil rights struggles. Anyone who knows anything about that progressive movement knows people of faith were at its forefront.

I am not a resident of Atlanta, but I reside here temporarily. I mention this because it means my ability to engage in outreach to any community is limited given my transient status. I share the ideals espoused by organizers of the Forum and signed up to volunteer in order to make it happen. My first question to people in the local organizing office was what outreach had been made to the faith community and specifically, because they are often forgotten in such efforts, the Muslim community. I was met by polite, yet unsatisfying answers:

“We don’t have any contacts.”
“I wouldn’t know how to approach them.”
“We don’t do religion.”

I had no contacts and only a week before the start of the Forum, but I did have an Internet connection. A quick Google and Salat-O-Matic search led me to the only mosque I knew and coincidentally the largest in the area: Al-Farooq. I cold-called the director and explained what the Forum was I why I believed the Muslim community should be involved. He cautiously agreed to meet me after the Friday prayer service so I could pass along posters and fliers. I arrived early for jummah and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged women dressed in white. When I began explaining the Forum and my visit with the Director, her face lit up.

“Oh, I am so glad you came,” she said, clasping my hand in hers. “I haven’t heard anything about this. When is it?”

“Next week,” I replied. Her face registered disappointment.

“I wish I’d known about it.”

The Director proved helpful, but said because his function was mostly to oversee finances and the construction of the huge new facility I should call another member of the community who was involved in youth organizing.

When I phoned him, his enthusiasm was hugely gratifying. He was ready to bring others into the discussion and suggested a conference call. And he absolutely understood why I felt the ideals of the Forum matched the faith.

“So, when is this happening?” he asked. I cringed.

In her session description for the Building a Faith-Based Progressive Movement workshop, presented during the Forum by the Church in Society division of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, facilitator Loretta Horton, Director of Poverty Ministries Networking with ELC, illustrated the hard middle ground progressives of faith often find themselves shoved into these days.

“At many progressive gatherings, the faith community is often overlooked or completely left out of any conversation focusing on building a progressive movement for change in this country. Now is the time for progressive people of faith to step forward with conviction and be bold as we live out our theological beliefs of what a just society looks like. We have to challenge those on the religious right who would distort scripture, support public policy that is racist and sexist, and who use the rhetoric of hate as a tool to divide communities.”

During the workshop, members of the ecumenical and interfaith panel spoke of their personal struggles within the movement.

“It’s hard to be a Christian on the real radical Left, an unapologetic Christian,” said Malika M’Buze Moore or Atlanta’s 1st African Presbyterian. “I walk with my comrades and feel lonely.”

“In social movements faith is viewed with quite a bit of suspicion,” said Reverend John Selders of Amistad United Church of Christ in Connecticut, who acknowledged that religion has “hurt a lot of people”. “I am continuously amazed when people say ‘you’re from the church and you think WHAT?’”

Building a progressive movement is supposed to be about inclusion.

“The God I know speaks in an inclusive language and is a big ol’ God,” said Rev. Selders. “We gotta find partners in those spaces and places that may not be the likely ones and they may not be the comfortable ones.”

None of us are one-dimensional beings. Our multiplicities, every little quirk and contradiction that makes us who we are, are like facets on our own brilliant diamond; they make us shine. A movement that celebrates its multiplicities, including those of faith, will be stronger, more brilliant, and more valuable to the world.