19 August, 2010

On World Humanitarian Day, a remembrance...

Today is World Humanitarian Day. This is a day to celebrate the remarkable work that people are engaging in together around the world to try to make the world a better place for everybody.

This day was selected because on 19 August, 2003, 22 people were killed, including SRSG Sergio Vieira de Mello, when a truck bomb was detonated outside the UN mission HQs in Baghdad.

Humanitarian work, development work, social work, whatever you want to call it...comes with risks, for those who practice it and those who benefit from it, in much of the world. So today is a day to remember those who have lost their lives and to celebrate the ideals and work they were willing to risk their lives for in the first place.

And here, again, is the awesome video for the campaign:


16 August, 2010

Hanging out with kids: good for the soul

At the moment: Grape-nuts, it's what's for dinner...at nearly 11pm. *sigh*
Listening to:
People Have the Power by Patti Smith
Working on:
Fulbright proposal & personal statement

I may not have any of my own, but I sure like kids. On the whole, I like them way more than grown-ups. All that non-linear thinking and such.
For example, anytime you ask my cousin's three year-old twins a question of "Why?" they will immediately and unfailingly answer with the deceptively simple, "That's why."
I can't figure out if it's more like a Zen koan or a politician's hollow non-answer.
The boy is a bit blasé about it, as though I should have know whatever it is all along. The girl sells the answer hard, punctuating with a jab of her hand and a roll of her eyes.
For three, they're pretty sure of themselves.
I'm going to try it out on my colleagues this semester.
That's why.

So what if it IS a mosque?

There are a lot of things going on out there right now to think about and write about. Social Security, one of our most effective anti-poverty efforts, just turned 75 years young. One fifth of Pakistan is underwater with all the attendant humanitarian tragedy. U.S. combat troops are trooping out of Iraq - all done, lights out, thanks for the memories! The Lebanese and Israelis are really jumpy about tree pruning along their borders. People are once again laying bets about the likelihood of somebody - us, Israel, us, Israel...- striking Iran within the coming year. Russia is on fire. Darfur is still a mess. The UN is returning to Somalia, but there's still no functioning government. Yemen may run out of water. Gaza is still Gaza....

A lot of arguing and debating and work to be done, for sure.

However, one story that is not about a real debate at all is the so-called "debate" over the erroneously named "Ground Zero Mosque". I bring it up again because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) today came out in favor of relocating the project. In short, he failed to lead and instead caved to the bigots.

No, it's not simply a mosque, it's a community center. Now, I kind of always think of mosques as community centers anyway. I've seen pilgrims sing and picnic in the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. Beat the midday heat with men and women under the eaves of al-Azhar in Cairo. Laughed at children chasing each other through countless prayer halls. I've watched groups of women conduct classes together at Eyup Mosque and had tea with the bawab of Kuçuk Aya Sofia and an amused group of elderly Turkish men who were respectfully curious about the foreign girl who had stuck around for the Friday khutba (sermon). They aren't like houses of worship that are primarily open one day a week for a few services. They are centers of their community and neighborhood. You come to meet, learn, laugh, eat, sleep, maybe do a little business...and often pray.

No, it's not at ground zero, but rather a few blocks away. It's in an old building that last housed a Burlington Coat Factory. And there's been a prayer space there for some time now. And the sky has yet to fall. To quote someone from the Internet, "When can we start calling it the Burlington Coat Factory mosque?" Did I mention there's a Muslim prayer space inside the Pentagon? You remember - the other site where people were killed on September 11th, 2001. Where the U.S. Department of Defense is headquartered. And nobody there seems to mind.

I met Faisal Abdul Rauf briefly, several years ago, after a wonderful interfaith worship service he'd participated in at the ornate cathedral in Louisville, Kentucky. I introduced myself, welcomed him to town and talked with him about Islam and Sufism a bit. He shook my hand, was a thoughtful speaker, generous with his time and unfailingly polite. Not big news, unless you're somebody trying to make him an evil demagogue. And, if you know anything about Cordoba under the Arabs...

And yet, even if it weren't something akin to the YMCA or the JCC. If it were solely an Islamic house of worship. If it were smack atop the World Trade Center site....
Thanks to our constitution and the rights guaranteed by that document that we ALL are supposed to enjoy, the developers would have every right to open their doors. I am reminded of Colin Powell's laudable comments regarding Muslim-Americans and the rumor mongering by some during the 2008 presidential campaign that, gasp, Obama is a Muslim: "So what if he is?!"

In fact, I'm incredibly tired of people pushing back with those two arguments: it's not at "Ground Zero" and it's not just a mosque. The simple fact is, it should not matter. Push back on the fact that it is against the intent and beliefs of our founding fathers, one of our founding documents, the rights we like to flaunt to the world to show how advanced we supposedly are. Push back against the fact that it is simply wrong. No caveats needed.

Living in majority Muslim countries, I sometimes meet people who are shocked when I tell them we have Muslims living in the U.S. I've corrected people who believed Islam is illegal here, that mosques are banned, that there are only Christians here. And I have corrected people who believe Americans hate Muslims.

"You can't be American," people declare. "But you speak Arabic!" "But you know about Islam, about our history!"
"Your father or your grandfather must be Arab," they insist.
Nope, I'm just an ajnabia, just an American girl who fell in love with the place and people. Somebody who believes both are so much more than most give them credit for. Who believes that the region will not be helped with guns alone. And I've been proved right on both counts again and again.

So all this cowardly, bigoted talk - let's be honest - against the Cordoba House project and Muslims in general hits me especially hard. And it leaves me supremely disappointed in those who love flying a flag on their car, but who obviously don't really believe in the founding principles of this country. I am disappointed in those who should know better, or who do but refuse to speak out, or who couch the argument in mild terms.

You want to fight al-Qaeda and the like? Support Cordoba House and when it opens hold the mother of all opening ceremonies: lots of crowds, VIPs and global media coverage. Corporate sponsorships, even. Lots of quotes and video clips on the importance of tolerance, freedoms, spaces for dialogue in our society. The fact that we are all Americans. All of us.

This isn't just about a mosque, though, it's about all of us in this country.
Are we who we claim to be as a country, as an ideal?
Right now, I'm not so sure.

PS: Here's something to consider...

Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary


As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.