Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The "Normal" Religion

Since I've been quiet on the blog lately, let me give you all a quick heads-up about what's happening: I currently live in Germany, and I'm doing domestic abuse victim/survivor advocacy, outreach, and education for the U.S. Army. Go figure.

Our theme for the month being religion, I thought it'd be worthwhile to raise religions other than Islam. Not that there aren't a lot of fascinating and troubling things going on with power dynamics, oppression, and sex and gender within Islam and within the non-Muslim American media and public eye- but I think we tend to forget that our quest to fix all Others (religious and otherwise) usually eclipses some of the glaring problems within the systems and structures that are considered Us.

Some of you may know that the US military permits service members to specify a wide variety of religious preferences on their dog tags and paperwork, so they can get the service they'd prefer in the event of an untimely death. Everyone from Wiccans to Atheists to Catholics to Buddhists can, in theory, receive this treatment. But what about during life?

At work, we were cleaning out our storage warehouse last week. My program is part of Army Community Services (ACS), which offers everything from volunteer opportunities to community programming. In the piles of broken and wasted stuff that people had bothered to store, we found a whole pile of Christmas supplies- fake trees, ornaments, Santa decorations, etc. My colleagues were excited, especially since the Christmas supplies were right next to the Mardi Gras beads and noisemakers, and a few boxes over we found some cheap Easter bunnies and a bag of Halloween masks. It was a full year's worth of holidays! All that was missing were the turkeys for Thanksgiving, which someone explained had been thrown away the year before, and the 4th of July decorations, which were still in our offices. We had even thrown away an old box of Valentine's Day hearts. Great! Right?

Where, I wanted to know, were the Hannukah supplies? The Kwaanza candles? Why, in this supply warehouse of junk, didn't we find a single item to represent a non-Christian winter holiday?

I understand that there's a backlash to what's been dubbed the "Holiday PC Police" and that many people, the vast majority of whom are either Christian or celebrate Christmas, are annoyed that Hannukah and Kwaanza are gaining visibility in the Christmas shuffle. The flip side is that there are plenty of people who celebrate these holidays who want them left a-bloody-lone by the corporate sharks looking to exploit holidays for a quick buck. I understand all this.

But what shocked me is how completely blind ACS was to the diversity in its own community. ACS is ostensibly proud to serve every member of the garrison, not just the ones who have wounded family members or who need emergency financial relief or who are about to relocate. These are events that are supposed to draw the community together. I'm not sure that I'm suggesting that ACS start offering events for all religious holidays; rather, I'm highlighting my concern that non-Christian holidays weren't even a blip on my colleagues' radars. It's not as though the Army refuses enlistment to anyone with a religious preference outside of Christianity. So where's the support for the Jewish military family during Rosh Hashanah, for example, or Yom Kippur? What kinds of community events are set up to support Muslim military families as they fast during Ramadan?

It's not just ACS, I've been noticing, but it's the military culture in general. Bases have chapels- non-denominational religious spaces that are intended to be used for a variety of religious services. What they usually offer, however, is three or four different Christian services per week. Sometimes, there will be a chapel that's structured to be appropriate for a temple service. But I have yet to hear about services being offered for Muslim service members or their families, for polytheistic belief systems, or for the Wiccan service members who had to argue even to have their beliefs recognized by the military. In short, Christianity- and Christian-based lifestyles- are the unspoken metric of what's "normal" in a military community, and everyone else is asking for exceptional treatment.

The military is a culture unto itself, and that's important to recognize. Living this close to, or in, the military is most assuredly not the same as living in any other community in the States. But in many ways it's a useful litmus test for how the government views the culture(s) of the governed, and how it ranks them. Overseas, the government is concerned with providing service members and their families with as many of the amenities of home as possible- but how successful is it if many of those service members have to go off-base to find one of the most basic amenities, a religious community?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Respectful Gems from Several Faiths

 A Guest Post by Jonathon

"Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated. Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; and whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; and whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen."
                –Doctrine & Covenants 91 (A book of sacred text, a holy text particular to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
"Many years ago in the Orient, there lived a man who owned a ring of inestimable worth, which had been given to him by a cherished hand. The stone was an opal in which a hundred colors sparkled and which had the mysterious quality of rendering pleasing to both God and man the bearer who was confident of its power. Small wonder, then, that this man in the Orient never removed it from his finger and arranged to keep it in his family forever in the following manner.

"He bequeathed the ring to the most beloved of his sons and specified that that son in turn bequeath it to the son dearest to him and that always the most cherished son, regardless of his birth rank, would be the head, the master of the house, thanks alone to the power of the ring.

"Thus this ring was passed from son to son and eventually to a father of three sons, all equal in their obedience to him, whom he, therefore, could not but love equally. Only from time to time, it seemed to him that the first, then the second, and finally the third son seemed most deserving of the ring-whenever one or the other found himself alone with the father and the other two did not share the outpouring of his heart; and he even had, in moments of benevolent weakness, promised the ring to each of them. This continued as long as it was possible.

"When the time came for him to die, the good father found himself in difficulties. It hurt him to offend two of his sons who trusted his word. What was he to do? He secretly sent for an artist, whom he ordered to make the two most precise replicas possible of the ring, without regard to labor or cost.

"That artist was successful. Upon receiving the rings, even the father could not discern the true ring. With relief and joy, be called each son individually, gave his blessing to each, bequeathed his ring, and died.
"No sooner had the father died, than each son came with his ring, wanting to be master of the house. There were interrogations, quarrels, complaints, all for naught. The identity of the true ring was not to be proven, in just the same way as the identity of the true faith is concealed from us."
“Be respectful of the opinions and feelings of other people. Recognize their virtues; don’t look for their faults. Look for their strengths and their virtues, and you will find strength and virtues that will be helpful in your own life.”
– Gordon B. Hinkley (Former religious leader and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
"Islamic life revolves around five basic principles that are outlined in general terms in the Qur’an and expounded in the teachings and customs (Arabic, sunna) of Muhammad. These five pillars are the witness of faith, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Some examples of Muhammad’s teachings on charitable giving and fasting will illustrate his manner of teaching and his central role in Muslim life.
The principle of almsgiving is designed to care for the poor and to foster empathy in the community of believers. The Qur’an states that charity and compassion, not mechanical observance of rituals, define one’s worthiness in God’s sight (2:177). Muhammad’s sayings clearly teach the practice of charity:

'None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.'

'Each person’s every joint must perform a charity every day the sun comes up: to act justly between two people is a charity; to help a man with his mount, lifting him onto it or hoisting up his belongings onto it is a charity; a good word is a charity; every step you take to prayers is a charity; and removing a harmful thing from the road is charity.'

'Charity extinguishes sin as water extinguishes fire.'

'Smiling to another person is an act of charity.'

'He who sleeps with a full stomach knowing that his neighbor is hungry [is not a believer].'

"Muslims view fasting as having a dual purpose: to bring about a state of humility and surrender of one’s soul to God, and to foster compassion and care for the poor in the community. Thus, fasting and almsgiving go hand in hand: denying of oneself cannot be complete without giving of oneself.

"I was reminded of this principle among Muslims, and the profound influence of Muhammad’s example in their lives, while living in Cairo, Egypt, during the holy month of fasting, Ramadan. 21 My family and I were invited by a Muslim friend, Nabil, to participate in his family’s evening meal in which they broke their fast. As we entered their modest apartment in one of the most impoverished quarters of Cairo, I noticed that one of the rooms was occupied by numerous peasant women (distinguishable by their black clothing) and their children. They were all sitting on the floor with food spread out before them on a cloth, quietly waiting for the call to prayer that marks the end of fasting each day. When I asked if they were his relatives, he replied: 'No, I don’t know any of them. It is our habit to invite strangers off the street who cannot afford good food to share our Ramadan meal. We do this because it was one of the customs of our prophet, Muhammad.'

"I was deeply moved by my Muslim friend’s unselfishness and compassion for the poor, and humbled by his good example in practicing a principle that I had learned from the Bible years before but had rarely observed: 'When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors; … but when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee'"
- J.A. Toronto 
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
               - Mother Teresa
There is very little that I can say that would add to the words of these wise and dear women and men. As I was discussing religious intolerance with a friend, I suddenly became aware of how blessed I was to have grown up in a family environment that cherished truth and taught the truth. It was not so important where that truth came from, although my parents were well aware of the knowledge the gospel of Christ provided, rather it was simply important that the truth encouraged myself and my siblings to love one another and to serve one another. While I was on my mission, I came in contact with Jehovah Witness material and I realized that my mom taught us and read to us from some of those books. She also read to us from illustrated bibles that were written by other christian faiths. The best book I remember as a child was a book about virtues as taught by religious and uplifting stories throughout history. When I was old enough to learn about Buddhism and other eastern customs, my mom took time to answer my questions with a very simple response that encouraged me to seek for truth and trust in the Spirit of Christ to guide me.

Because of that teaching, my life has been blessed with many wonderful experiences that I would not have had if I had been biased. Even during the September 11 attacks, both my parents were quick to follow the council of our late Prophet Gordon B. Hinkley and draw a clear line between the religion of Islam and the extremist groups that were responsible for the attacks. That teaching blessed my mind and heart while I was on my LDS Mission to Germany. I was blessed to meet with many Muslims and learn from them the truths that we shared. I was encouraged by their pious and humble attitude towards prayer to again humble myself and attempt to strip my pride away–still an ongoing battle for me. I don't understand why we can look at others and see their good and bad without seeing in them a mirror of our own strengths and weaknesses and realize that we are kinsmen on this journey towards perfection. We are truly brothers and sisters. How can I love my brothers and sisters while I make a mockery of their journey? How can I see them as my beloveds without understanding that regardless of religions or beliefs or values we are all on the same journey. We are walking the same path and as the Pilgrim's Promise teaches, we are all at different stages along that path. We should not envy those ahead nor despise those behind but look to our God and be saved.

Jonathan is not a writer nor a outspoken leader of his community. He hasn't earned the distinction of changing the fabric of his citizenry or turning heads with his wild antics. Jonathan is self-serving and soft-spirited. He enjoys the fine things in life and is an advocate of right–that is as far as he has been able to define it himself. If you want to learn more about this gentle fellow and his self-proclaimed depthful thoughts visit one of his blogs. Depthful Thoughts or The Golf Instructor.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In the news: women and filmmaking in Afghanistan

After we've been talking about hijab and women's rights in various interpretations of Islamic literature, I thought it worth sharing this NYT article that popped up on my iGoogle this afternoon. It focuses on an Afghani female filmmaker who's just completed a movie that's extremely critical of the Taliban and its influence in the country. It's a good reminder of the privilege I mentioned in my last post about the role choice can play in religious garb- that the ability to choose one's expression of religion should be a right, but in many parts of the world is not.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Islamophobia or women's rights? Another perspective.

This post is partially in response to Emily's post earlier, but is also intended to highlight another question about feminism and Islam: privilege.

In her post, Emily mentioned that a positive impact of the French law is that "The law will discourage Muslim women who are debating about wearing the veil from doing so, since a Muslim woman who is only considering wearing the veil is unlikely to feel strongly enough about it to risk legal issues." To be honest, I completely disagree. Let me explain.

While I was in my undergrad, I was fortunate to take a class entitled "Women in Judaism and Islam," and for a class that had limited time to discuss some pretty complex topics, all of us- the vast majority female, the vast majority either Muslim or Jewish- had a great opportunity to start digging into some of the material that we'd never really encountered before in studying either religion. As you can imagine, hijab- the practice of modest dressing and comportment- came up quite frequently. Several of my Muslim classmates, who were from Toronto, Pakistan, and the States, wore hijab by choice; many of those who weren't were considering it.

The history of hijab is, of course, too complicated to explain here. This website offers a decent background in a nutshell, though. Essentially, the practice of hijab comes from a small and obscure phrase in the Qu'ran that instructs women to "draw their veils over their bosoms" when meeting men in the street. There are other passages that instruct modesty for both men and women, but this is the clearest one. Over the centuries, male and female scholars have debated the meaning of this phrase, and the answer has been everything from polite behaviour to segregation of the sexes to burkhas for women. True to the diversity in the history of hijab, my classmates all practiced hijab in different ways- they wore scarves around their neck and long pants, they only wore black and wore a scarf over their head, they wore a burkha without a niqab (face veil).

The women in my class who were wearing hijab had chosen to do so for a variety of religious reasons- daily reminder of one's faith, encouraging the self towards fuller religious participation and life- but a lot of additional reasons had nothing to do with religion at all. Rather, they were political. For many of the women from the States and Canada, especially, wearing hijab was an election to visible practice of a faith that's been taking a savage beating in western media. It was a way of defying the all-too-common assumption that hijab is an oppressive practice that's only imposed by men (a classmate from Pakistan, for example, told us about her aunt who elected to wear a burkha and niqab daily). My classmates also spoke to the unification they felt with Muslim women in the Middle East, for whom religion could be a struggle between personal faith and imposed politics, and how they felt that wearing hijab wasn't just a sign of faith, but also a sign of the diversity and empowerment that that faith has to offer. My classmates wore hijab as a reclamation of their Islam from a mass media massacre.

For me, when I read things like what I quoted from Emily, the first thing I think of is the passion that my classmates expressed when they spoke about their faith and the decisions they'd made. I don't want to imply that their choices were reactionary in North America, because many of them had chosen hijab in other cultural contexts and other political times. But the point remains that viewing hijab solely as an imposed patriarchal tool misses the variety of ways in which people interact with their faith, regardless of what their faith may be. I can only envision the women of France choosing to wear hijab specifically to defy the French government for presuming that it was the French government's choice to "liberate" them. "We don't need to be liberated!" my classmates are probably saying, wherever they are now. "We've made our choice. Stop assuming we're ignorant, or terrorists, or abused."

This, in turn, raises another question. My classmates were from around the world- Pakistan, Dubai, Toronto, etc.- and had all had the opportunity to make this choice. At the same time, they were also at one of the world's best universities and studying for their bachelor's degrees. The element of choice, for them, was probably more obvious and more accessible than for women growing up in families with different attitudes about women's education. This isn't to say that women at universities in the Middle East aren't experiencing similar feelings about hijab, but to say that education can make a world of difference in how someone interacts with her faith. The outcome may be the same as for the woman who wore hijab by command, but the fact of choice means everything. The privilege in being able to make that choice is, for me, the critical question.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Islamophobia or Women's Rights?

Just a couple days ago the French senate voted to ban face veils in public. The vote was nearly unanimous, with only one vote of dissent. Proponents of the legislation are saying that this move is constitutional and that it protects women's rights - arguments that I of course sympathize with. Opponents say that the law is driven by Islamophobia and that it impinges upon freedom of religion and personal liberty. An argument I also sympathize with. But let's put  aside theoretical, principle-based, moral values - just for a moment. Let's also forget about abstract statements about how the legislation will affect society (ie: "increase liberty," or "steal liberty"). Let's consider instead what the practical outcomes of this law will be.

What positive benefits are likely to stem from this law?

  • The law will discourage Muslim women who are debating about wearing the veil from doing so, since a Muslim woman who is only considering wearing the veil is unlikely to feel strongly enough about it to risk legal issues.
  •  Ditto for men who are only considering pressuring their wives or daughters into wearing the veil, since the legislation has much harsher penalties for people who force a woman to wear a face veil.
  • French citizens and tourists who feel uncomfortable with people hiding their faces in public will enjoy not seeing  full-on burqas in the streets.
  • Women whose self-esteems are damaged by hiding their faces in public will probably enjoy stronger emotional health.
  • Extremist Muslim groups are more likely to avoid living in France as a result of this legislation, a result I strongly suspect the legislators had in mind.

Now, what negative results are likely to stem from the law?

  • Muslim women who believe they would be disrespecting their faith by not wearing a face veil in public will face heavy fines or stay home to avoid paying fines(or attending a "citizenship" class).
  • Muslim men who don't want to face legal repercussions for forcing a wife or daughter to wear a veil may confine a wife or daughter at home.
  • French citizens who practice Islam and yet don't believe in face veils may feel misunderstood by the law - by creating a law that specifically targets a practice associated with one religion, the legislation makes latent (and unintentional) implications about that religion.
  • The law will likely cause a backlash among the sects of Islam that believe in the face veil.
  • Insofar as Muslim women who've been taught to hide their faces are victims, the law would risk victimizing the victims since its primary form of enforcement involves punishing the women who wear the veils. 

So, while I do not personally support the belief that women should hide their faces - it's in fact a belief that horrifies me - I think this legislation is misguided, and I am 99% sure it'll backfire.

For an alternative viewpoint, check out Carl the OMC's post on I Feel Like Schrodinger's Cat.

Any of our contributors who live in Europe care to weigh in? (That's right, Erica, I'm talking about you).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Call for Papers

Femministas is looking for submissions about marriage, written by Mormon women. They're looking for submissions of all sorts, from all types of Mormon-identified writers, be they married or unmarried, happy or unhappy, lesbian or straight. Please excuse my use of binaries. They make such nice-sounding lists that I use them more than is healthy.

For our readership to whom this CFP doesn't apply, we'll keep an eye out for other CFPs.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Religious Tolerance: September's (Belated) Theme of the Month

This is a theme that deserves more than half a month, so we will either extend it into October or revisit it in the future. But in light of the recent controversy (some would say "controversy" is just a euphemism for "Islamophobia") over the planned Islamic Cultural Center/ Mosque, we at NAW think it's time to discuss religious tolerance.

Your posts can address this theme in many different ways. Perhaps you have a personal story about how religion has played a positive role in your life, or a survivor story about facing religious persecution, or even a story about  spending time amongst a religious group not your own (cough cough Carl). Or maybe you have strong opinions about how we can show religious tolerance for one group without impinging upon the rights of those who belong to other religious groups. Or maybe you want to look at the role gender plays in religion.

The sky isn't even halfway to the limit on this one.

So, who wants to guest post on this topic?

Friday, September 10, 2010

In the Blogosphere (aka Emily sighs and bemoans the imperfection of the world)

First up, Racialicious brings us a post dissecting the problems with well-intentioned "Colorblind" programs. As Tim Wise points out in their interview with him, if we try to entirely ignore race, we often support subtle forms of racism, because we simply haven't admitted that the racism is there. For instance, let's say a hiring committee says "we hire the best candidate, period," but a study finds that when two candidates have similar qualifications, the job is more likely to go to the one who isn't black. But the hiring committee is certain that they just chose the person who seemed the most pleasant, friendly, nice, or whatever. Is that racism? Maybe. 

Or, let's say a young couple is anxious to adopt. They adopt a child of African descent, proud of how "colorblind" they're being. Then, as good parents, they shampoo the poor child's hair every single day and wonder why the kid's hair is all poofy and damaged. Or they misunderstand the child in some other, more significant way, as a result of ignoring the child's different heritage. Obviously we can't just ignore race and hope racism and racial ignorance will simply disappear. 

Mind you, as much as I loved the points that came up in that Racialicious post, I'm growing increasingly irked with articles that criticize another group's viewpoint, but without offering any suggestions on how the group can change their behavior in a positive way. It wouldn't irk me so much, except that I've started posting questions like "Ok, so what color-aware programs should we use, do you think?" only to have such questions ignored. Frustrating. Very frustrating. Is it so unfair of me to want someone from the Womanist community to let me know what they would like to see white feminists doing? I'm sure there are many people in the Womanist community saying just that, but I can't seem to find them. If they never articulate what they'd like to see white feminists do, I'll always feel like I'm damned if I do, and damned if I don't. Would my lifelong concern over inner city poverty cycles make me condescending in the eyes of womanist writers? I don't know. I really don't know.

Sigh. Big sigh. 

But while I'm on the topic of womanism, it's also worth checking out this Womanist Musing's post on the problems with writing-the-body. What is writing the body? Well, to put it in a nutshell, this is a theory that says, "Yeah, men and women are anatomically different. But instead of men using those differences to make women seem like a dangerous and scary Other, let's explore our own bodies in our writing." It's a philosophy that goes hand-in-hand with the classic feminist mantra that the personal is political. And there's a lot to be said for breaking away from the idea that men represent all of humanity, including women. But, as this post points out, this approach to writing has its limitations.

And while we're considering less prominent feminist voices, here's a piece from the folks at Feminist Mormon Housewives, questioning the writer's guilt about being a stay-at-home mother. As a (somewhat recovering) workaholic, I feel like I know her confusion. I can't even imagine how I'd feel if I were married, and the portion of work that I had been doing compared to my husband suddenly decreased. I don't think it's healthy to base how much work you do on how much your husband does, but on some level how can you not try to keep the work distribution even if you're married? But then how do you keep the work even, when you're performing different types of work? 

Solution: I will never get married, and I will instead live a wonderful life with my kitty cats.