A Crisortunity for Greatness

2016-map

 

I think our greatest days are ahead.  I’m hopeful that our future is better than our past since our history hasn’t always been so good.

“Make America great again” implies that our best days are behind us, but I can’t help but notice that every stage of U.S. history includes stories of minority groups being targeted and discriminated against like deja vu.  It’s a national hallmark, a common experience shared by minority communities since our inception. Whether you’re a Minnesotan Somali or a LA Latino, there’s a common experience of being distrusted, disrespected and suspected. This type of marginalization motivates us all through a shared desire for justice for ourselves and our kids. It’s that pursuit of justice that can motivate folks now more than ever.

Every crisis is an opportunity, a “crisortunity” if you will. The election crisis is no exception. A potential broad-based social and political movement is materializing before our eyes, driven by motivated communities of all backgrounds, working together towards common goals.  This isn’t a time for mourning, it’s an opportunity for real change.

We unite in times of crisis, like we did on 9/11. Crisis brings out the best in us and this election result is on track to do the same. Years from now, we may all thank Donald for providing the angry spark that started the movement. We’ll thank him for unmasking the ugly faces of racism, sexism, xenophobia, islamophobia and other ignorant phobias hiding just beneath the surface.  We’ll thank him for waking the silent majority when he publicly highlighted the American culture of sexism, racism and discrimination that permeated his campaign. Thanks for placing our ugly realities at center stage so we can finally address these truths instead of ignoring them and hoping they will disappear.

Across the country there is a shared sense of urgency that makes me hopeful that our best days are ahead. I hope America will realize our future is better than our past. I hope we choose progress over regress and that I never have to shield my kids from slurs or epithets from people who define “greatness” very differently than me.  I hope we unite behind our common values to find solutions that will make us great, or at least better.  I’ve seen how an organized, motivated electorate decides elections and makes change. We have the motivation, we have the numbers, now we just have to organize.  Time to break the cycles of racism and discrimination, time to make America great for once.

Digging Deep, NewGround Spotlight Story

My first crush in High School was a Jewish girl. She was in all my honors classes, a cutie, well read, athletic, sharp sense of humor and she had a beautiful energy. While I admired her I never got anywhere, mostly because I looked like this.

 

Class Photo

That caterpillar on my upper lip wasn’t exactly working for me. And despite having no chance with this young woman, I’d often think about how oddly compatible we were. We both had overprotective moms, we valued education, we didn’t eat pork, and we both thought the trinity was hogwash. Even our faiths were very similar so I felt like we could relate well.  I related to most of my Jewish classmates, sharing the common experience of being tolerated but never fully embraced because of our faith. School was my introduction to Jews, and I liked what I saw.

There were also some cool Christian kids in school. I had some great Pinoy (Filipino) Catholic friends, a ton of Catholic Latino friends from Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia. And there were even some cool white Christians. I hung out with some WASPS from my neighborhood, I played AYSO and club soccer with them and we were mostly cool. I appreciate LA for its diversity. I grew up around people from all over the world from Central America to Vietnam but despite the enriching diversity, we still had our share of crazy racists, kinda like the presidential race. The racists are always out there and our challenge is how to deal with them and change their hearts.

My personal experience with racism in high school was that every once in a while, like twice a day, some dude would say “hey towel head!” or “hey camel jockey” and of course I’d immediately stoop down to the lowest common denominator, and without skipping a beat I’d respond from a place of anger something like this: “Yo man is that a zit on your forehead or did you move your pecker to see it better?” That would stop their comments for a while. In high school my greatest test from God was that my name rhymed with Camel Jockey, and today I ask for forgiveness for failing that test repeatedly. So there was one classmate who used to call me “Tarek Shawky Camel Jockey” relentlessly. Today I understand that each time someone makes an ignorant, hurtful comment, it’s an opportunity to connect and educate them, but back then I almost never did. There was this one kid who I would always respond to by targeting his biggest weakness, his masculinity.  I’d say things like; “You thought you had a pubic hair until you peed out of it.” I liked that one, mostly because it hurt him.  I could see it on his face and it made me realize there was some truth to the joke. There was one time I made one student cry. I don’t recall what I said to him but I remember his friends started repeating it and he couldn’t take it. He cracked like a raw egg, wtih real tears. I smiled inside.  I’m not proud of that moment but at the time I remember thinking “sweet justice.”

I grew up in South Orange County behind that thick Orange curtain, the blackout curtain, literally “black out.” We had two black kids in my graduating class of 500, in public school. They had there clicks so I often hung out with the hardest Pinoy kid on campus. Phil

That’s him in the front. He was small but had a big ego.  He usually rocked a Malcom X cap. He had every color, every style, even the gold X, and almost every day he would wear one to school like a middle finger to the system. He hated the man. He wouldn’t take off his hat for the pledge of allegiance and if anyone said anything about it he’d get angry and get in their face. He gave me my first Malcolm biography, by Alex Haley. Along with many other students of color, we bonded because of our skin tones and appearances. We shared a certain unity as outsiders, and I appreciate the value of that now. For me unity means that I don’t stereotype or judge other faiths or ethnicities because I know them and because I understand that they are much more than the negative things people try to say about them. That’s why NewGround works. We dispel stereotypes by building real relationships and by bearing our souls thereby creating bonds that will change the face of Muslim/Jewish relations in LA, and hopefully the world.

In keeping with tonight’s theme of digging deep, I’m gonna Dig Deep, and take what I’ve learned from NewGround, and apply it to my High School self and imagine a better response to some of those personal attacks. If I knew then what I know, when someone said “hey camel jockey” I’d pause, take a breath, allow the adrenaline to subside, and respond with something like this: “ What I hear you saying is that you think I race camels? Where do you think I’m from exactly?” Curiosity instead of insults can make a world of difference. There’s this verse in the Quran         [Fusilat 41:34]

Screen shot 2015-12-16 at 1.36.57 PM

“Good and bad deeds are not equal, repel evil with what is better, and you may find that he who once had animosity towards you may become a dearest friend.”

Still Fighting for Independence

FarceOfJuly

Today we celebrate our most patriotic, most American holiday. Along with more than 50 other countries, we won our independence from Britain. It used to be said that the sun never sets on the British empire, because God doesn’t trust them in the dark. Some would argue that the US has since replaced the UK as the world’s colonizer. Our colonization may look different than that of the British but it is rooted in the same discriminatory ideology yielding very similar results.

I’m not interested in insulting my country on its birthday. I celebrate independence from all colonizing powers, ideologies and mentalities. I appreciate that our founders fought and struggled for our independence. I appreciate the founding documents that provided the origins of a political and social system that are the basis of these United States. At the same time, I am under no delusion to think our founding fathers and documents included “all people” regardless of ethnicity or gender. Our founders were slave owners who excluded women, Native americans and Black americans from those fundamental rights that were so eloquently articulated in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It was not the founders but the people of this great nation that fought and earned their rights and independence. Our government has historically conceded very little, it is usually the struggles of common American citizens that brought about real progress and change.

More than two centuries later there are still millions of Americans fighting for equality and independence. There are millions of women still struggling for equal pay and reproductive rights over their own bodies. There are Black churches still burning to the ground at the hands of those who do not believe in equality and human dignity. There are Native americans and minorities across the country who are still treated as second class. Conditions may have improved since the days of slavery but American gender and racial equality is still far from reality.

I consider myself an optomist and I do still celebrate American independence and believe in our great potential to do better. For those who truly value independence and equality, for those who love their country and its ideals, let this day serve to motivate and empower us to speak out and work for justice and equality until it becomes our reality, until we become the example of equality that our founding fathers never intended.

The Intersection of Chapel Hill and Black History Month

UNC Vigil

Let’s talk about hate for a minute. Most of us agree that the recent Chapel Hill homicides were not about parking spaces or mental health. I appreciate that mental health is a serious issue that requires further discussion and I agree with those who suggest that the assailant needs treatment just like ISIS members need professional mental help, but I will not ignore the fact that the perpetrator targeted three unarmed Muslim students inside their own home.

There is no justification for what he did and by all accounts his victims were saints, sweet young American college students, role models and humanitarians who happen to be Muslim. This ignorant, violent man did not know them well enough to see past his own stereotypes and he devalued their lives enough to justify taking them.

What’s worse than living through this tragedy is knowing that this ignorant man is not unique. There are plenty of gun-toting angry white men just like him. They are the weak among us who fall prey to the vile and hateful propaganda that results in devaluing the life of the “other” through stereotypes and fear of the unknown. The rhetoric today around Islam and Muslim reminds me of the ugly pre-holocaust German propaganda that involved newspapers such as Der Stürmer printing vile and ugly lies about Jewish citizens. The paper warned that Jews kidnap small Christian children before Passover to mix their blood with their Matzah. Many Germans eagerly consumed this hateful media the same way we consume “news” programs today that provide a platform for anti-Muslim bigots to spread hate like an airborne virus. It’s the same tired old tactic that’s been used to degrade Blacks, Latinos, Japanese-Americans, so many others and now Muslims. Even our film industry contributes to the propoganda. I have not seen “American Sniper” because I can’t stomach more popular media that devalues and minimizes Iraqi life. There are Iraqis I consider family and I love them too much to pay to watch a sniper shoot Iraqis. It makes me very uncomfortable, especially when I know it is based in fact. There are millions of others however that have no qualms about the film, which earned over $365 million in less than two months. The film may be a symptom, a cause, or both but it is just one part of the problem of how America now perceives Islam and Muslims.

Beyond media, our elected officials also contribute to this problem by publically posting comments that display their prejudices and negative attitudes towards Islam. I’d like to call out Ms. Melissa Melendez, assembly woman from Lake Elsinore California who just this week tweeted : “…Kayla Mueller murdered by Islamic savages. There MUST be consequences #standupagainstIslam.” A few weeks ago, Texas state representative posted this gem on Muslim Capital Day, an event organized to empower Texas Muslims to engage their elected officials and become active citizens:

@MollyWhiteTx

When our elected officials see Islam and American Muslims as the enemy then we should expect hate crimes to continue. Racism in America follows a pattern where the object of the hate changes like the wind, but the sentiment and tactics are exactly the same. Our history repeats itself like a train wreck video set on repeat. While our laws are in place to guarantee equality for all, our hearts are still not there. American needs to embrace the diversity upon which this county was built instead of tolerating the hate. When will we finally learn from our mistakes instead of constantly repeating them? How about right now, during Black History month?

I’d like to offer a simple lesson, Ignorance breeds hate. If you don’t know someone of a certain faith or ethnicity then you are more likely to embrace false and negative stereotypes to fill in the gaps. Curiosity, communication and interaction with those you don’t know will combat prejudice. Assumptions, stereotypes and distrust will only compound the issue.

I’m reminded this month that there are still millions of Americans alive today who witnessed a dark cycle of our history where lynching Blacks occurred for decades without legal consequences. We still have not adequately addressed that issue or the near eradication of the native populations who first called this land home. In order for us to ever “get over it,” as some would say, we must first address “it” and deal with “it” honestly. We need to have the difficult conversations that are the necessary prerequisites to learning, healing and embracing our diversity.

History reminds us that America does not readily admit to prior crimes or transgressions. Until we adequately deal with injustices from our checkered past, we will never move forward and break the cycle violence and hate. For a nation that prides itself on justice and equality under the law, we have a lot of work to do. This Black History Month let’s reflect on the the patterns of American racism instead of repeating it yet again. We can start by demanding accountability from our local officials and representatives. We must educate the ignorant and as Dr. King and Deah Shaddy Barakat’s father remind us our response must be rooted in love because hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

Love in the Shade of the Divine

Sea of Love Under the Shade of the Divine

Sea of Love Under the Shade of the Divine (Rose Hills Memorial Park, January 5, 2015)

Monday January 5, 2015 a hero was laid to rest in the shade of a tree, surrounded by the love that he nurtured for decades. A beautiful end to a beautiful life.

While our sense of loss and sadness weigh heavy, I find sweetness and comfort in reflecting on the reunion of his soul with the dispenser of souls. A reunion between two whose love for one another is unmistakable. I’ve seen that love because I was blessed to know Dr. Maher Hathout and his family for many years. In that time he taught me so much through his example. One such lesson is how faith and love manifest in deed. His accomplishments were always rooted in love and a desire to please the most merciful. He taught me that serving the divine means serving his divine creation and that service is the true manifestation of faith. Based on his extensive track record and dedication to his family, his community and his country I saw that he loved the divine like nobody I know. Similarly I saw how dear he is to the most high who chose him to be a catalyst for love and progress on earth.

His life’s work reflected a love, sincerity and integrity that are uniquely his own. One of the hallmarks of his love is how contagious it is. He touched people’s hearts and created ripples that affected at least four generations, and those ripples will continue to shape our landscapes forever. Of all his accomplishments the most significant in my opinion is how he molded young people into leaders. He had a knack for taking quirky, insecure Muslim youth often from immigrant families who were struggling to fit in and he instilled in them a sense of confidence, courage and knowledge thereby transforming them into proud Muslim American leaders and doers. With his love and wisdom he inspired generations of artists, poets, civic leaders, humanitarians, philanthropists, rich and poor, men and women, young and old, helping them find themselves and define themselves. He pioneered institutions while simultaneously molding pioneers to carry on his work and to champion a progressive Islamic ideology that he so elequently defined. His skills defined him as an artist, poet and human sculptor, a creative genius guided by the greatest artist, the most genius.

During his memorial and funeral services I witnessed one of the beautiful ripples that Dr. Hathout set in motion during his life. When it came time for the congregational sunset prayer at the Islamic Center Memorial on Monday night I watched as the prayer hall filled up with both men and women, young and old crowding into one space. Women stood in front of men and beside them, all ages and genders side by side sharing rows and prayers, focused only on their love for God and for Dr. Hathout. There were no haters, no critics and no distractions. The focus was not on the worshipers but on the worship, as it should be. It took the passing of our beloved hero to transcend our experience beyond rules bringing us one step closer to unity and love.  The next day at his burial site the same thing happened. As we lined up for the funeral prayer men and women stood side by side focused only on their prayers. It was a beautiful and significant moment in our history, a milestone for our community as we continue developing our identity, just as he always encouraged us to do.

Dr. Maher Hathout taught us to define ourselves, to speak from our hearts about our own experiences and never to conform to foreign ideologies that do not define us. For more than 40 years he has always been there to guide us along the path, helping us find our American Muslim Identity. He has guided us as best he could and trained generations to carry on this work, to continue to build and define our identity. Today the baton has passed and it is our time to sprint with every fiber of our being. His passing reminds me that our time is short and that one day soon we will pass the baton to our own children and grandchildren. I only hope that our example will inspire the next generation as he has inspired us.

Today we stand on a solid foundation built by giants. It’s our time to build higher and fill the space with love and compassion in a way that would make him proud and in a way that would please the most compassionate.

God rest your soul Dr. Maher Hathout. May he shower you with all of his love, all of our love for you, and all of his compassion and mercy. May he grant patience and comfort to your entire family and especially the sweet, dear woman who stood by you until the very end.

What I’ve Learned from Ants

Ants

The last several months have been an involuntary science experiment of sorts at our home. I’ve been dealing with an aggressive ant infestation and have observed thousands of these prehistoric creatures in my own habitat. I’ve seen them walking through my kitchen, in the bathroom and on a few occasions we’ve rendezvoused in the bedroom. At first I was annoyed, then intrigued, then enraged after too many failed eviction attempts.

During one of many killing sprees with the shop-vac I paused, turned off the vacuum and began staring at a long, wide row of ants making their way from the back door to my pantry. I was taken by their determination and discipline. I couldn’t help but admire how thousands of them work as one body on a mission, gathering food to support the colony. Peacefully foraging whatever was left out for them to eat whether it was a crumb on the counter, a dirty plate in the sink or scraps in the trash. As much as I despised them, I admired how efficiently they worked until every last morsel was gone. They are one of natures best recycling systems leaving no grain of food behind. I actually started to feel bad for killing these guys. I couldn’t blame them for coming into my house, after all they were just doing what they were created to do, and they were doing it well.

Watching them made me feel lazy and lackadaisical by comparison. There are no stragglers or lazy ants in the group. If the focus and drive of any single ant were transplanted into one of us we would excel, never distracted by life’s diversions, focusing only on our immediate goal until we achieved it or die trying. Watching their march made me reflect on the sad state of our own existence and how far we were from this idea of working together for the collective good. The marching ants are always moving forward, not a single ant stops for a break or a chat with a friend, never sneaking away for some selfish distraction. The power of discipline and selflessness was glaring at me through their tiny examples, reminding me how different our world could be if we followed their lead. Species survival tends to favor those who work together for the collective good and our species is so far from that. They existed for millions of years before us and I’d expect them to outlast us for millions more.

Nature always provides lessons for those who choose to see them. My ant-ventures came at a time when the world seemed pretty hopeless and dark. Seeing the death and atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and West Africa, I need to focus on something positive. These little visitors are to me a welcome example of how cooperation and selflessness can change our condition. They showed me that we have a choice to either act together to preserve life and improve our existence or we continue to fight and kill one another as if death and suffering were a competition where ISIS, Assad and the IDF all strive for Olympic gold.

In light of humanity’s long and prolific history of oppression, colonization and exploitation we might consider a change in strategy. If we do what we’ve always done then we should expect what we’ve always gotten. Perhaps we can take a page from a different playbook and try following an example that has worked for tens of millions of years for our more successful tiny cohabitants. What might the world look like if we try cooperation instead of competition? If preserving life was always prioritized over extinguishing it. If we treated everyone as equal instead of as “other”.

In my limited scientific observations I’d say that the ant creed is best summarized by this universal spiritual truth of reciprocity, do unto others as you would do to yourself. Ants submit to their instincts and live exactly as they were programmed to live, to be selfless and support the greater good. Whether you believe in evolution, God, mother nature or all the above, everything has a natural instinct that drives it from within. Our instinct is to be good to one another and to treat others as we like to be treated but we routinely defy that instinct and treat others like trash. We know it to be wrong because we experience guilt, or some of us do, yet we still treat people with arrogance, selfishness and disrespect.

A few years ago I read about an anthropologist in Africa who put out a basket of fruit and told a group of children that whoever got there first can keep all of the fruit. Instead of racing each other the kids from this tribe took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treat. When asked about their strategy they responded by asking how can one of us be happy if all the others are sad? The tribe’s language included a word we do not have, “ubuntu” meaning “I am because we are.” Like ants, there are still communities like these who value group welfare over individual gain. While these enlightened few are often discounted as hippies or communists, their example is much closer to our human nature and divine order than most “civilized” societies today.

My ant visitors live a life without luxury or glamor but they have a purpose and focus that many of us may never experience. The ants’ reward is not wealth or power. Their reward is collective success, making up 25% of the animal biomass in some parts of the world. They will most likely continue to grow and thrive because they work together, selflessly, each of them living simply so that they can all simply live. One day I hope we follow in their tiny footsteps.