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Considering Islam, terrorism and war

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad.

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad. This extremist Sunni group has announced plans to rule the territory it has carved out of Iraq and Syria in recent months.

Sam Dammam

During the past two years Sam has traveled to remote areas of Saudi Arabia, speaking with desert  Bedouins, city dwellers and government leaders. He has gained a remarkable understanding of Islam and the Saudi culture. (Click photos to enlarge.)

(Article last updated 7 February 2015, 11:01 pm)

Recently I received several questions from American friends. They are questions that have also troubled me since moving to Saudi Arabia two-and-a-half years ago. The questions: “When will Sunni and Shia Muslims stop fighting each other?” and “How can Muslims commit such horrible atrocities?” and “Doesn’t the evil of terrorism discredit Islam?”

A view from the heart of Islam

I have lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for two-and-a-half years now. I’ve asked just about every difficult question that could possibly be asked, and I have actually been on the lookout for “extremists” to try to get a better understanding of what makes them think the way the do. So far I have found possibly one.

The Muslim brothers and sisters I have here are, for the most part, rational men and women who dislike bigotry, hatred and war. They simply want a nation that has a sound economy. They want good educations and prosperous futures for their children and grandchildren. However, they are quite concerned about how others outside the Kingdom view their Muslim faith.

As I answer the above questions, I do not intend in any way to excuse some of the obvious hatred and bigotry among peoples and groups who refer to themselves as Muslims. But in living here in the Mecca Region, the very heart of Islam, I have gained what I believe to be a valid perspective, having completed the grueling difficulties of Hajj with friends from our local neighborhood mosque, and having visited Mecca on many occasions and Medina once.

Also, millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world travel in and out of Jeddah every year on their way to Mecca, just 35 miles down the road. I mingle with them as they come and go. I have also developed friendships with some of the migrant workers resident in Saudi Arabia—most who are Muslim.

Lest we forget our own Western “Christian” wars

The American Civil War found brother against brother and Christian against Christian to end slavery.

The American Civil War found brother fighting against brother and Christian fighting against Christian in a war to end slavery.

While we are astounded at what we see every night on television, I can imagine that many Muslims of the 19th and 20th century must have asked these same questions when observing wars in the West.

One might consider the American Civil War, that pit Southern Christians who supported slavery against northern Christians who, for the most part, opposed slavery. More than 620,000 American combatants died, and there were more than 450,000 casualties among American civilian men, women and children.

In reference to that War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.”

During the First World War and the Second World War “Christian nations” battled “Christian nations” for supremacy. It was a time when oligarchies made alliances with religious groups and political parties (fascism) for one political objective or another. Allied armies responded in force.

Even more recently we have had the Irish Republican Army (IRA) battling it out with the Presbyterian Orange Order of Northern Ireland. Countless kidnappings, murders, and bombings were carried out during the 1960s and 1970s. Homes were torched and innocent men, women and children were caught in the crossfire.

Today in South Sudan we find Christian militia battling Christian militia for power and control, and in the Central African Republic Chrisitan militias have taken up arms against Muslims. A UN report indicates the militias are guilty of ethnic cleansing.

Islam–divisions and factions

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ISIS and similar extremist groups are un-Islamic. They do not represent Islam any more than the KKK represents Christianity.

One cannot think simply of Islam as a united faith where all believers are in agreement. Islam has many divisions and factions.

Greater than eighty percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are said to be Sunni. Among Sunnis are thousands of offshoots.

In recent years, some self-proclaimed Sunni leaders, like those of ISIS (also known as IS, ISIL or Daesh), have managed to organize radical militias, enlisting soldiers while amassing funding by pillaging towns, cities, businesses and homes as they pass through.

ISIS has a radical agenda of organizing a caliphate (an Islamic state) from parts of Syria and Iraq. Their leaders have ordered Iraqi Christians living within their proposed state to convert to Islam, pay taxes or die.

To say that these fanatical Muslims who lob grenades at each other shouting “Allah akbar!” (“God is great!”) are representative of all Islam would be like saying the IRA is a bona fide movement of the Catholic Church.

I don’t know a lot about ISIS, but I can honestly say that some Islamic hate groups are to Islam what the National Socialist White People’s Party (NWSPP) and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) are to Christianity. Fortunately, most Americans are keenly aware that the NWSPP and KKK are certainly not “Christian” in the traditional sense, but both racist groups do claim to represent “white, Christian America.”

Islam and illiteracy

It is unfortunate that millions of Muslims today, especially those living in poorer nations, cannot read or write.

While education of both girls and boys is promoted throughout the Muslim world, some Muslim populations have fallen under the influence of radical Islamists who have political objectives that are extra-quranic. They forbid the education of girls and endorse only principled Islamic texts for educational purposes.

While many of those who are illiterate are able to recite long passages of the Qur’an, I was surprised to find that some have no idea what they are reciting. While the Arabic of the Qur’an is beautiful, flowing wonderfully with sounds and syllables, it is an ancient language that many who recite it don’t understand. It would be like a Catholic quoting from the Latin Vulgate Bible–not knowing the meaning or nuances of the Latin sentences and words.

It has been pointed out to me by men in my mosque that there are many who are born into Islam and refer to themselves as “Muslim,” but they actually have no idea what it means to truly be Muslim. They have little knowledge of who Mohammad was and the principles for which he stood.

War is hell, and horrible atrocities happen in all wars–even at the hands of western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, when radical Muslims who are politically motivated present themselves to be acting on behalf of God, the consequences can be disastrous. One man commanding a group of disenfranchised, uneducated, illiterate  followers can wreak havoc on a nation (eg Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, etc.).

The Sunni – Shia differences

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (15- 20 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (11 – 15 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Now we come to the historic Sunni—Shia divide.

I do not pretend to know all there is to know about what caused the evolution of Shia Islam and the succeeding Sunni resentment that followed. I have met a few Shia Muslims and have spoken with my Sunni Muslim friends about the matter. It appears that the battle is over something that happened nearly 1400 years ago; a deviation from the original faith observed by the Prophet Mohammad.

The Sunni branch of Islam believes that the first four caliphs (Mohammed’s successors) rightfully took his place as the leaders of Islam. They recognize the heirs of the first four caliphs as legitimate religious leaders. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.

Shia Islam, in contrast, teaches that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed. Shiites seem to be more mystical in nature—some paying homage and praying to Ali and his descendants.

In some Shia homes in Iran, one will find “icons” honoring Ali. Shiites make pilgrimages to what is believed to be Ali’s gravesite in Iraq. Some speak of the miracles Ali has performed on their behalf.

Sunnis compare such behavior to idolatry, and they believe that any form of idolatry is anathema and worthy of “hell fire.” Indeed, the Qur’an says that no one should worship idols or pay homage to humans or other created entities. Even pictures of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden.

I have visited Mohammed’s tomb at the Nabawī Mosque (also known as the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina. There are guards posted at Mohammad’s sepulcher to prevent Muslims from praying or paying homagevenerating the Prophet.

Protestant Reformation–wars and conflicts 

I find the Sunni-Shia divide to bear somewhat similarities to the great debate that took place between Protestants and Catholics during the great Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Protestants separated from Roman Catholics, debating similar issues. Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and others sought to eliminate many of the corruptions and accesses that were then present within Roman Catholicism.

Luther ignited the Reformation by posting his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That church held one of Europe’s largest collections of holy relics. These religious relics had been gathered by Frederick III of Saxony. At that time, pious veneration of relics were said by Rome to give relief from temporal punishment for sins in “purgatory.” By 1520, Frederick had over 19,000 relics, purportedly “including vials of the milk from the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger of Jesus’ birth and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod.”

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi mosques around Mosul. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official statements from the Islamic State extremist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Shiite's Jawad Husseiniya mosque explodes in Tal Afar, Iraq.

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi shrines and mosques around Mosul. Iraq. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official ISIS statements, Shia’s Jawad Husseiniya mosque is demolished in Tal Afar.

As reformers allied themselves with kings and rulers vicious wars ensued between Catholics and Protestants. Horrible atrocities were committed. Many of the reformers were imprisoned, burned at the stake, beheaded, hanged or dismembered.

Conflicts between some Shia and Sunni Muslims continue today. ISIS is further advancing its radical religious agenda by destroying Shiite mosques and Islamic shrines around the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul, which they captured last month. Al Arabiya reported that the damage extends to at least four shrines to Sunni or Sufi figures, and six Shiite mosques in the northern province of Nineveh.

Pictures surfacing on social media showed the destruction, ISIS troops accomplished with explosives and bulldozers. They appeared on a militant website that was verified by the Associated Press as being an outlet  for official ISIS statements. The photos were posted under the headline, “Demolishing shrines and idols in the state of Nineveh.”

The vast majority of Shias and Sunnis live in friendship together side by side. They say it is security and stable economies their families need, not misguided extremists stirring up trouble.

I pray that peace and reconciliation between these two contending bodies of believers might be possible in the same way that eventual dialogue, appeasement and understanding have taken place between Protestants and Catholics during the past century. After all, Islam means to “voluntarily surrender” to the God of Abraham. It also implies “peace” and “safety.”

Current situation in Syria and Iraq

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in their homeland in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

I liken the present situation in Syria and Iraq to that of the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia had come into existence as a result of treaties at the end of the First World War. Serbia (which then included the present-day Republic of Macedonia), Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia were forcibly joined, and after the Second World War these Balkan states were brought under Josip Tito’s communist dictatorship as the Iron Curtain of atheistic socialism descended over Central Europe.

After Tito’s death in 1980 and the subsequent fall of communism in 1989, the nation of Yugoslavia descended into anarchy and civil war. Today, the former Yugoslavia has self-divided along religious beliefs and ethnicity.

Now there are predominantly Catholic Christian states, Orthodox Christian states and Muslim states. All are now living peaceably and have expanding economies.

Many of the Islamic states of the Middle East were also formed after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Their borders were drawn up by colonial powers (England and France). The secretive Sykes–Picot Agreement, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, defined their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East. Dictators were essentially appointed and supported by various foreign powers, including the United States.

What is now happening in Syria and Iraq is, I fear, inevitable. People yearn for freedom and stable economies–better futures. Today we are witnessing the breakup of these “forced” states along religious and ethnic lines. In the case of Syria and Iraq, Sunni, Shia and Kurds are vying to have dominant influence hoping to form their own independent states.

The challenge for Arab states

KSA Hotspots MapHow will these conflicts that currently surround the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman affect the stability of these nations?

As I write this article, CNN is broadcasting that that Al Qaeda and another group new to me is planning attacks on Arabian Peninsula airports and shopping malls.

There is growing concern about Islamic extremism here and elsewhere. As well-publicized bouts of violence, from civil war to suicide bombings, plague the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Lebanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks are all more worried about the extremist threat than they were a year ago. Men and women living in Muslim states hold very negative opinions of well-known extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Last evening, Prince Turki al Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the US and former Saudi intelligence chief, was interviewed by CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. (See posted interview at the end of this article.)

Prince Turki believes ISIS is a threat to world peace. He argued that the the major powers must come together to confront ISIS.

“Look how many American young people, French, English and other misguided western youth are joining the ranks of ISIS,” he said. Prince Turki says this is a critical matter that needs to be dealt with by western governments as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Prince Turki says the Muslim world basically wants to live in peace. He believes the kind of terrorist tactics being espoused by ISIS is foreign to the faith of Islam. He concluded his remarks on CNN about ISIS, “It’s a terrorist organization that has specialized in brutal killings, so it is a danger to the whole area and I think to the rest of the world.”

On August 7, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, said extremists are attempting to hi-jack Islam for their own evil use. He condemned Islamist extremists who he said have besmirched Islam by committing atrocities in the name of religion. The King’s comments were read August 7 on Saudi television, “It is shameful and disgraceful that these terrorists are doing this in the name of religion, killing people whose killing Allah has forbidden, and mutilating their bodies and feeling proud in publishing this.”

The ISIS call for a Sunni Islamic caliphate has little support outside the ranks of the organization. Muslim scholars and movements from across the Sunni Islamic spectrum have rejected the caliphate declared by the group, with the fighters receiving scathing criticism from mainstream Muslim leaders. Most recently the chief imam of Turkey has pronounced the ISIS caliphate as illegitimate.

Murder and wanton slaughter of the innocent prohibited

The Qur'an is clear on matters of war and condemns terrorism as worthy of hell.

The Qur’an is clear on matters of war and condemns suicide bombers as worthy of hell fire. The Qur’an provides rules for faith and practice for all Muslims.

All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) agree that acts of aggressive behavior, especially when it involves murder and massacres of innocent men, women and children, are evil. There is no place within any of these faiths for suicide bombers and acts of aggression.

Abrahamic believers today are of one of two opinions. Some seek to avoid conflict and war all together, declaring themselves pacifists or conscientious objectors. They refuse to fight under any circumstances.

The overwhelming majority consider “just war” appropriate when confronting an agressive enemy that is invading, killing their fellow citizens, and destroying their cities, businesses, farmlands and homes.

In Islam, the Qur’an makes the  following clear:

Suicide is forbidden.  “O ye who believe!… [do not] kill yourselves, for truly God has been to you Most Merciful.  If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast him into the Fire…” (Qur’an 4:29-30).

The taking of life is allowed only by way of justice (i.e. the death penalty for murder), but even then, forgiveness is encouraged.  “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause…” (Qur’an 17:33).

In pre-Islamic Arabia, retaliation and mass murder was commonplace.  If someone was killed, the victim’s tribe would retaliate against the murderer’s entire tribe.  This practice was directly forbidden in the Qur’an (2:178-179). Following this statement of law, the Qur’an says, “After this, whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave chastisement” (Qur’an 2:178).

No matter what wrong we perceive as being done against us, we may not lash out against an entire population of people. The Qur’an admonishes those who oppress others and transgress beyond the bounds of what is right and just.  “The blame is only against those who oppress men with wrongdoing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice.  For such there will be a chastisement grievous (in the Hereafter)” (Qur’an 42:42).

Harming innocent bystanders, even in times of war, was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad.  This includes women, children, noncombatant bystanders–even animals, trees and crops.  Nothing is to be harmed unless the aggressor is actively engaged in an assault against Muslims.

Listen to this interview conducted from Jeddah last evening by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour with Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal.

Sources: CNN, CBS News, Arab News, wikipedia.org, Saudi Gazette, New York Times, The Huffington Post, Aljazeera Internatioanl News, National Post (Jordan), islamicity.com, answering-islam.org, Al Arabiya News

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July 2, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Islam, Religious Reconciliation, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Happy Ramadan, everybody!

Colorful lanterns are often light to celebrate the month of Ramadan.

During Ramadan lanterns and lamps of various kinds, hues and degrees of brightness are often strung in homes and businesses.

A time of rejoicing, fasting and prayer

From Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sam wishes all a very happy Ramadan!

From Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sam wishes all his friends around the world a very happy Ramadan! (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Today, 29 June 2014, marks the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which is the most important time of the year for Muslims worldwide.

This is my third year to join in the celebration of Ramadan in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, having moved to Jeddah in December 2011.

Ramadan is viewed by children as a wonderfully magical time. Neighborhood houses and businesses are often adorned with strings of colored, lighted lanterns. During Ramadan lanterns and lamps of various kinds, hues and degrees of brightness are often strung in homes and businesses. Many stories of their origins have been told. One legend has it that the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim Bi-Amr Illah wanted to light the streets of Cairo during Ramadan nights, so he ordered all the sheikhs of mosques to hang Fawanees that could be illuminated by candles. As a result, the Fanoos became a custom that has never been abandoned.

Homes seem to be perfumed constantly with the mixed smells of food and burning incense—all serving as a constant reminder that this month is a very special time of the year.

The uninterrupted chanting of Qur’an verses emanating from nearby mosques indicate the absolute solemnity of Ramadan.

It is an intrinsically sacred time for all Muslims. It was during the month of Ramadan that the first revelations of the holy Qur’an were first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel.

The Qur’an is the holy book of Muslims, being recited daily year-round through prayers and worship. It is the basis for reflection in guiding the lives of Muslim men, women and children.

A time of renewal, drawing closer to God

During Ramadan, Muslims will fast and engage in extra prayers and worship, as a means of drawing nearer to God.

Ramadan is the ninth Islamic month. The Islamic calendar is based on a lunar calendar, and the lunar calendar which is 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. It, therefore, takes 30 years for the calendar to rotate full cycle.

Fasting and prayer are from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, which presents greater challenges to Muslims living in the far northern regions where they are expected to stick to the rules, no matter how long the fasting period may be. Fasting in northern Canada or the Nordic states of Norway, Sweden, and Finland is especially difficult, but the blessings of fulfilling the fast are even greater.

The Prophet Muhammad taught that “whoever does not give up lying or cursing during Ramadan, God has no need for that person to give up his food or drink” – which emphasizes that Ramadan is not just about avoiding food or drink, but also working on who one purports to be as a person.

As a spiritual support to achieve one’s goal, Muslims will attend their mosques more often. In the evenings there will be a special extended prayer time.

A Muslim family breaks the fast at sundown with Iftar.

A Muslim family breaks the fast at sundown with Iftar.

A month of empathy and gratitude

Ramadan is known as the “month of empathy.” Ramadan is an exercise in empathy for the more than 2 billion people in the world who live in poverty, but it’s also a lesson in gratitude.

During this 30-day period Muslims put themselves in the shoes of people who are in dire straits—people who are suffering deprivation of all kinds: thirst, hunger, homelessness, sickness, pain, etc.

This month at Tuqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as in all mosques around the world, the brothers and sisters gather five times a day for prayer, fellowship and encouragement while reflecting on the needs of others in their community and worldwide.

Collections are made for the poor. Individuals are encouraged to carry out distributions to the poor. It is common to find men, women and children on street corners distributing dates and water to passersby at sundown for the breaking of the fast.

The ultimate “anger management” course

Men and women seek to draw closer to God through prayer and reading the Qur'an.

Men and women seek to draw closer to God through increased prayer times and reading the Qur’an.

Along with learning and practicing empathy towards others, one is to learn patience.

For 30 consecutive days the faithful are put into a situation where they will face are going to be hungry, sugar levels are low, and the chances are that one is going to get a bit edgy and agitated, so either one develops a rather foul mood for the month of Ramadan or one deals with it successfully for 30 days.

Ramadan is likened by Dr Mansur Ali Jameel, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Center for the Study of Islam at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, as “the best possible anger management course.”

Muslims are advised to control and deny anger. If one feels anger rising within, one is encouraged to take refuge in God.

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said, “If a man gets angry and says, ‘I seek refuge with God from the accursed Satan,’ his anger will go away.” Saying this, Muslims believe, will make it easier to control your anger, as it will remind you that it’s being increased by Satan’s whisperings and that he is rubbing his hands with glee at your rising temper!

Standing makes one feel strong, agressive and powerful and ready for fight. So if one gets angry while standing one is directed to follow the Prophet’s advice: “When one of you becomes angry while standing, he should sit down. If the anger leaves him, well and good; otherwise he should lie down” (Abu Dawud and Al Tirmidhi).

Remembering God and the coming judgment

Noor Khan helps load food bags for different charities that were picking up the donated food bags at the Al Hijra School in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The food and cash donations were collected by the local Muslim community.

Noor Khan helps load food bags for different Canadian charities. The food and cash donations were collected by the local Windsor, Ontario, Muslim community.

All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) teach that there will most definitely be a final day when all humankind will stand before God in Judgment. Jesus spoke of the Judgment Day when he walked among men. He said “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of’ Judgment” (Matthew 12:36). We’re told in Hadith Jibra’il, that one is: “…to worship God as though you are seeing Him, and while you see Him not yet—truly He sees you” (Al-Bukhari).

Such God-consciousness (tuqwa) is a good practice for all who claim to believe in the God of Abraham!

One should strive to live each moment, fully aware of God’s presence, living in the knowledge that He is watching everything done by humankind—that someday there will be an accounting for one’s behavior here on earth.

Ramadan is a great time to demonstrate repentance, seeking renewal in one’s relationship with God, to gain forgiveness and peace through increased reverence and worship and to prepare oneself for that final, great Judgment Day.

A firm faith in God is the beginning of that journey—but it must be proved that it is a genuine faith that leads to changed behavior while reflecting on the needs of others and exercising self-restraint; engendering greater love, dedication and service to our almighty God.

Eid al Fitr celebrations

Ramadan ends with the festival Eid al Fitr, which in 2014 occurs on July 28. Literally the “Festival of Breaking the Fast,” Eid al Fitr is one of the two most important Islamic celebrations (the other occurs after the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca). At Eid al Fitr people dress in their finest clothes, adorn their homes with lights and decorations, give treats to children, and enjoy visits with friends and family.

A sense of generosity and gratitude colors these festivities. Although charity and good deeds are always important in Islam, they have special significance at the end of Ramadan. As the month draws to a close, Muslims are obligated to share their blessings by feeding the poor and making contributions to mosques and community nonprofit organizations.

In many parts of the world Ramadan is celebrated with spiritual music. Enjoy this Ramadan song by contemporary Muslim recording artist Maher Zain:

Sources: Arab News, Saudi Gazette, ramadan2014.net, The Windsor Star, Time Magazine

June 29, 2014 Posted by | Archeology, Islam | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boston bombings — an expat’s Middle East perspective

8-year-old Martin Richard killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, holding this sign has come to symbolize the tragedy worldwide. Martin’s dad ran in the marathon. Martin's mom and sister were also seriously injured.

8-year-old Martin Richard killed in the Boston Marathon bombing,  has come to symbolize the tragedy worldwide.  Martin’s mom and sister were also critically injured. His dad ran in the marathon.

A city terrorized

We’ve all been emotionally moved by the recent terrorist attack in Boston.  Indeed, the whole world is sickened by the shocking Boston Marathon bombings which have resulted in the deaths of three people, the maiming and wounding of nearly 200 other men, women and children, the terrorizing of the entire city of Boston and the shooting death of a law enforcement officer.

Most of us have been glued to our TV sets and scouring the internet in search of news and the latest discoveries related to the attack.

There were the typical harsh pronouncements and misstatements that accompany such an event. Some journalists and politicians were quick to comment, making sensational, false statements and assertions.

At first, two Saudi students studying in Boston were arrested. Almost immediately, a FOX News commentator tweeted, “Muslims are evil! Kill them all!” He later deleted the comment when it was found the Saudi students were not involved.

Two brothers accused

The search for suspects eventually zoomed in on two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, 19.

An aunt said the Tsarnaev family is originally from the southern Russia region of Chechnya, but like other Chechens was forced to leave in 1944 during World War II and relocated to Kyrgyzstan. Chechnya, is a mostly Muslim republic in the North Caucasus, and was the scene of two bloody wars after the breakup of the Soviet Union, as separatists fought Russia for independence before prime minister Vladimir Putin crushed the rebellion in 1999.

Terrorism linked to Chechen fighters included a 2002 attack on a Moscow theater that killed 129 hostages, and the 2004 siege of a primary school in Beslan, near Chechnya, that killed more than 300, about half of them children.

The Tsarnaev family had set about building American lives after seeking political asylum in the US, but the two brothers are said to have been adrift after their parents returned to Russia.

The brothers were from Dagestan, which borders Chechnya in southern Russia, and initial reports suggest they were adrift after their parents returned to Russia.

The brothers, Tamerlan (left), 26, and Dzhokhar, 19, were from Dagestan, which borders Chechnya in southern Russia.

After graduating Cambridge Ridge and Latin School, Dzhokhar enrolled as a nursing student at UMass Dartmouth, becoming an American citizen just last year on 9/11.  All who knew him expressed absolute shock, saying he was your typical friendly, loveable American teenager.

Their road to terror?

Tamerlan had once embraced life in the US, even hoping to qualify as an Olympic boxer for his adopted country, but he became ostensibly unhappy in America. “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them,” he was quoted as saying in a photo caption that appeared in a Boston University student magazine in 2010.

It was during this period that Tamerlan is said to have self-identified as a Muslim. He is quoted as having said he did not drink or smoke: “God said no alcohol.”

A video believed posted on YouTube by Tamerlan, including links to radical Islamist material, told a darker story still, as did the fact that the FBI had interviewed Tamerlan, at the request of a Russian government, over suspected Islamist extremist views, but found nothing alarming.

According to acquaintances at a Boston mosque,  Tamerlan was a loner with flashes of anger. People at a Boston mosque on Prospect Street, found him difficult.

Nichole Mossalam, who works for the Islamic Society of Boston, said Tamerlan, on at least one occasion, became outraged during a sermon. “He made a verbal outburst,” said Mossalam, after the person giving the Friday sermon compared Martin Luther King with the Prophet Mohammad.

Another scholar, Juan Cole, offers an intriguing theory of a broken family dynamic, focused around tensions between the two sons and their father. The parents of the two young men, who later returned to Russia, are in disbelief, saying their two sons were simply not capable of such carnage. (Loving, disbelieving parents are often wrong.) The father claims his sons have been framed by the FBI.

Other American relatives living in Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts have also expressed dismay, saying the two brothers never exhibited any signs of anti-America sentiment.

More recently, Tamerlan  married. He and his wife Katherine have a young daughter. Katherine Tsarnaev says she has no knowledge of her husband’s terrorist activities. She is sure to be a key witness in the investigation and Dzhokhar’s eventual trial.

Tamerlan dead, Dzhokhar arrested

It’s difficult to understand how people become alienated from family—from other human beings. But that alienation, fueled by feelings of hatred, is a powerful incentive for evil, and in this case, Islamic radicalization.

Whatever finally emerges as the underlying cause which persuaded the two young men to launch their murderous attacks – a sense of alienation, jihadi motivation or just pure evil forged in the midst of the their fraternal relationship or a combination of all three; by last Friday night, Tamerlan would be dead and Dzhokhar surrounded by police in the town of Watertown.

Residents took to the streets with American flags to celebrate the news that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been captured. Dzhokhar is now in fair condition in a Boston hospital — said to be sedated.

US Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham grabbed headlines with demands that Dzhokhar, an American citizen, be treated as a high-value suspect and tried as an “enemy combatant.” They wanted no public trial, but a speedy military tribunal. However, the White House insisted that will not be the case. White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We will prosecute this terrorist through our civilian system of justice. Under US law, United States citizens cannot be tried in military commissions.”

Certainly, more will be revealed during the weeks and months ahead as national and international investigations continue.

Dzhokar’s Twitter account

The media have been picking through statements made by the two young men on their social media accounts. CNN, the BBC, FOX News have examined Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Twitter account, reading what they can into this 19-year-old’s motives.

I, too, was drawn to Dzhokhar’s Twitter messages. I was surprised that no one had picked up on this almost self-fulfilling prophecy. Tweeting as “Jahar,”  Dzhokhar sent out the following message on Monday, March 18:

This message was tweeted by Dzhokar on March 18, 2013.

This message was tweeted by Dzhokar on March 18, 2013.

Yes, Dzhokhar, people do come into our lives, some to help and love us, and others to hurt and leave us, but we don’t have to let hurts and disappointments determine our attitudes and future actions.

In some respects, we can all identify with life’s turmoil, hurts and desertions. Many of us have felt forlorn at one time or another.  We can all point to many of life’s disappointments and tragedies, ones we’ve personally encountered. We may deem it all horribly unfair. We have become victims, alienated, identifying with the wrongful suffering of our own family or group–even irate with ethnic conflicts that occurred generations or even hundreds of years ago.

Today CNN reported that Dzhokhar began to speak from his hospital bed to police investigators. Dzhokhar is reported to have said there were no international groups involved and that his older brother organized the deadly terrorist attack “to defend Islam.”

(Ed. Note:  Well, Dzhokhar, you haven’t defended Islam. You have defamed Islam through your murderous activities. ~ SS)

Thus far, Dzhokhar’s statements suggest that the Tsarnaev brothers were largely self-taught jihadists, having learned how to make a bomb online and by absorbing extremist ideology through the internet. But according to the Associated Press, a local Boston-area convert to Islam — a mysterious figure known only as “Misha.” Misha is said to have played a key role in Tamerlan’s radicalization, suggesting that while online tools may have allowed the brothers to carry out the operation, their radicalization may have occurred within their community in Boston.

Americans not the only victims of terrorism

While we are, indeed, concerned for the well-being of the hundreds of people affected by the Boston bombings, let us also remember that such events happen almost daily in many other nations around the world. We must not become immune to the bombings and mayhem experienced by other people due to terrorism and war. Nigerians, Malians, Somalians, Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Indians — the list goes on.

Wars and conflicts around the world breed violence and violence revenge—and even as we retaliate with navies, armies, missles and drones, innocent men, women and children are caught in the cross-fire.

According to Daniel Benjamin, counter-terrorism specialist, there were more than 10,000 terrorist attacks in some 70 nations, resulting in more than 12,500 deaths. Benjamin says, “The largest number of reported attacks occurred in South Asia and the Near East. More than 75 per cent of the world’s attacks and deaths occurred in these regions.”

Benjamin says, the victims of terrorist attacks remain overwhelmingly Muslim.

Following the Boston attacks, photos showing Afghans holding a sign reading “To Boston from Kabul, with love” started spreading on social networks.

Following the Boston attacks, photos showing Afghans holding a sign reading “To Boston from Kabul, with love” started spreading on social networks.

Overcoming evil with good

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urges action on behalf of all victims of terror. He says, “Terrorism can affect anyone, anywhere. It targets all ethnic groups, religions, nationalities and civilizations. It attacks humanity itself.”

The US Department of Justice provides sound online help and counseling for victims of terrorism.

Within our Abrahamic faiths, let us learn to be champions of peace, both collectively and within our individual faith communities.  As people of faith, let us make a difference in the way we respond to hurt, desertion and violence. We have a higher calling, not to respond hastily with screaming words, insults and false accusations.

We must realize that every person maimed or emotionally damaged by such conflicts is a potential recruit for terrorism. We have a higher calling; we are to be men and women of peace — encouragers of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Truly, no society on earth can exist without justice; however, we are to be known for compassionate justice, and whenever and wherever possible, reconciliation.

Muslims, Christians and Jews—we all have our noisy radicals that make the sensational headlines of nightly news and daily newspapers because of their hatred and killing. But the truth is, such terrorists and preachers of hate are few and far between. They do not represent the overwhelming majority of members within our faith groups. They are noisy, militant, mostly politically-motivated, ungodly minorities who have somehow become detached from the realities of the goodness and mercy of God.

Let us commit to overcoming their evil with good. Let’s find ways to give generously to help victims of terrorism around the world.

Since the Boston bombings, in just one week, more than 200 people around the world have died from terror attacks, and thousands have died from wars and political conflicts. In a Damascus, Syria, neighborhood, in just one day, more than 500 men, women and children were executed or killed in battle with Bashar al-Assad‘s forces. Most of the women and children were shot in the head at close range.

Martin’s dad responds to Dzhokhar’s capture

At the end of this Boston terror spree, young Martin’s dad responded to Dzhokhar’s arrest, “It worked, and tonight, our community is once again safe from these two men. None of this will bring our beloved Martin back or reverse the injuries these men inflicted on our family and nearly two hundred others. We continue to pray for healing and for comfort on the long road that lies ahead for every victim and their loved ones. Tonight our family applauds the entire law enforcement community for a job well done, and trust that our justice system will now do its job.”

Throughout the US, Muslims, Christians and Jews are also expressing solidarity with the people of Boston. Here’s a TV news story about a vigil held by the Council on Islamic American Relations in Arizona:

Sources: CNN, FOX News, NPR News, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker Magazine, BBC, Huffington Post, CBS News, Wikipedia.com, The Telegraph, The Examiner, Slate, AP

April 22, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grandmother Eve — buried in Saudi Arabia?

Sam stands at the old entrance to Ummuna Hawwa (Eve's Cemetery).

Sam stands at the old entrance to Maqbara Ummuna Hawwa (Mother Eve’s Cemetery) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Eve’s tomb in Jeddah

It is believed by some Muslims that Eve, the Mother of Humanity, was buried in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. While there is no absolute archaeological evidence old enough to authenticate the story of Eve’s burial here, the legend persists.

Some say that the city’s name, when pronounced as “Jaddah” — an Arabic word that means grandmother — is a reference to Eve. No one really knows how the story originated, and some in this Red Sea port city dismiss it as merely a myth. However, there is empirical evidence (references) dating back at least 1,200 years.

“It’s a legend, but it is one mentioned by many scholars,” says Sami Nawar, Jeddah’s general director for the city’s Culture and Tourism Department. Nawar, an expert on the history of Old Jeddah, likes to lace a bit of the legend into his presentations on the city to visiting foreign dignitaries and journalists.

The creation story

All Abrahamic holy books (the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an) say that Adam and Eve were the first members of the human race–created by God to dwell on earth.

In the first book of the Bible one reads, “And God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:25-28).

Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that Adam and Eve lived in Paradise (the Garden of Eden or heaven) before their fall from grace. After Eve ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree and gave some of the fruit to Adam, who also ate it, then the story goes that “their eyes were opened” so they immediately understood the difference between good and evil. God then banished them from Paradise.

In the Qur’an we read, “And We said, ‘O Adam, dwell you and your wife in Paradise and eat therefrom in [ease and] abundance from wherever you will. But do not approach this tree, lest you be among the wrongdoers.’ But Satan caused them to slip out of it and removed them from that [condition] in which they had been. And We said ‘Go down, [all of you], as enemies to one another, and you will have upon the earth a place of settlement and provision for a time’” (Al-Baqarah 35 and 36).

Early origins of the legend

Eve's tomb as drawn by 1984.

Tomb of Eve, drawing found in Pélerinage á la Mecque et á Medine by Saleh Soubhi, Cairo, 1894.

It appears that the earliest documented mention of Eve’s tomb being in Jeddah is by the Arab historian and astronomer Abū Muḥammad Al Hamdani (c. 893-945) who states it had been related that Adam was in Mina Valley, to the east of Jeddah, when he felt a yearning to visit Eve–that Eve had come from Jeddah, and that he found her to the East of Mina Valley on Mt. Arafat.

The renowned British explorer, geographer and ethnologist Sir Richard Francis Burton  (1821 – 1890) makes mention of Eve’s Jeddah burial site in his English translation of the classic work One Thousand and One Nights (in English most commonly known as The Arabian Nights).  

Conservative Islamic influence

Many non-Muslims, especially Jews and Christians, fail to appreciate just how diverse and varied Islam can be. Just as with Christianity or Judaism, there are things you can say that apply to all or most adherents of Islam, but there are many more things which only apply to a particular group of Muslims. This is especially true when it comes to Muslim fundamentalism; because Wahhabi Islam, the primary religious movement behind fundamentalist Islam, includes beliefs and doctrines not found elsewhere.

It would be a mistake and unethical to be critical of all Muslims on the basis of doctrines particular to Wahhabi Muslims. Modern Islamic fundamentalism and movements cannot be explained or understood without looking at the history and influence of Wahhabi Islamic teaching. This means that it’s important from an academic perspective to understand what Wahhabi Islam teaches and why those teachings differ from other branches of Islam.

Eve's tomb c. 1908.

A photograph of Eve’s tomb c. 1908. The tomb attracted historians and tourists from around the world.

The First Saudi State was founded in 1744. This period was marked by conquest of neighboring areas and by religious zeal. At its height, the First Saudi State included most of the territory of modern-day Saudi Arabia, and raids by Al Saud’s allies and followers reached into Yemen, Oman, Syria, and Iraq. Islamic Scholars, particularly Muhammad ibn Abdul Al Wahhab (1703 to 1792) and his descendants, are believed to have played a significant role in Saudi rule during this period. The Saudis and their allies referred to themselves during this period as the Muwahhidun (“the unitarians”) or Ahl al-Tawhid (“the monotheists”).

The fundamentalist teachings taught by Al Wahhab positioned him in history as the first modern Islamic fundamentalist. I’m told that Al Wahhab made the central point of his reformation movement the principle that just about every idea added to Islam after the third century of the Muslim era (about 950 AD) was false and should be eliminated. Al Wahhab and his followers taught that Muslims must adhere solely and strictly to the original beliefs set forth by the Prophet Muhammad.

The reason for this extremist stance and the focus of Al Wahhab’s reform efforts, was a number of popular practices which he believed represented a regression to pre-Islamic idol worship. These included praying to saints, making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques, venerating trees, certain caves and stone monuments and establishing certain forms of ritual worship.

Eve tomb today

Still named Mother Eve’s Cemetery, nothing remains of Eve’s tomb. Today only unmarked graves exist.

The destruction of Eve’s tomb

The February 27, 1928, issue of Time magazine, describes how Eve’s tomb was destroyed: “To His Majesty Ibn Saud, warlike Sultan of Nejd and King of the Hejaz, came tidings last week of his flourishing son the Amir Faisal, 19-year-old Viceroy of the Hejaz. The tidings were conveyed 500 miles by motor caravan from the Red Sea town of Jidda in the Hejaz, to the Sultan’s inland capital, Riyadh, in Nejd.”

It was announced in the 19-year-old’s “tidings,” “There was it made known that the enlightened son & Viceroy had finally caused to be obliterated that notorious imposture, ‘The Tomb of Mother Eve,’ at Jidda (Jeddah).”

By 1975 even the ground of Eve’s legendary burial site was sealed in concrete to prevent pilgrims from paying homage or praying there.

Today, the cemetery is a row of unmarked tombs, and there’s nothing to indicate Eve’s tomb has been there. Wahhabi beliefs forbid the marking of tombs and graves.

William Dever, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona and a prominent U.S. archaeologist, was asked about  Eve’s tomb by the Associated Press a few years ago. He said there just is not any archaeological evidence going back far enough to back up the legend of Eve’s burial site.

“There are lots of traditional tombs of saints of various kinds in the Middle East,” he added. “But they are never excavated or investigated scientifically.”

Asked if he had heard of any other final resting place for Eve in the Middle East, Dever said, “No. There are tombs of Abraham all over the place, but I don’t honestly know in Israel or the West Bank or Jordan of any Eve tomb in these places.”

A few pilgrims still come

Thousands of tourists and religious pilgrims still come to see what's left of Mother Eve's Cemetery.

Thousands of tourists and religious pilgrims still come to see what’s left of Mother Eve’s Cemetery.

Pilgrims from around the world continue to visit the graveyard named Ammuna Hawwa (Arabic for “Our Mother Eve”).

As I was standing at the entrance of the cemetery yesterday, two tourist buses pulled up. Tour guides made brief speeches about Eve’s burial place, and the buses pulled away.

Dr. Sami Angawi, an architect and historian in Saudi Arabia who has been a long-standing critic of the lack of preservation of historic artifacts and monuments, says, “Tombs are not preserved in Saudi Arabia, and visiting graves is not encouraged as Wahhabists believe that they could lead to Bedaa – a frowned upon invention that undermines the orthodoxy of Islam.” Dr. Angawi says, during the past 80 years historic artifacts and sites have been dug up and thrown out, not only in Jeddah, but also in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

“Eve’s tomb,” he says, “is now just a flat hole among a graveyard of unmarked tombs.”

“All we have left is the legend,” he says with disappointment.  “But that legend will live on and be passed on to future generations.”

In the following short CNN video, Dr. Angawi says all eyes remain on the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina that are constantly under assault:

Sources:  The Bible, The Qur’an, Arab News, Time Magazine, Wikipedia.com, Sir Richard Burton’s English translation of One Thousand One Nights, the Associated Press, The National (UAE), USA Today, CNN International News

March 13, 2013 Posted by | Jeddah History, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sandy Hook School massacre through expat eyes

(Last updated: 21 August 2013)

Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut: 20 children, 7 adults murdered by crazed gunman. How much longer will we tolerate gun violence?

Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut: 20 children, 7 adults murdered by a crazed gunman. How much longer will we tolerate the onslaught of gun violence in American schools and public places? (Click on photos to enlarge.)

The whole world mourns

For many of us Americans, Christmas lights celebrating Jesus’ birth will burn a bit brighter this Christmas as we reflect on the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. We’ll continue to remember the twenty-seven victims–20 children ages 6 and 7 , the six school teachers and principal and the shooter’s mother–all gunned down within minutes by a single, crazed gunman.

This Christmas there will, no doubt, be family conversations about the horrendous events that unfolded in Newtown, and we will continue to pray for the families who lost their children and loved ones.

The sadness of this heinous act has been felt around the world. Expressions of concern and solidarity with the Newtown families are coming from many nations. Reports on the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre have appeared in media all over the world. From Australia to England and France, newspapers and TV news programs are reporting the tragedy.

As an expatriate living in Saudi Arabia, I’ve read and heard condolences from several Saudi public officials to the Newtown families. English language dailies The Saudi Gazette and Arab News have reported extensively about the killing of these innocent American school children.

There are now more than 80,000 Saudi students studying in US colleges and universities. I encourage Saudi young people to visit America—to see what is decent about my country—to better understand the prevailing goodness of the American people.

But I’m often asked by moms and dads at our neigborhood mosque, “Do you think it’s really safe for my son (or daughter) to go to an American university?” I try to assure them that all will be okay. I’m hesitant to share with them about my own experiences with guns in the United States.

The bronze "Knotted Gun" sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward, outside of the United Nations headquarters in New York. It stands as a constant reminder of gun violence around the world.

The bronze “Knotted Gun” sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward, outside of the United Nations headquarters in New York. It stands as a constant reminder of gun violence around the world.

My own American gun experiences

Gun violence is not new to America. Somehow during my younger years I managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on five different occasions. That’s right. Before I was 25 years old I had guns pointed at me three times—the first time in 1965, while I was a student at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina.

I joined other students on a weekend “extension” to Charlotte, North Carolina, to pass out evangelistic gospel tracts on Charlotte streets. There we witnessed to strangers about our faith in God. I was just 17-years-old when two guys in their early 20s pulled a pistol on me and took my wallet.

The last time was in January, 1975, in Niagara Falls, New York. I was leaving a neighborhood restaurant when two guys approached me and asked for a ride to the Pine Avenue exit on the Robert Moses Parkway. I agreed to give them a ride.

After they got in my car, one of the men pulled a sawed-off shotgun from under his ski jacket. He cocked it and held it to my head, shouting, “Drive!” They directed me down a dark, winding country road. They asked how much gas was in my car. I realized they wanted my car and that I was dispensable.

Although scared, I somehow managed to contain myself. I remember praying silently and repeatedly, “Oh, God, help me!”

As I continued driving down that road with that shotgun being held to my head, there suddenly appeared the lit up entrance of the Martin-Marietta Small Aircraft Factory. There was a guard at the gate. I turned a fast 90-degree left angle, driving directly through the gate without slowing down. I passed the yelling security guard who was trying to flag me down. I brought my car to a stop, switched off the ignition, and threw my keys out the window. The guard was approaching my car with his gun drawn. I told the two thugs they could get out of my car and make a run for it, and I wouldn’t say anything. They got out of my car and ran back through the gate and into a nearby field.

I later found out from police that these two men had just robbed a bank and were on the run.

Even if I had had a hand gun and tried to use it on any one of these occasions, I most likely would have been shot before I could have pointed the gun at any of these criminals.

My saddest gun experience, however, was in September 1972 and involved my roommate Wei Li at Faith Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Wei was from Taipei, Taiwan. Two weeks after arriving in the US he got a part-time job at a nearby Chinese restaurant so he could send money back to his wife and two children in Taipei. His second night on the job I received a phone call from the emergency room at Einstein Memorial Hospital. The emergency staff had found my phone number in Wei’s wallet and got in touch with me. I was told to come immediately to the hospital—that Wei had been shot during a robbery.

Wei died before I got to Einstein Memorial.

The Faith Seminary student body and faculty raised money to ship Wei’s body back to his family. We held a memorial service. The incident greatly affected the students and seminary faculty.

Around the world, candlelight vigils were held to remember the Sandy Hook School children and teachers killed.

In Connecticut and around the world, candlelight vigils and prayer services were held to remember the Sandy Hook School children and their families.

Reaction to the Newtown massacre

What is new about US gun violence is the mass killings during the past 20 years.

As Americans we’ve become rather numb to an occasional murder. We’ve even become accustomed to the occasional mall or high school shooting–but it’s this massacre of 6 and 7-year-olds that has shaken our nation to its core. There is now a public outcry to respond more effectively to gun violence in our homeland.

It’s being reported that the overwhelming majority of American gun owners are now supporting thorough background checks on anyone purchasing a gun.

May God give us the wisdom and the fortitude to build on this wave of public concern—to do what’s right. Doing nothing is no longer an option.

You see, it isn’t just about Newtown. There have been 70 shootings in US schools since 1995, and the number of shootings in shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants and even places of worship are known to be numerous. Gun homicides in the US topped 10,000  last year.

The Second Amendment

Now is our time to take a resolute stand against gun violence in the United States. While we will never remove all guns from society, nor do I think we should; however, it is our opportunity to take a look at the Second Amendment and precisely how it should be interpreted in light of modern society.

This amendment to the US Constitution states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” 

Some have suggested we leave it to the individual states. They ask, why force upon the entire country a law that many don’t want? The Second Amendment, however, is a part of the Constitution. It is federal law and cannot be interpreted arbitrarily by each state. It applies equally to all states and must be interpreted accordingly.

We must acknowledge that times change and there have been incredible advances in the design and manufacturing of firearms. We no longer have the difficult-to-load, flintlock muskets of our forefathers. When authoring the Second Amendment, our Founding Fathers could not possibly have imagined semi-automatic and assault weapons with high-capacity clips (magazines) in the hands of our citizens.

A few years back I joined friends for a late night tour of Washington, DC. One of our stops was at the Jefferson Memorial. It was there I read Thomas Jefferson’s words in panel four of the memorial: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

For more than 100 years, the Second Amendment’s “right of the people to keep and bear arms” was interpreted as meaning for “a well regulated militia” in defense of the state.

During the past decade, though, the US Supreme Court has given a more liberal interpretation of the amendment that just about any kind of firearm is suitable for personal protection and personal use. The primary US Supreme Court Second Amendment decisions during those years included District of Columbia v. Heller, (2008); and McDonald v. Chicago (2010).

In both Heller and McDonald the U.S. Supreme Court supported the individual rights model, under which the Second Amendment protects the right of American citizens to keep and bear arms in much the same way as the First Amendment protects the right to free speech. It effectively eliminated laws against handguns.

Craig Whitney, former foreign correspondent and editor at the New York Times, has just authored Living with Guns. The book searches for answers while re-examining why the right to bear arms was enshrined in the Bill of Rights and how it has come to be misunderstood today. Whitney looks to colonial times, surveying the degree to which guns were a part of everyday life. Finally, blending history and media reporting, Whitney explores how twentieth-century turmoil and culture war has led to today’s climate of activism, partisanship, and stalemate, in a nation where 60 million gun owners now possess more 300 million guns. I recommend the book to you.

A boy's heartbreaking letter to six-year-old Sandy Hook victim Jack Pinto has been shared thousands of times on the internet as the United States struggles to come to terms with the atrocity.

A boy’s heartbreaking letter to six-year-old Sandy Hook victim Jack Pinto has been shared thousands of times on the internet as the United States struggles to come to terms with the atrocity.

Mental illness a factor

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, is the discourse on gun control being sidelined by a focus on mental healthcare? Some think so.

Robert A. Levy, chairman of the Cato Institute, told The New York Times: “To reduce the risk of multi-victim violence, we would be better advised to focus on early detection and treatment of mental illness.”

But there is overwhelming epidemiological evidence that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts. Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness.

Bold solutions to American gun violence

Many believe semi-automatic weapons, and certainly assault weapons and magazines or clips holding scores of bullets, should be banned all together. Legislation is being prepared by Senator Dianne Feinstein to reinstate an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

A Maryland taskforce recommends confiscating guns from individuals considered threats to themselves or others.

A petitions is being circulated to demand that gun manufacturers be held liable for crimes committed by their products.

But, can we do more?

Motor vehicles in the hands of unskilled, untrained drivers can also be deadly. Because of this, we have in all states mandated laws regulating the use of motor vehicles. We are issued title and tag at each point of sale for each vehicle we own. Driver training is required. We’re required to take a written test and pass practical driving test. There are health requirements. Liability insurance is required for each vehicle owned. Then there are renewals and inspections. There are still penalties for operating a vehicle while impaired.

Would any of these requirements be unreasonable for gun owners?  Many think not.

Just as driving laws are administered by various state motor vehicle departments, it’s said a national program of gun registration and licensing could be administered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Registration and licensing fees would cover the expenses of administering this expanded federal program.

And what about liability insurance for guns? A retired US navy commander has come up with a novel proposal. Gun owners should be required to have liability insurance on every gun owned, and gun sellers should be required to carry insurance on every gun sold.

Remington gun manufacturer's ad promoting sales of the popular Model 700 rifle. Remington boasts this rifle can be fitted with a "double stack 50-round clip (magazine)."

Remington gun manufacturer’s ad promoting sales of the popular Model 700 rifle. Remington boasts this rifle can be fitted with a “double stack 50-round clip (magazine).”

NRA’s role in violence

The National Rifle Association (NRA), America’s most powerful gun lobby, some believe, bears a lot of responsibility for much of the proliferation of guns and violence in American society. The NRA collects dues from more than 4.3 million members, but most of its $150 million budget spent on lobbying Congress and various state legislatures comes from foreign and US arms manufacturers.

Remington, Smith & Wesson and a plethora of profiteering weapons makers pump money into NRA causes. The industry, in my opinion, let’s their desire for enormous profits supercede their concern for the wellbeing of American men, women and children.

The NRA Political Victory Fund  (NRA-PCF) provides massive funding to pro-gun politicians’ campaigns while declaring all-out war on any politician who doesn’t completely agree with NRA positions.

Over the years, the NRA has bullied state legislators and US senators and representatives into weakening gun restrictions. Already mentioned, was the NRA’s legal support in the US Supreme Court’s decisions siding with Heller and McDonald.

The NRA has consistently funded political campaigns such as that of 2012 Iowan Republican congressional candidate Ben Lange. “Ben Lange supports the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago, which held that the Second Amendment guarantees a fundamental, individual Right to Keep and Bear Arms for law-abiding citizens in Iowa and everywhere in America.” Lange lost.

The NRA spent nearly $19 million in the last federal election cycle. This money is not just spent to defeat Democrats but also to beat Republicans who don’t toe the line.

Tennessee Republican state lawmaker Debra Maggart was a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. She had an A+ rating with the group and even supported allowing guns in bars. But when Maggart decided not to back a bill allowing guns in cars – even on properties where the owners did not want guns, the NRA turned against her. The group did everything in its power to ensure her election defeat by alledging Maggart “supports President Obama.” They succeeded.

The budget of the  Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been deliberately decimated by NRA lobbyists and their supportive lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Operating now with only a part-time director, ATF is understaffed and has absolutely no ability to track the massive flood of firearms being sold across America.

In an editorial on June 27, 2011, the Washington Post stated, “Concerned to the point of paranoia about the erosion of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms, the National Rifle Association and far too many lawmakers have fought against virtually every proposal to empower the bureau to better track and crack down on illegal firearms.” The editorial further pointed out that NRA pressure on Congress had kept the ATF “rudderless for the past six years by blocking confirmation of new directors.”

President Obama consoles Robert Parker, father of victim Emilie Parker.

President Obama consoles Robert Parker, father of victim Emilie Parker.

There are now more than 310 million privately owned guns in America—that’s more than one for every man, woman and child. We have many more guns per capita than any other developed nation, and these guns have not made America safer. To the contrary, we have many more violent gun deaths than any other developed nation.

The NRA is last week promised “meaningful contributions” in the current national discussion. But don’t hold your breath in hopes of any NRA substantive cooperation in curtailing American gun violence. It is the belief of many that the NRA is a master of deceit and is proven in the art of psychological warfare, constantly jockeying and repositioning itself with the ebb and flow of changing public opinion–using scare tactics to confuse and frighten people.

On December 22, 2012, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the gun rights group, showed no willingness to act civily. Instead, LaPierre called for a “plan of absolute protection” which includes a call for more guns–arming teachers and putting “armed police officers” in every single school across America.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg called LaPierre’s performance a “shameful invasion of the crisis.”

Having armed guards in our school would offer little help. There was an armed guard on duty at Columbine High School, 1999, when two students went on a rampage killing classmates and staff. Still there were 17 dead and 21 students injured, some seriously. And, remember the military chaplain that started firing at soldiers and army personnel on the Fort Hood base. He was on a secure military facility. That lone gunman managed to leave behind 43 casualties and 13 dead.

Now is the time for the NRA to change course, recognizing our nation’s critical state of affairs, working with the President and Congress to implement new regulations and restrictions on American gun use.

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and other local officials demanding stronger gun regulations at a news conference last week

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and other local officials demanding stronger gun regulations at a news conference last week

Big-city mayors remind us

Throughout the US, city mayors are asking for help in combatting gun violence. They want us to remember that gun violence is not simply about suburban massacres, as alarming as they are, but about daily terror in America’s cities.

In Camden, New Jersey, a city that has already suffered 65 violent deaths in 2012, surpassing the previous record of 58 violent deaths set in 1995, 50 people turned out. Some turned up bearing white crosses, to mourn a homeless woman known affectionately as the “cat lady” who was stabbed to death (50 of the deaths so far this year resulted from gunshot wounds.)

In Philadelphia, on the same Sunday, city leaders came together at a roundtable to discuss their own epidemic of gun violence. The year-to-date total of homicides is 322. Last year, 324 were killed. Of those victims, 154 were 25 or younger. A councilman at the roundtable asked, “How come as a city we’re not in an outrage? How come we’re not approaching this from a crisis standpoint?”

CNN reports that the concerns go far beyond Philadelphia. In the week following the Newtown massacre, there were at least a dozen gun homicides in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and St. Louis alone. In a year of highly publicized mass shootings, inner-city neighborhoods that are plagued by gun violence have continued to be neglected and ignored.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, large metropolitan areas account for more than two-thirds of deaths by gun violence each year, with inner cities most affected. The majority of the victims are young, ranging in age from their early teens to mid-20s, and black.

Unfortunately, paranoid extremists among us, in usual fashion, are rushing off to buy more guns and ammo while shouting their enduring mantra “Obama is coming for our guns!”

Bullet Blocker and other US merchandisers are busy hawking bulletproof vests and backpacks for America’s elementary school children. And some are supporting the NRA demand that more guns is the answer–that American school teachers must be armed and calling for armed security guards in every school.

Senseless acts of rage persist

On August 20, 2013, three teenagers, 17, 16 and 15, in Duncan, Oklahoma, intentionally gun down an Australian college student just “for the fun of it”!

On August 21, 2013, gunman in Atlanta area school, surrenders after hero school lady talk him into giving up his AK-47.

“We the people”

What happens now depends on “we the people.” Will horrific gun violence in America be accepted as the new normal? Or, will “we the people” determine a new course for our nation—one that seeks to minimize gun violence, making mass killings and daily homicides in the US rare and uncommon.

In closing, I want to put a human face on the Newtown tragedy—that of 6-year-old Ana Marguez-Greene. Ana’s dad posted a brief one-minute video on YouTube in Ana’s memory. I’ve included it below. Watch as Ana sings, and then enlist yourself in the change that is needed in our nation and the world.

Information sources: CNN, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Arab News, The Saudi Gazette, International Herald Tribune, The Chicago Tribune, ABC News, YouTube.com, The US Centers for Disease Control, Associated Press, Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein.

December 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Sam and friends on the 2012 Hajj!

Abdulrahman, Abdul Rudy and Sam, dressed in Ihram, begin the rigors of the annual Hajj in Mecca, Arafat, Mina and Muzdalifa.

The incredibly difficult but rewarding Hajj

Less than two weeks ago, I was invited by two Muslim brothers, a Saudi doctor Abdulrahman, 25, and his Egyptian friend Abdul Rudy, 70, to accompany them on the intensely spiritual and difficult Hajj to Mecca, the Mina Valley and Mount Arafat in wastern Saudi Arabia. The only pre-requisite, they said, is that I must be able to walk. My response immediately was, “Of course I can walk!” (But I never had in mind walking over 25 miles in four days!)

The three of us left Jeddah Wednesday morning, October 24, dressed in traditional two-piece terricloth wraps called Ihram, heading for the holy City of Mecca. By faith, a Muslim who completes the Hajj is believed to be cleansed from all sins committed during his/her life—to be reborn as a newborn baby.

Understanding Mecca’s history

Muslims believe the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim), over 4,000 years ago, was instructed by God to bring his wife Hagar (Hajira) and their child Ishmael from Palestine to the dry and uninhabited Mecca Valley. It is said this was done to protect them from the jealousy of Abraham’s first wife Sarah. (For an outstanding narrative of Hajj history, please take time to watch the Discovery Channel documentary film at the end of this post.)

Abraham left them with only a limited supply of food and water, trusting God to care for them. However, after a few days Hagar and the child found themselves suffering from hunger and dehydration.

In desperation, Hagar ran up and down two hills called Safa and Marwa trying to see if she could spot any help in the distance. Finally, returning to the child, she collapsed beside Ishmael and cried out to God for deliverance.

Ishmael kicked his foot on the ground, and miraculously a spring of water began to gush up from the earth. Hagar and Ishmael were saved. Now that they had a secure water supply, they were able to trade water with passing nomads from the Well of Zam Zam in exchange for food and supplies.

Sam gets a look at the miles and miles of Hajj campsites in the Mina Valley. It’s all managed through a high-tech central command center operated by the Hajj Commission of Saudi Arabia.

We’re told, that after some time Abraham returned from Palestine to check on his family and was astonished to see them managing a profitable well.

The Prophet Abraham was told by God to build a shrine next to the well. Abraham and Ishmael constructed a small stone structure–the Kaaba (or Cube). It was to become the gathering place for all who wished to strengthen their faith in the one true God.

As the years passed, it’s said that Ishmael was blessed with prophethood, and he preached to the desert nomads a message calling upon them to surrender or submit to God.

After many centuries, Mecca, thanks to its continuing, reliable water supply, became a thriving city. But gradually, the people left their faith in the God and turned to polytheism and idolatry, worshipping many different gods of stone and wood. The shrine that had been built by Abraham and Ishmael became a house of pagan idols.

After many years, the Archangel Gabriel revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammed and told him that he should restore the Kaaba to the worship of the one true God of Abraham.

In the year 628 Prophet Muhammed set out on a journey with 1400 of his followers. This journey was the first Hajj pilgrimage in Islam, and would re-establish the faith of their patriarch Abraham. Today the Hajj commemorates both Abraham’s and Muhammed’s struggle against polytheism and paganism.

The rigorous routine of Hajj sacraments

More than 3 million Muslims gathered from around the world in the desert cities surrounding Mecca for the 2012 spiritual, but incredibly difficult, Hajj.

Many pilgrims fly to Jeddah, and then travel to Mecca by bus. Some of the wealthy are on packaged tours costing over $4,000. The poorer Muslims have saved all their lives just to pay for airfare. They manage to sleep either in modest tent camps or lay on cardboard or rugs along the streets of Mina.

En route to Hajj one repeatedly recites the prayer: “Here I am at Your service, O God, here I am at your service! You have no equal. Here I am at your service. All praise and blessings belong to You. All dominion is Yours, and You have no equal.”

Then pilgrims proceed to the famous Al Haram Mosque in Mecca, walking counter-clockwise around the Kaaba, where certain ritual prayers are said during and afterwards, offering praise to God.

Next the pilgrim goes to the walkway between the hills of Safa and Marwa, following the same trail as Hagar when she searched for help. The pilgrim walks back and forth, just as Hagar, seven times. These hills are now enshrined within the Mosque.

The pilgrim has now completed the Umrah and declares through prayer his/her intention to do the Hajj, before travelling (by bus or foot) some 20 kilometers to the Mena Valley, where one remains in prayer until the next morning.

To carry out the pilgrimage rituals, one needs to be in a special state of ritual purity called Ihram. One does this by bathing, making a statement of intention o God, by wearing the Ihram and by following certain strict guidelines. The terricloth Ihram has two purposes. (1) It is symbolic of spiritual purity. (2) It demonstrates that all Muslims are equal–there is no class consciousness.

A Muslim person during Hajj may not:

•Engage in marital relations
•Shave or cut their nails
•Use cologne or scented oils or soaps
•Kill or hunt anything for food
•Fight or argue (Very difficult when you’re fasting, in pain and being pushed and bumped by over 3 million people!)
•Women must not cover their faces, even if they would do so in their home country
•Men may not wear clothing with stitches

Abdulrahman on board the Hajj train bound for Arafat at the far end of the Mina Valley.

The next morning, pilgrims either walk several miles or get onboard a modern Hajj train bound for the Mount Arafat, where one stands in the open praising God. (We were only able to use the train on one occasion because of the huge masses of people trying to board the train.)

At the end of the day in Arafat, one travels back to their camp or hotel for rest and food before travelling about 5 kilometers by foot later in the night to Muzdalifa. One is to have gathered 49 stones to throw symbolically over three days at three pillars of Jamarat. These three pillars represent Satan’s temptation of Abraham. The casting of the stones is symbolic of one’s rejection of Satan. (In times past pilgrims would walk up to the natural earthen pillars to cast their stones, but today one walks through a massive four-tiered concrete structure. This prevents crowd congestion as millions make their way through the Jamarat.)

Then there is the long trip as millions of men, women and children make their way back some 8 miles to Mecca (many on foot). Upon arriving once again at the Al Haram Mosque one again performs the Tawaf, the seven rounds of the Kaaba.

After this, men’s heads are shaved as a symbol of humility and obedience to God. Women remove a lock of their hair.

Pilgrims then return once again to his/her hotel or campsite for three to four days and the two additional visits to Jamarat in Muzdalifa, casting 21 stones each time.

Finally, one does a farewell Tawaf in Masjid-al Haram in Mecca, asks God’s forgiveness, and the Hajj is finished.

Many foreign guests proceed by bus to the Prophet’s Mosque, six hours north in the holy city of Medina, but this is optional. A modern, high-speed train system between Mecca and Medina is now under construction.

Post Hajj happenings

Abdulrahman had his head shaved as did the Prophet Mohammad at the end of the very first Hajj.

A man who has completed the Hajj is called a Hajji, a woman who has completed it is called a Hajjah. As followers of Prophet Muhammad’s tradition, all Muslims who perform Hajj, reinforce their belief in his  teachings and follow his traditions which in the Muslim world are known as Sunnah.

At the end of the Hajj, Muslims from all over the world celebrate the holiday known as the Eid ul Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice). Many offer the sacrifice called a Qurbani. A lamb or sheep is slaughtered, and the baked meat is distributed to the poor. This is usually done by a local butcher under strict halal regulations, very similar to the kosher rituals of Judaism.

This festival commemorates the obedience of Abraham when he was ordered to sacrifice his precious son Ishmael. While this might sound unloving—I mean what kind of God would demand such a sacrifice?! It was really a test of Abraham’s faith.

Abraham knew that God had promised to multiply his descendents through Ishmael. In order for God’s promise to come true, Ishmael would not die. Abraham proved his faith, love and allegiance to the one true God of the universe. In the end Abraham did not have to kill his son as God provided him a ram to sacrifice instead. (Judaism and Christianity teach that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac.)

Today’s annual Hajj pilgrimage

The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Hajj, has been forced to institute a system of registrations and travel visas to control the annual flow of the millions of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while imposing restrictions upon those who embark upon the trip multiple times. More than 3 million men, women and children from around the world made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Arafat this year.

Abdul Rudy and Abdulrahman (background) casts their stones at one of the three symbolic pillars at the Jamarat where it is believed the prophet Abraham was tempted by Satan. In this way Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy testify that they choose to submit to God, denying the temptations of Satan and this world.

The Hajj is the fifth of the “Five Pillars of Islam”. All Muslims who are financially and physically able to perform Hajj are obligated to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their lifetime. Millions of poor Muslims from around the world scrape together all their lives the thousands of dollars needed to do the Hajj.

During the month of the annual Muslim Hajj, the city of Mecca receives as many as five million pilgrims. Various organizations dedicated to organizing and managing the Hajj, such as the Hajj Commission of Saudi Arabia, have been forced to reluctantly institute a system of registrations, passports, and travel visas to control the flow of the great numbers of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while imposing restrictions upon those who embark upon the trip multiple times. The registration system has prompted outcries of protest among some pilgrims who have the wherewithal to make the Hajj on multiple occasions, but the Hajj Commission has stated that they have no alternative to prevent tragic accidents.

Pilgrims who complete the Hajj consider it one of the greatest spiritual experiences of their lives. The Hajj is seen in many cultures as one of the great achievements of civilization, because it brings together as much as one-fifth of the people of the entire world and focuses them upon a single goal: the difficult task of completing the Hajj. This is an achievement unparalleled in human history, and philosophers have said that only war can compare to the Hajj in terms of organization and scale.

Abdul Rudy and Sam with healthcare workers at the Saudi National Guard pilgrims’ clinic.

Abdulrahman, Abdul Rudy and I were fortunate to be invited to camp with a Saudi National Guard/Red Crescent Hajj healthcare facility in the Mina. Abdulrahman’s father, a cardiologist, was chief physician at the clinic.

Our camp was in the middle of all the Hajj happenings. Everyone welcomed me and treated me with great respect and honor.

In all, the three of us walked nonstop more than 25 miles—once all the way from Arafat to Muzdalifa and then on to the Kaaba in Mecca, about 13 miles! My feet were bleeding and blistered, and every joint in my legs and feet were swollen and in pain.

It has taken me several days to recuperate from the strenuous ordeal. I don’t know how much weight I lost in four days, but it was significant.

I feel closer to God because of what I have learned. My faith, a gift from God, is more precious to me than ever before.

One criticism of Hajj–plastic debris

I have read in the November 5 issue of The Saudi Gazette one criticism of Hajj, one that I wholeheartedly share. I quote from Shadiah Abdullah’s article entitled “Reflections on a journey of a lifetime”:

“It is understandable that there will be a lot of trash created as a result of the congregation of around three million people. What is not acceptable is how Muslims, whose part of faith is cleanliness, litter and sully their holy sites. The usage of tons and tons of plastic and other disposable utensils is the main culprit behind the accumulation of so much trash in the sacred sites.

“It is sad how we ignore the fact that Hajj is supposed to be an opportunity for us to live simpler lives where we respect the environment around us.

“A greener Hajj, where less plastic is used, is something that the Saudi authorities need to work on instead of introducing more cleaners and bigger waste dumps every year.”

Architect and historic preservationist Dr. Sami Engawi with his son Ahmad.

Preserving Islam’s historic buildings

Dr. Sami Engawi, a world-renowned architect and historic preservationist, is concerned about the over-development of Mecca as many Muslims seek to cash in on profits during the annual Hajj season.

Engawi who heads the Amar International Center For Architectural Heritage, wants to preserve Islamic culture by means of saving historic buildings in Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities to Islam.

Engawi says historic Islamic buildings and culture are being destroyed and must be preserved. “Already many historic buildings and ruins dating back more than a thousand years have been torn down to make way for skyscrapers and hotels surrounding the Grand Mosque,” he says.  “There are plans to build many more tall luxury buildings and shopping malls adjacent to the mosque.”

In an interview with the BBC, Engawi speaks about the importance of preserving Mecca’s historic buildings and heritage.

Forever grateful to Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy

I do appreciate so very much these two brothers who bore the burden of encouraging me, helping me along, to complete the Hajj! Abdul Rudy, the Egyptian brother from Azwan, age 70, was running circles around me. (Abdulrahman and I learned the age-old lesson: Never ask an African how far it is to walk somewhere. He’ll always say, “Don’t worry. It’s just a short ways down the road.”)

I was exhausted towards the end, once collapsing on the sidewalk, unable to muster the strength to walk another step. These two men will always be known to me as my “Hajj brothers.” They didn’t give up on this woefully out-of-shape, 64-year-old American man.

Towards the end of the Hajj a delegation of Indonesian pilgrims gathers around Sam in Muzdalifa for a celebratory group photo.

I had only three days to study about Hajj before our departure. Abdulrahman had given me a book to read. I did my best to understand where I was going and what I would be doing. But, in the end, there was so much that happened in these few days that I still did not fully understand all that was going on around me. I learned as I followed Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy through the rituals.

I’m still reading even as I write this blog post—trying to figure out what was said in the Arabic prayers that were uttered constantly before, during the five-day event and at the end.

I’ve been living in the Mecca Region of Saudia Arabia now almost 11 months. Since being here the only American I’ve met is the newly appointed US  Consulate General Anne Casper. I have submerged myself in the Saudi culture, making friends with all social classes and many nationalities and have visited several different mosques. I’ve tried my hardest to understand everything I’ve seen. Much of it has been strange and alien to my Christian upbringing, but I’ve also experience grace and mercy as God is always exhalted in prayers and in the reading of the Quran as the “God of mercy, the purveyor of mercy.”

Let me end by stressing again that Hajj was an extremely difficult experience, not just for me, but for the millions of Muslims I met along the way. People did the Hajj with all their hearts, many suffering from physical difficulties of all kinds–most of all ailing joints! The Saudi government did a remarkable job of controlling and assisting the crowds. The Saudi National Guard healthcare workers were remarkable in caring for pilgrims with health problems of all kinds. And Saudi citizens did an incredible job of passing out free food and water and safeguarding foreigners.

One very important thing I learned from the many foreigners I met along the route was that regardless of international politics, they haven’t lost their love and respect for Americans. Just about all of them have some relative living somewhere in the US.

When it was pointed out that I was an American, people gathered around me for photos. They were grateful that an American would seek to understand Islam and make the Hajj along with them.

My prayer, my hope

So I ask my Jewish, Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters in America: Do you realize just how respected and loved by Muslims around the world you are?

In each of our Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we have our small minority of “crazies”; extremists who make the evening news because of their hate, bombing and killing. They cause a lot of misunderstanding. But they are few in numbers compared to the overwhelming many who love the God of Abraham and seek peace, freedom and justice in the world. As all the holy books teach, true justice is about compassion and harmony. It is not about revenge, which is selfish demanding that one get even for past wrongs.

May we all walk together in unity, seeking to make life better for all the world’s peoples. May the next generation of Jews, Christians and Muslims become a voice and force for compassion and understanding as we submit to the God we all claim to love and serve. May we rebuild our cities and nations with justice, religious tolerance and economic opportunity for all men, women and children. This is not a “suggestion” from God. It is our duty and obligation as we submit to God’s will and direction in our lives.

Let’s keep standing, keep hoping, and keep working in God’s cause!

Enjoy the sights and sounds of Hajj as documented by National Geographic:

 

My thanks to Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy for making it possible for me to go on the Hajj, and thanks to my incredible wife Jana for making corrections to this post! ~ Sam

November 4, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The truth about Muslim anti-West protests

This week’s Newsweek magazine cover featured raging Muslims, but how many were really angry?

What’s really behind the outrage?

Newsweek‘s recent cover-story featured the bold words “Muslim Rage” and depicted most of the world’s Muslims as angry with the US and the West. Here’s a different perspective of what is happening around the world — much of the information was given to me by the French arm of the activist think tank AVAAZ.

According to AVAAZ, there are a number of very important items we have missed in the midst of all the sensational, tabloid-like reporting.

Seven things you may have missed in the so-called “Muslim rage”

Like everyone else, many Muslims find the cheap, unprofessional Islamophobic video “Innocence of Muslims” trashy and offensive. Protests have spread quickly, tapping into understandable and lasting grievances about neo-colonialist US and western foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as religious sensitivities about depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. But the news coverage often obscures some important points:

1.  Early estimates put participation in anti-film protests at between 0.001 and 0.007% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims – a tiny fraction of those who marched for democracy in the Arab spring.

2.  The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful. The breaches of foreign embassies were almost all organised or fuelled by elements of the Salafist movement, a radical Islamist group that is most concerned with undermining more popular moderate Islamist groups.

3.  Top Libyan and US officials are divided over whether the killing of the US ambassador to Libya was likely pre-planned to coincide with 9/11, and therefore not connected to the film. An investigation by both the US and Libyan governments is underway.

Think-tank AVAAZ estimates that less than 0.007 of Muslims protested against the hateful anti-Muslim film during the past several weeks, but both Christians and Muslims are known for their few “crazies” who prefer violence over dialogue and peaceful protest.

4.  Apart from attacks by radical militant groups in Libya and Afghanistan, a survery of news reports on September 20 suggested that protesters had killed a number of people. The deaths cited by media were largely protesters killed by police.

5.  Pretty much every major leader, Muslim and western, has condemned the film, and pretty much every leader, Muslim and western, has condemned any violence that might be committed in response.

6.  The pope visited Lebanon at the height of the tension, and Hezbollah leaders attended his sermon, refrained from protesting the film until he left, and called for religious tolerance. Yes, this happened.

7.  After the attack in Benghazi, ordinary people turned out on the streets in Benghazi and Tripoli with signs, many of them in English, apologizing and saying the violence did not represent them or their religion.

Add to that the number of really big sensational news stories that were buried last week to make room for the front page, “angry Muslim clash” coverage. Maybe you didn’t even hear that in Russia tens of thousands of protesters marched through Moscow to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese and Spaniards turned out for anti-austerity protests; and more than a million of Spain’s Catalans marched for independence.

Muslim rage or radical Salafist strategy?

Meet Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, the radical Salafist TV host who incited violence against US embassies because of the American anti-Muslim hate film.

The Amercan anti-Muslim film “Innocence of Muslims” was picked up and heralded with subtitles by far-right Salafists – radical Islamists. The film was a cheaply made, YouTube failure until a radical Egyptian Salafist TV host, Sheikh Khaled Abdullah began promoting it to viewers on September 8.

Most insulted Muslims ignored the film or protested peacefully, but the Salafists, with their signature black flags, were leading instigators of the more aggressive protests that breached embassies. Leaders of the Egyptian Salafist party attended the Cairo protest that broke into the US embassy.

Like the far-right in the US or Europe, the Salafist strategy is to drag public opinion rightwards by seizing on opportunities to fan radical anger and demonise ideological opponents. This approach resembles that of anti-Muslim US Charismatic Christian pastor Terry Jones (who first promoted the film in the west) and other western extremists. In both societies, however, the moderates far (far!) outnumber the extremists.

A leading figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (the more powerful and popular political opponent of Egypt’s Salafists) wrote to the New York Times saying: “We do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.”

Objective, good reporting out there

Most print media and radio/TV journalism is about readership/viewership/listenership polls (ratings). The ones with the best ratings can charge higher prices for advertising. And, far too often, its about sensation and greed at the expense of truth. Whenever a lie is told or an exaggeration is promoted as “truth” the result is misunderstanding, alienation and, far too often, these lead to conflicts and even war.

A lonely band of journalists and scholars, however, have approached the protests with an intent to truly understand the forces behind them. Among them, Hisham Matar, who powerfully describes the sadness in Benghazi after US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed, and Barnaby Phillips, who explores how Islamic conservatives manipulated the film to their advantage. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior cautions against treating the Muslim world as a homogenous unit. And Professor Stanley Fish tackles a tough question: why many Muslims are so sensitive to unflattering depictions of Islam.

And then there was our own blog that reported that all was well in both Mecca and Medina–the two most holy cities of Islam. The insulting Islamophobic film was barely mentioned in the news media in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Muslims basically ignored the inflamatory film. Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal urged Saudi youth to “confront the anti-Islam smear campaign by leading an exemplary life, following the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah.” The Saudi government early on condemned the violence and attacks on US embassies.

Finally, in Dearbon, Michigan, Muslim leaders joined by Christian pastors and leaders of other faiths, held a press conference. While condemning the anti-Muslim film, they clearly stated that freedom of assembly does not mean the freedom to be violent, to attack embassies or to kill innocent people. Here’s a recording from that press conference:

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia organizes to stop plastic debris

Sam joined a Jeddah city councilman and professors from King Abdulaziz University in organizing an environmental committee for meeting the challenges of plastic debris overwhelming the Arabian peninsula.

Environmental awareness committee formed

Hundreds of camels die on the Arabian peninsula every year from ingesting plastic bags.

I am a proud founding member of a Jeddah municipal committee to study many of the environmental problems adversely affecting the Arabian peninsula. We will suggest solutions, improving life here for people and animals alike.

Saudi Arabia is a good country. Our committee has strong support from the Jeddah City Council and is made up of area professors and engineers with a common mission of correcting many of the harms now contributing to Saudi environmental degradation.

Having provided leadership in the United States for clean air, banning phosphate fertilizers, banning plastic retail carry-out bags, banning the hormone-disrupting chemical BpA (bisphenol-A) from baby bottles, etc., I am able to advise my Saudi colleagues on environmental matters.

Our committee will begin by researching several known challenges in our Jeddah community–one being plastic debris. Plastic bags and bottles cover the banks of the Red Sea, are scattered about through the deserts, line city streets, and fill public landfills.

Hundreds of camels and thousands of sheep and goats die annually from ingesting plastic bags. They are also killing marine life in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.

Our faiths have a lot to say about the environment

If the Abrahamic faiths of Muslims, Jews and Christians believe God created the world, then it follows logically that we must honor God by caring for his creation. As believers in the God of Abraham we must respond to the damaging influences of over-consumption and pollution that are ruining planet Earth.

Believers are well equipped to respond to the many environmental crises—including the larger problem of climate change/global warming.

According to one Muslim source, many scientists and philosophers “agree man is considered as the major factor in disturbing the natural balance of the universe. Man interferes intentionally or unintentionally in the earth’s ecosystems by impairing its perfect order and precise sequence.”

The holy books speak about caring for creation

Plastic bags can be deadly for marine life which often mistakes plastic bags for food.

We read in the Qur’an, “There is the type of man whose speech about this world’s life may dazzle thee, and he calls God to witness about what is in his heart: yet is he the most contentious of enemies? When he turns his back, his aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth, destroying crops and cattle. But God loves not mischief” (Al-Baqarah: verses 204 and 205).

In the Torah we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15). The Torah also commands us, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live…. You shall not defile the land in which you live…” (Numbers 35:33-34).

We believers cannot by our own efforts, “save the earth.” Only God, who is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of all creation, can do that. But we are expected to join God in maintaining his work. We seek to right many of the wrongs we’ve committed. In our homes, in our schools, at our places of work, in our times of recreation, and in our places of worship, we can begin to model creation care.

There are many hymns about creation and God’s love for nature, but these words penned by Edith Downing seem quite appropriate:

Sam’s efforts to ban plastic debris are known worldwide. Here’s an article from the The Sontagg, Dusseldorf, Germany. (Click image to enlarge).

O God, your heart is broken
by our abuse of earth.
We overuse resources
denying nature’s worth.
Forgive our selfish lifestyles
that feed on culture’s greed.
Urge us to take fresh courage
to tend our world in need.

Convert our hearts to caring
for creatures great and small.
Help us save birds for singing
their lovely mating call.
The evidence is mounting–
our planet is in pain–
more land and sea is shrinking
throughout the Earth’s domain.

We can now change direction,
with courage take a stand
to work against pollution
that harms both sea and land.
You count on us as stewards
to never hesitate
to act to save creation
before it is too late!

The Genesis Covenant

People of faith have a shared vision that all faith communities around the world can work together to halt climate change. The global climate crisis must bring out the best in all our faith traditions. The Genesis Covenant presents a shared action to make a public commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all our places of worship and facilities by 50% within ten years. The covenant states:

Sam holds a couple of loose plastic bags he found on the ground in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Leaders of the Jeddah community are campaigning to rid the city of plastic debris that lines the streets.

“We are a growing community of faithful people from many religious traditions who have decided to work together to save the Earth.

We have put aside our religious differences to focus on what we share in common: an understanding that global climate change is threatening our world and a commitment to do something about it.

If you share those two beliefs with us then you are already a part of The Genesis Covenant. We are not an organization. We are a community of volunteers from all walks of life. We are people with strong personal religious convictions. We honor that in one another. We do not debate our differences. We celebrate what we share in common. We express our faith through action. We work together not just because we agree, but because we care. We are many traditions united for a single purpose.

Welcome to our community! Welcome to The Genesis Covenant. We are honored to have you with us.”

Demonstrate your personal concern

Here’s a simple way you can make a difference. When you do your grocery shopping refuse plastic carry-out bags. Show that you care about the environment by using reusable shopping bags. One reusable bag, when used consistently for a year, will replace hundreds of plastic bags.

The impact of plastic bags is long-lasting.  Because of the chemical composition, a plastic bag takes between 500 to 1000 years to decompose. In the US alone more than 100 billion of these plastic bags are distributed by retailers annually. And they are accumulating by the 100s of billions in our landfills, forests and waterways.

Not only are these ubiquitous bags an eye-sore in our communities, the consequences of these bags for marine life and animals are often tragic.

Many cities, states and nations are banning plastic carry-out bags. While bans on these bags are sweeping the United States, many other nations including China, France, Ireland, England, Kenya have either banned the bags outright or put restrictions on their use.

Oceans of plastic

Plastics have so polluted the earth’s oceans that there is now a swirling “soup” of plastic in the North Pacific gyre, at times the size of Africa. But the evidence of the plastic pollution of our waterways and oceans is evident throughout the planet. And it’s accumulating day by day.

The United Nations is encouraging the world’s nations to halt the distribution of plastic carry-out bags. “Some of the litter, like thin film single-use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere,” says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and United Nations Environmental Program executive director.

Here’s an excellent film produced by ABC’s Nightline describing the ravages of plastic debris. Take a few minutes to watch this documentary:

September 19, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

I invite NASA to visit Saudi Arabia!

Mars landscape

Martian landscape looking eerily like that of the Arabian Desert.

The NASA rover Curiosity landed safely in the Gale Crater on August 00000

The NASA rover Curiosity landed safely in the Gale Crater on August 2012.

I just can’t help wondering about the universe

You ask, “What in the world? Sam, why are you desk-bound in Saudi Arabia mesmerizing about NASA and the universe? …and God?”

So, I confess. I’m a space buff—have been since 1970. That’s when I took a course in astronomy at Shelton College.

During the past month I’ve been closely following NASA’s Curiosity landing. What an incredible accomplishment—an SUV-sized rover that travelled three-and-a-half months to the red planet, descended like a fire ball through the atmosphere during what NASA called “seven minutes of terror” and then parachuted to the martian surface landing at nearly pinpoint accuracy in the Gale Crater.

NASA studies Mexican desert

Curiosity carries the biggest, most advanced suite of scientific instruments ever sent to Mars. The rover will analyze organic samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. According to NASA scientists, the record of the planet’s climate and geology is essentially “written in the rocks and soil.” The rover is looking for the chemical building blocks of life (e.g. forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the martian environment was like in aeons past.

Now studying the planet Mars, one might think, means travelling there or exploring only by means of satellites, landings and robots, but that’s not the case. NASA has a Mars research program going on in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, where the vast, scorching plain is said to be very much like ancient Mars.

The NASA scientists working in this largely arid and extremely hostile climate are looking for organisms able to survive on a minimum of nutrients, high salinity, soaring temperatures and high ultraviolet radiation.

My invitation to NASA

After hearing that, I say, “NASA, come to Saudi Arabia! I have something to show you here!”

Take a look at the following photo and the photo (inset) that was beamed back from Curiosity to the NASA Mission Control Center in Pasadena, California. It arrived just a couple of days ago. You’ll recognize the incredible similarities between the Arabian desert and Mars’ Gale Crater—pink reddish sand and dust with black volcanic formations and scattered stones. The Saudi mountains and desert landscapes look weirdly similar to the Martian plains and mountains.

Sam in full Saudi costume standing in the Arabian Desert near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The photo inset shows a Curiosity photo of the martian desert taken from the Gale Crater.  The similarities are striking. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Here in Saudi Arabia the desert temperatures and climatic conditions are even more radical than those of the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico. Temperatures sometimes sore to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, yet there still exists various forms of life in this grueling climate, including the infamous, giant camel spiders!

Some spiritual dimensions

Sam is proud of America’s accomplishments in space. This is his friend Astronaut Charlie Duke during Charlie’s 1972 Apollo 16 moon walk. Charlie was the 11th man to walk on the moon. Sam spent time with Charlie and his wife Dottie at their home in New Braunsville, Texas.

All the holy books of the Jews, Christians and Muslims have a lot to say about the universe. The prophet David wrote in the Psalms, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3 and 4). And in the Qur’an we read, “Consider (think about) the sky that is full of great constellations” (85:1).

I like gazing up into the Saudi night skies. The stars, planets and moon seem brighter than back home, and the sun appears twice as big as it sets over the Red Sea in the evening sky. By faith I stand in awe of God who is at this very moment millions of light years away among the galaxies, and at this same moment He is also here and is concerned about the plight of the men, women and children of earth.

We are taught in the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels that we humans were created to fellowship with this God (Allah)—to glorify God—to enjoy God forever. Unfathomable! The wonder of it all!

The words of and old Swedish hymn come to mind, one we often sang when I was a child at my local Georgia church. It’s the famous, hymn many will recognize–“How Great Thou Art.” Here’s the first verse and chorus that seem appropriate:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Yes, Eternal God of the heavens, how great thou art! (Incidentally, we often hear Muslims proclaim in their mosques or in daily life the words “Allah akbar,” meaning “God is great!” Also, remember the prayer we were taught as children–a grace we said before the family meal, “God is great. God is good. And we thank him for our food.” The Arabic equivalent of “God is great” is “Allah akbar”!)

Cosmology argues the existence of a divine, grand Creator

Plato and other ancient philosophers developed the cosmological argument for the existence of a divine Creator.

When we gaze into the night sky, beholding the cosmos of space, how can we not consider God’s existence and his greatness?

The “cosmological argument” for God’s existence derives its title from observing what we can see of the world around us. It begins with what is most obvious to us–the fact that things exist. It is then argued that the cause of those things’ existence had to be a “God-type” being–a Creator.

Beginning with Plato, these types of arguments have been put forth by renowned theologians and philosophers. And almost in reverse order of what one might expect, science seeminly caught up with theologians in the 20th century when it was confirmed that the universe had to have had a beginning.

In 1912, the American astronomer, Vesto Slipher, made a discovery noticing that the galaxies were moving away from earth at huge velocities.  These observations provided the first evidence supporting the expanding-universe theory.

Then the “Big Bang” was theorized by leading scientists. The theory was originally postulated in the late 1920s by Georges-Henri Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and astronomer. The theory advanced the concept that our universe was expanding, having originated from one highly super concentrated mass. While the Big Bang theory does not provide any explanation for such an initial condition, it describes and explains the general evolution of the universe from that point forward.

But how did it all start? Do our Abrahamic faiths hold any answers?

The cosmological argument advances that since there was that scientifically accepted beginning, there then had to be a cause.  In the movie Star Wars the cause was called “the Force.” Muslim, Christian and Jewish philosophers of faith agree that the Force is none other than the Eternal One–God (Allah).

There are remarkable statements in the Torah, the New Testament and and the Qur’an that appear to confirm the Big Bang! The first words of Genesis read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the New Testament book of Hebrews, (chapter 11, verse 3), we read these amazing words, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” When reading the Qur’an I came across this amazing verse, “Don’t the unbelievers see that the universe was once joined together, then God burst it apart. God made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?” (21:30).

One of the primary objectives of NASA’s Mars probes has long been the search for water on the “Red Planet.” Water, NASA says, contains the building blocks of life.

Update: Curiosity measures wind and radiation

NASA announced November 18, 2012, that, aside from scooping and analyzing Martian soil, Mars rover Curiosity’s measurements of wind and radiation patterns on Mars are helping researchers better understand the environment near the surface of Mars.

Researchers with the Mars Science Laboratory mission have identified transient whirlwinds, mapped winds in relation to slopes, tracked changes in air pressure, and linked radiation changes to atmospheric changes.  The goal of the mission is to discover whether the environment in Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed earlier this year, could ever have been habitable for microbes.

All praise to God, the Lord of the worlds

Take some time to enjoy this classic National Geographic presentation Journey to the Edge of the Universe. And while watching, think about the words of that great hymn, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made!”


September 3, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ramadan ended with greetings of “Eid mubarak!”

New moon sighted–Ramadan ends

It’s official now! The new moon was sighted two days ago, ending the 30 days of Ramadan. Now we are in the middle of three-days of the public holiday called Eid-al-Fitr (Arabic: ‎عيد الفطر ‘Īdu l-Fiṭr). The holiday is most often simply called Eid. Foreigners and Arabs alike greet one another with the common greeting, “Eid mubarak!” (English: literally “Happy Feast!”).

In most Muslim countries celebrants dress in their best clothes and adorn their homes with lights and other decorations. Old wrongs are forgiven and money is given to the poor. Special foods are prepared and friends or relatives are invited to share the feast.

Eid is a joyous occasion. Its underlying purpose is to praise God and give thanks to him. More than 2.2 billion Muslims are celebrating Eid around the world!

Ramadan/Eid holiday season marked by generosity and giving

Eman Kaskas oversaw the distribution of food to needy Ethiopian families of Jeddah. Eman also conducted a fundraising dinner for the Dar al Aytam children’s outreach in Lebanon.

During my first Ramadan celebration, I often joined my Muslim brothers and sisters in fasting and prayer at our local neighborhood Al Takwa Mosque.  I also went along to help distribute food and other gifts to the poorer immigrant populations of Jeddah.

Eman Kaskas and the students of the British International School had collected more than two tons of canned meats and vegetables, soups, dates, spices, bags of rice and pastas for distribution. This very generous collection was distributed to Ethiopian immigrant families.

In a sense, Eid is a Christmas-like festivity. There are big family meals. Friends and family members gather to exchange gifts. On the eve of Eid shopping malls and stores are open late. Shoppers wait in long lines, in a hurry to purchase last-minute gifts, candies and cakes. (The traffic jams reminded me of trying to get to the Annapolis Mall on Christmas Eve!)

Numerous fundraisers were conducted throughout Jeddah and other Saudi cities during the past month to benefit various causes for children, the disabled, the poor and the elderly.

Dr. Safi and Eman Kaskas invited guests to a dinner at the Sands Hotel which raised thousands of dollars for the Dar al Aytam children’s home in Beirut, Lebanon. Close to a hundred guests gathered that evening to lend their support to this orphanage that was established nearly a hundred years ago to care for Lebanese orphans of World War I.

Since that time Dar al Aytam has expanded its programs to provide services to the mentally disabled as well as homeless children. Services are now available in more than 30 locations (Greater Beirut, The Bekaa Valley, Mount Lebanon, and in various other northern and southern locations).

Muslim Americans fearful during Eid

Some American Christians expressed solidarity with Muslims during this special holiday. The Rev. Peter De Franco and the congregation of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Clifton, New Jersey, used Eid as a time to show support for Muslim believers in their town.

In the US, where Muslims are a tiny minority population, celebrating Eid seems strange and different, especially to those who have wrongly targeted all Muslims as being “anti-American.”

This past Thursday, a Palestinian American was visiting his father’s grave at a Muslim cemetery in Evergreen Park, a suburb southwest of Chicago, when he noticed obcene graffiti written on the tombstones.

During the past month, seven Islamic centers, from California to Rhode Island, have been attacked.In one of the attacks, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was burned to the ground.

Many US Muslims are appealing to the media and their elected officials for help.

Unfortunately, on some occasions, a few individuals like US Representative Joe Walsh, instead of offering hope to their Muslim constituents, are instead fanning the flames of hate.

Speaking on August 8 at a packed town hall event in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove, Walsh told his supporters, “I’m not sure of a lot of things, but one thing I am sure of is that there are people in this country, there is a radical strain of Islam in this country. It’s not just over there–trying to kill Americans every week.”  He continued, “And it is a threat that is much more at home now then it was right after 9/11. It’s here, it’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin.”

Many Americans respond during Eid with love and support

Sam with Dr. Safi Kaskas in Jeddah. Safi is the president of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists in the US. Safi has spent years building bridges of faith and understanding between the world’s Christians, Muslims and Jews.

While it’s true that all three Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) have their radical, violent elements; they are simply a noisy minority. They grab headlines by torching buildings or through inflamatory hate speech and through bombing and killing.

Some US churches and Christian organizations, including Sojourners, an evangelical Christian outreach, have expressed solidarity with America’s persecuted Muslims and are organizing support for both the Joplin mosque and the Muslim community in Ever Green.

The overwhelming majority of those who believe in the God of Abraham, are peace-loving, desiring freedom and democracy for all faiths.

Recent polls indicate that greater than 80% of Muslim, Christian and Jewish teenagers and young adults want peace–not war. They have dreams of good jobs, families, homes. They want the best for others and seek to build bridges between their faiths and to support those who are persecuted or wrongly treated.

My work alongside Dr. Safi Kaskas here in the Middle East is in the field of religious reconciliation.  Our work is vitally important to ongoing peace efforts, in the US, here in the Middle East and around the world.

May we all do our part to improve understanding–to reach out to men, women and children; families and individuals who may express their faith differently. And may we vigilantly confront Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-Christian hysteria with good information, loving kindness and hope for a much brighter, more prosperous future for all God’s children.

While we continue to celebrate here in Jeddah during this festive, Christmas-like spirit of Eid, I was thinking this morning of Henry W. Longfellow’s Christmas carol–“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Longfellow described the bells “ringing, chanting” throughout the world–a message of peace. But, alas, he sighed:

  • And in despair I bowed my head
  • “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
  • “For hate is strong and mocks the song
  • Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Here in Saudi Arabia I don’t hear church bells, but I do hear a very faithful, heartfelt call to prayer from many mosques five times a day. It’s a call to prayerfully thank God for his mercy and grace and a call to personal and world peace. Saudi Arabia is surrounded by wars and conflicts (Yemen, Somalia and Sudan to the south and east; the Sinai, Lebanon and Syria to the north; Iraq to the northeast; and now a “pending” war between Israel and Iran. There are conflicts in other parts of Africa, and in Asia and South America. It would be easy to give up–to curl up comfortably in our own corner of the world; deaf to those who cry for freedom, uncaring and unconcerned. But that is not what God has called us to do.

Longfellow ended his poem with a message of hope. As he thought of dismal world conditions of his time, he proclaimed:

  • Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
  • “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
  • The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
  • With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I thank all my Quaker friends for holding us in the light over here. Your Muslim brothers and sisters here in Jeddah send you their love and greetings, and they join you in prayer for reconciliation and world peace.

Muslims celebrating Eid around the world:

August 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment