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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

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

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

Happy Ramadan! Ramadan Kareem!

Sam “breaking the fast” on the second evening of Ramadan with Dr. Wael Saykali and Dr. Safi and Eman Kaskas.

Celebrating my first Ramadan in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

In all three major Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) religious holidays play an important role in celebrating our faith in the God of Abraham. Here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I’ll be participating in my first Ramadan observance with my Muslim friends. There is an air of excitement as this holiday begins.

Ramadan (Arabic: رمضان‎ Ramaḍān; variations Persian: Ramazan‎; Urdu: Ramzān; Turkish: Ramazan) has arrived. It is being celebrated July 20th through August 18th. It is the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, which lasts 29 or 30 days according to the visual sightings of the crescent moon.

Muslims around the world refrain from eating and drinking during the daylight hours. The thawab (spiritual rewards) of fasting are believed to be many, but during this special month, they are said to be multiplied. Muslims fast during this lunar month for the sake of demonstrating submission to God. They also offer more prayers and Qur’an recitations.

Families and friends enjoy Iftar meals and banquets 

Each evening at sunset, families and friends will gather for the fast-breaking meal (or “break-fast) known as Iftar. The meal starts with the eating of three dates — just as Muhammad used to do. Then it’s time for the Maghrib prayer, which is the fourth of the five daily Muslim prayers, after which the main meal is served.

Over time, Iftar has grown into large family dinners and even banquet festivals. This is a time of fellowship with families, friends and surrounding communities, but may also occupy larger spaces at mosques or banquet halls, where a hundred or more may gather at a time.

High school students from Jeddah’s British International School unload more than one ton of food they collected to be distributed to poor immigrant families in their city.

Generosity and sacrificial giving

Charity is very important in Islam, and even more so during Ramadan. The zakat is obligatory as one of the pillars of Islam; a fixed percentage required to be given by those with savings. The sadaqa is voluntary charity and is given above and beyond what is required from the obligation of zakat. Muslims believe that all good deeds are more handsomely rewarded during Ramadan than in any other month of the year. Consequently, many will choose this time to give a larger portion, if not all, of the zakat for which they are obligated to give. In addition, many will also use this time to give a larger portion of sadaqa in order to maximize the reward they believe will await them on the Day of Judgment.

In many Muslim countries, it is not uncommon to see people giving more food to the poor and the homeless, and even to see large public areas for the poor to come and break their fast. It is said that if a person helps a fasting person to break their fast, then they receive a reward for that fast, without diminishing the reward that the fasting person got for their fast.

Even in non-Muslim countries, no matter how small the Muslim population, a consistent increase in charitable donations to both fellow Muslims and non-Muslims occurs during these days. In the US, for example, many Muslim communities throughout the country, participate in contributing food, clothes and non-perishable food items to local food banks and homeless shelters.

Jeddah British International School students collected over a ton of food

Eman Kaskas with high schoolers from the British International School with some of the food that will be distributed to needy families during the 30-day Ramadan holiday.

The British International School of Jeddah offers the International Bachaluriate (IB) program—a high school college preparatory degree that is recognized around the world. An important part of the IB program is Creativity Action Service (CAS) similar to community service programs provided by many American high schools.  Students are required to do 150 hours of community service.

A major Ramadan “food drive” under the leadership of Eman Kaskas is a part of CAS’s program.  “I am always so touched by the community effort and the involvement of all the students including kindergarteners,” Eman says. “We have carried this out for the last 12 years. It keeps getting better year after year.”

This year students from Jeddah’s British International School collected more than ton of food that will be distributed during Ramadan to Jeddah’s poorer immigrant population.

Eman Kaskas, explains, “It’s my hope that these students will fully understand the message they are sending with their gifts.” She says, “It’s like a mustard seed that we are planting today, and I’m very grateful to know that we’re planting it in good soil.” She wants these students to remember when they have families of their own, that they have a responsibility to raise civicly-minded children who will make an important contribution to society.

Special days during Ramadan: Laylat al-Qadr and Eid ul-Fitr

Sometimes referred to as “the night of decree or measures,” Laylat al-Qadr is considered the most holy night of the Islamic year. Muslims believe that it is the night in which the Qur’an was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel.

The Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Fitr (Arabic: عيد الفطر‎, festivity of breaking the fast), sometimes spelled in English as Eid al-Fitr, marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the next lunar month called Shawwal in Arabic. This first day of the following month is declared after another crescent new moon has been sighted. This first day of Shawwal is called Eid ul-Fitr. Eid Ul-Fitr, may also be a reference towards the festive nature of having endured the month of fasting successfully and returning to the more natural disposition of being able to eat and drink.

The following is a children’s Ramadan video that explains the spiritual significance of this Muslim holiday. Muslim children celebrate Ramadan in much the same way Jewish and Christian children celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas.
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July 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment