Saturday, September 25, 2010

My Islamic Queries...

OK. Some of you may have been aware that I wanted to do this one for a while. Hopefully my attempt to do it doesn't fail. But here you go:

It's began to die down by this point but, for the last several months, there has been great interest and media attention given to Muslims; There have been many stories and videos in the media, especially regarding the "mosque at Ground Zero," and the crazy pastor in Florida who threatened to have a Quran burning. For what ever reason, I was so intrigued by all of this. And my gut reactions seemed to continuously change with each new media from which I heard the stories.

You had the people at CNN and MSNBC taking the "liberal" stance, portraying those opposed to the mosque, and those supporting the Quran burnings as whack jobs. And then you had FoxNews doing their best, right in character, of spreading the fear of a Muslim/Islamic uprising and takeover of the world. And, it's pretty easy, if you're the talking heads, to spread that fear, especially in the midst of an economic crisis, where everyone's nerves are raw, and everyone looks for someone to blame. At some point, I had to conclude that I can't trust the media. I mean, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Sean Hannity aren't Muslim, so why was I trying to get my information about Islam from them? Ironically, Hannity had me so confused because, when it came to the Quran burnings, he had, out of nowhere, began going out of his way to make great distinction between "mainstream Muslims," and "Islamic extremists." I decided to ditch all of them on the matter.

As for the so-called mosque at Ground Zero, my first instinct was to say, "No way in hell should there be a mosque there. It's too soon; not the right time; people are still angry, sad, at a loss." I wouldn't want anyone's Constitutional rights taken away, and I knew the imam in NY had the right to build his mosque or whatever it was. (A multi-faith community center, built by Muslims.) But I also felt, and still do to an extent, that it may not be the most sensitive of moves. After all, the 9/11 hijackers were Muslim, right?

And what about that Floridian pastor who wanted to do a Quran burning? Actually, I wanted his right of freedom of speech protected. I thought he should be able to do that if he wanted. In my opinion, Islam is not untouchable. There have been many a bible, many a U.S. flag burned both in the U.S. and out. It doesn't make me that mad. Is it disrespectful though? Probably. In the end, I'm glad the pastor didn't burn the Qurans. I'm glad the president urged him not to do it, in the interest of not adding fuel to any extremists' fires; in the interest of not adding more risk to our already overly at risk military men and women.

All of this hubbub had me wondering what my firm stance was. Am I afraid of Muslims? Does the Quran really tell Muslims to kill Jews and Christians? Would the mosque at Ground Zero be a "victory mosque?" Is there a big movement toward Islamic Supremacy in the world?

Having no Muslim friends; really knowing no one who's Muslim, I decided I couldn't really be fairly informed on this matter. I thought back to my life, maybe 15 years ago when I didn't know any gay people or have any gay friends. I was pretty homophobic. That all went away very quickly when I met some gay people who have become some of my best friends in the world. It was irrational and wrong of me to be homophobic. I'm so thankful for my friends and all they've taught me. You all know who you are and know that I think the world of you and my friendship with you. Some of the greatest examples of good people I've ever known. Anyway, I realized that I needed to go meet some Muslims and see if I could ask them some questions. So, about a week ago, I found a mosque online and contacted them. My contact was to the director of the Utah Islamic Society. He's also a professor at a prominent Utah University. Because he declined my request for an on-camera interview (he's not a big youtube fan) I'll respect his privacy and not mention his name in this public setting. He told me he's not so prominent a figure---although from what I saw at the mosque, he is---he didn't necessarily want me quoting him, although he said I could use any of the information he gave me. Anyway, we set up an interview at the mosque for yesterday. I was so excited, a little nervous too. But mostly glad for the chance to have such an experience.

I'll be paraphrasing our conversation as best I can. I recorded my notes onto a voice recorder immediately after the interview, and just before I went to the prayer meeting to which I was invited.

1) Do political generalizations, such as Mormons voting Republican seem to apply to American Muslims?
He suspects that, in keeping with many minority classes in the U.S., that most Muslims would probably lean toward voting Democrat, more so than Republican. He said that, while he voted for Gore/Leibermann in 2000, most American Muslims voted for Bush and for Ralph Nader, based on Leibermann being Jewish. (We'll get into that later.) He urged his friends and fellow Muslims not to take the vote from Gore/Leibermann, based on religion but he suspects that's what they did.

2) Who is God, and what is God's role?
Muslims are the most monotheistic. God is the creator of all things. But God didn't need a son, or a partner. He is simply God, able to do anything and everything he wants. He was able to put a baby inside Mary simply by willing it so. He didn't need to make a son. They call God "Allah." And he will be our judge.
3) To Muslims, what is appealing about America, or what would make them want to move/live here?
Muslims here want to be individualistic, having individual, guaranteed rights, which isn't the case in Muslim countries. They value democracy and value having a voice. They value freedom and liberty. So, while there seems to be plenty about America which angers some Muslims in the world, they DON'T hate freedom, as some heads of state have tried to strongly suggest.

4) How are Muslims "converted," or can they be?
He didn't really get into a spiritual conversion, to which I was trying to lead him. He simply said, Muslims must believe in God. They must believe in all the prophets up to Mohammed. They accept all scripture, in it's original and purest forms, to be God's word. (I don't have to mention that this doesn't include the Book of Mormon, do I?) It includes the Old and New Testaments, The Torah, and the Quran. Then a person can recite a prayer, after the imam, which takes about 2 minutes. It's very informal/non-ceremonial. Then they can be considered Muslim.

5) What is it about America, Americans, or American government that the world's Muslims seem to resent, or even to hate?
This goes back to its roots in the Israel/Palestine conflict. With Israel ever expanding into Palestine, uprooting Muslims in order to grow their Jewish state. And the U.S. is seen as the world's greatest supporter of Israel, even after Israel commits atrocity after atrocity against Palestine. (Yes, I'm familiar that this fight goes both ways.)
Our foreign policies are often seen as offensive and/or oppressive to Muslims. We seem to do a lot of damage in Muslim lands. Americans do so much good in the world, regardless of who lives where, rebuilding, or giving aid to about any nation, regardless of whether or not its Muslim or whatever. But, we're often, as perceived by Muslims, found to be on the opposing teams from Muslim countries.
A good example is Iraq. After 9/11, we went to Iraq with the majority of our forces. We were sold the war on "good intelligence" that there were WMDs. After that justification failed, we were told that Saddam was evil and needed to be removed. No one disputes that Saddam was a bad guy, but there are bad guys, equally as evil, around the world so, why Iraq? Then we were told we were spreading freedom and democracy. Eventually we were told that we had to protect interests, namely oil reserves in Iraq. And, in the process of all the good we've done in that region, how many tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims have been killed? Sure, we got rid of an evil dictator. But at what expense? We went into Afghanistan, with which most American Muslims agreed. But we still haven't gotten Bin Laden. And, again, we're in a Muslim region, killing the bad guys and also countless innocents.
So, many of the world's Muslims don't like U.S. foreign policy, as it relates to flexing our military muscle and sort of shaping the world and its people as we see fit.
(Remember Ron Paul's stance on this during the presidential debates? Still think he's a whacko, Mr. Hannity?)
That said, he made it clear that Islamic extremists are absolutely wrong. He said they could bring Al Quaida in, sit around a table with them, and prove, with the Quran, that they are absolutely wrong. As well, he pointed out that it isn't just America the terrorists hate. In fact, there have certainly been far more terrorist attacks, both plotted and carried out, in the rest of the world.

6) What is the Islamic view of the after-life?
There will come a day where the world will be filled with so much evil and transgression, and God will cleanse the earth, and we will all be judged according to our works and deeds, according to our knowledge of God's word. (Hmmm...not very different from Christianity at all.)

7) Is there an Islamic "holy day" during the week?
It happens to be Friday. On that day is their congregational prayer, where everyone comes to pray together. Muslims say 5 obligatory prayers every day, which they can do on their own if they wish. But on Friday, the congregational prayer must be done with everyone, at the mosque. They believe that on this day, their prayers have the best chance of being answered, (At the end of the interview, the director and the imam invited me to the prayer meeting. I was so honored to be able to participate in that. Well, I didn't actually pray with them. I sat in the back of this big, beautiful prayer room, behind all of the men as they prayed and listened to the imam's words. They even let me take photos, as you can see. It was a very spiritual atmosphere. And you could tell that those men have a bond with each other, even if they don't really know each other. I don't know if they just feel so great to be in the mosque, or if they're just happy to be amongst other people, with whom they share such a big part their lives. Where were the women, you ask? They were above, in a balcony. I couldn't see if they performed the same prayers, or if they just watched. Part of the prayer meeting lesson had to do with husband/wife relationships, and I got the impression that American Muslims are a little more "progressive" than those in Muslim countries. For instance, the imam said that wives should listen to their husbands, but also that they should "move on" if their husband was abusive and couldn't be a good man. The bulk of the lesson was about not just listening and hearing the words of Allah, but that Muslims should act and be true doers of Allah's word.)
8) Do you sympathize with those who protest the mosque at Ground Zero, based on that it would be "salt in their wounds?"
He said his thoughts on this had evolved. In the beginning, he thought, it's the wrong time; why do you want to stir things up, especially since Muslims have been living under a sort of fear since 9/11. He says whenever he hears that there's been an attack or a bomb or something, he hopes and prays it wasn't Muslims because of the repercussions on all Muslims, and not just on the few who commit such atrocities.
Now, he feels like, no, the imam in NY shouldn't back down. It's a multi-faith center. There was a mosque in the trade center. Most important, it's their constitutional right and, if they back down on this, they'll be asked more and more to give up their rights and eventually they'll be oppressed here in America. And if that happened, he'd then wish never to have come to America. (He's originally from Bangladesh.)
He brought up the point that, while Christians believe that it was the Jews who killed Jesus Christ, but America isn't kicking all of the Jews out of the country, nor telling Jews they can't build their synagogues in our "Christian nation," or Christian-majority towns. And, something I think is important to note; The U.S. didn't kick all Muslims out of the country after 9/11, which sort of suggests that even the same government who the right-wing Fox News supported, knew that not all Muslims are terrorists; In fact, very few, of the 1.5 billion are.

9) What is the difference between Sunni, and Shia?
About 90% of Muslims are Sunni. Only 10% are Shia. The division between the two is rooted in a history which should ring very familiar with Mormons. Before the prophet Mohammed died, he hadn't chosen a replacement, even though he knew he was sick. After his death, a small group of Muslims thought the replacement leader ought to be a blood relative or direct descendant of Mohammed. Most of the people disagreed and just wanted the people to be able to choose a new leader, regardless of blood relation. And thus, there became the division.
OK, so I gladly went to the congregational prayer service. It was more casual than I expected. Some men in casual, street clothes, some in more culturally traditional clothing. I had asked about the caps some wore, and was told it wasn't necessary. There is nothing that says it must be worn, but they feel that it more closely emulated Mohammed, which is nice if you want to sort of be more holy. I asked about the Turbans as well, and then felt ignorant, again. The turbans are worn all around the world, but they aren't a Muslim thing; that is to say, turbans have nothing to do with Islam. They're simply worn by many peoples of the world as a cultural article of clothing, not religous.
Anyway, back on topic. I already talked about the prayer meeting lesson back on question 7. But the meeting was nice. I definitely felt some sort of spiritual connection there. You can see the devotion in the way they all carry themselves, and in the way they seem so happy to be in that prayer meeting. I felt very welcomed, if a little odd for being the guy in the back of the room with the camera. Still, I was greeted with many smiles and several handshakes. Only one man did I see who gave me an odd, colder look. But that may have been geared more to my camera than to my simple presence. And I was told by the imam that I was welcome there anytime, and that he hoped I'd return again.
So, this was a very positive experience for me; I'm glad I did it. And I may well return to the mosque, and to my new friends Mr. Name kept private, and the imam of Khadeeja Mosque.

This security guy is from Yugoslavia. He said he'd been working security for the Islamic Society for 10 years. He was very friendly and actually asked me to take a picture of him for my project.
Here is the imam, greeting a woman, followed by her child, to the prayer service.

This is a photo of the mosque from the parking lot entrance. Kind of unexpected, especially since I just had no idea there was such a place in Utah.