Sunday, October 25, 2015

Empowering Women

"Why is everyone about the refugees all of a sudden?" a friend messaged me last month. "Facebook is so annoying. It's one crisis or another, and they just repost article after another. By the time they are posting articles, the damage has already been done!"

Thanks to Facebook, Youtube and other social media platforms, heart wrenching abuses and tragedies occurring around the world are being circulated in real-time, motivating many, including many of our hitherto apolitical girlfriends, to do something about it. This renewed political awakening amongst Muslim women around the world is long-awaited, welcomed and absolutely necessary for there to be real movement towards peace and justice in this world. History has time and again shown that transformative changes in society only occur once women are involved due to their strong influence  as individuals, mothers and teachers.

"The role of the women in society is much more important than that of the men, for in addition to being active members of society in all fields, the ladies also raise active members," according to Imam Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, who gave the Iranian women credit for overthrowing the brutal Shah of Iran. "Women are creatures who can destroy a power that seems everlasting."

But Muslim women frustrated with wars, extremism, racism, poverty, corruption and all the other ills of our times diving onto the political scene must beware. Their political awakening has hit the radar screens of the rich and powerful currently running the world, and they are doing everything they can to control, misdirect and misuse Muslim women's activism towards furthering their own agendas as they have done in the past.

Historically, infiltration of political efforts such as the Black Power movement of the 1960s or the Occupy movement of a few years ago was covert. But today, female Muslim activism is being intercepted in broad daylight without much resistance at all. Elite institutions are convening conferences on empowerment, offering education, technical training and social media awareness while also providing seed money, jobs and networking to influence the paths awakened Muslim women take around the world. Not only is this aimed at preventing true and radical changes necessary right now, but it is also used to persuade activists to rally for "changes" that ultimately give even more power and riches to those running the show.

This past summer, Muslim women influential in their communities from around the world were invited to a "Women and Countering Violent Extremism" conference in Washington to learn how to "build a better world." Ironically, those lecturing were current and former members of the United States government, which funds terrorists in the region with one hand and bombs the countries in their "War on Terror" with the other. The Center for International and Strategic Studies, a think tank aimed at making sure nothing changes, or in their words "finding ways to sustain American prominence and prosperity as a force for good in the world," hosted the conference.

"We need to engage the women so that they are raising their children in the way we want," declared Farah Pandith, the former first-ever Representative to Muslim Communities appointed by the Obama Administration in 2009, who spoke at the conference and is currently an adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Similar efforts are being made to shape the political pathways of intelligent and active Muslim women in the United States.  Next month one local American Muslim organization, "which serves as a bridge between the Muslim community and federal, state and local law enforcement as well as other private and government agencies," is holding a two-day conference entitled "Empowering Women: From Awareness to Action."

My question is: Where is God in all of this empowering of women? Why are these women running into the open arms of governments, corporations, and think tanks--the same entities that make up the current power structures and are responsible for the bloodshed, poverty and immorality destroying the planet-- to learn what is power, how to obtain it and what do with it when once they get it.

As God says: "That they may know God has power over all things." (Quran, 65: 12)

Imam Khamanei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who has said "if women don't take part in a social movement of a nation, that nation won't be successful," recently gave women advice on how to currently succeed in the political sphere.

Imam Khamanei: "When women  participate in a movement seriously and knowingly that movement constantly will improve."

The first aspect of political involvement is being serious about a subject and committed to making a difference. Women should study their communities and find a need that is not being fulfilled. Then they should go serve that urgency--and keep doing it even when it's no longer the hot topic on Facebook! To preserve their freedom, activists should avoid affiliating with groups working to support the status quo, such as governments, corporations, think tanks and even mosques. Instead, they should reach out to other local activists, whether or not they are Muslim.

"And why should you not struggle in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?  Men, women and children, whose cry is, 'Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from Thee one who will protect and raise for us from Thee one who will help.'”(Quran 4:75)

The second part of becoming a successful activist is gaining comprehensive knowledge about one's area of interest from both the Islamic and worldly perspectives.

1. Read the Quran. Not only does God discuss societal problems that must be addressed, but He also specifically delineates how women should empower themselves to attain success in the public sphere. God has an organized plan of action that starts from women building peace, love and compassion within their families and expanding outwards to bring those qualities to their local communities, countries and the world.  How should women dress for success? How should they network for more impact and influence? There are guidelines aplenty.

2. Understand the problem inside out. Activists should study the issue and its root causes. Sharing pictures and articles of Syrian children washing up on beaches builds awareness, for example, but getting to know the Syrian refugees who turn up in one's town is even better. Analyzing the root causes of the exodus of Syrians from their once peaceful country is also a must. Activists should read multiple and alternative news sources for a more nuanced understanding.

3. Realize the agenda of the power brokers. Those in power now want to stay in power, and one way they are doing it is by using social media to persuade the public to accept their courses of action.  In the problem-reaction-solution tactic, they present a problem (people fleeing Syria ), generate a reaction amongst the public (sympathy for the refugee children) and propose a solution (war against Syria's Bashar al-Assad) that will further their goal ("regime-change" in Syria). Only activists with knowledge and experience will not fall for this trap, especially when Muslim organizations like the Council of American-Islamic Relations are obediently pushing the same solution.

Getting Muslim women on board to promote their policies has historically been an important strategy for imperialists.  The French colonialists occupying Algeria up until 50 years ago employed Muslim women without their hijabs to march in their occupation parades. According to revolutionary Frantz Fanon, who supported the Algerian independence movement, the French doctrine on women could be summed up as follows.

"If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the woman; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight."

Just last week, America's First Lady Michelle Obama, alongside her Pakistani counterpart Kalsoom Nawaz Sharif, announced a $70 million U.S. commitment to educating women in Pakistan. Along the same lines, a Muslim fashionista recently boasted she wanted to "empower women" through her immodest clothing line. Knowingly or unknowingly, both will strengthen imperialism's iron fist in their respective countries.

4. Lastly and most importantly, acknowledge the correct Islamic political leadership of the time. No matter how dismal and complicated the world's affairs seem, there are always politically astute scholars able to distinguish between black and white and provide solutions towards a better world.

The four perfect women in history, Maryam (mother of Jesus), Aasiya (foster mother of Moses), Khadija (wife of Muhammad) and Fatima (daughter of Muhammad), were given this honorific title not only for their piety but also because they whole-heartedly supported the leader of their times when few others did, according to scholar Syed Jawad Naqvi.

Imam Khamanei: "If women continuously stay on the scene, victory will be theirs."

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Call of Duty: Unity Against Oppression

A seminar I was attending with my daughter at our local mosque this past Ramadan was rudely interrupted when a sister entered shrieking, "What's that woman doing here?! Why is she here?? Who invited her???"

I started looking around for "that woman" before realizing she was talking about me!

Apparently, the sister blew her lid because I showed up once again to a kids' program at the mosque (umm, I have three children) but don't attend congregational prayers.  She was suspicious I was trying to convert the other kids to the minority Shia sect of Islam (Lady, I can barely get it together to teach myself and my kids about Islam, let alone preach to all of your kids! No, thank you!!)

At first, I was upset at her for keeping tabs on my comings and goings.  But upon further reflection, I realized she might have a point.

Indeed, I did stop attending congregational prayers at the mosque about 18 months ago when, at the height of the Syrian conflict, the resident imam gave a speech "explaining" Shi'ism that was chock full of lies, distortions and propaganda. After confronting the imam, I decided not to pray behind him again.

Was that a wise decision?

Calling him out was. Boycotting congregational prayers was not.

Despite differences amongst Muslims, praying together is highly recommended because it mitigates rancor, suspicions and resentments while fostering love, respect and unity. Perhaps the sister at my mosque might not have jumped to conclusions if we had stood shoulder to shoulder in prayer more often.

"Satan first creates discord in congregations, then divides and destroys," warned Imam Ali, husband of Fatima, one of the four perfect women of all times.

God urges us to pray together so that we can commit to doing social justice, a task that requires harmony and togetherness and cannot be handled by individuals regardless of how "pious" they are, together. Ultimately, we are supposed to work with each other (as well as justice-oriented people of other faiths) to free the world of oppression and tyranny and replace it with truth, peace and social justice. We can only do this if we are able to rise above our differences even as the oppressors plot to keep us divided and conquered so they can continue their corruption on earth.

"Obey Allah and His Messenger and do not dispute with one another, otherwise you will fail and lose your strength. Have patience - Allah is with those who are patient." (Quran, 8:46)

Earlier this year ex-CIA agent Michael Scheuer let slip in an interview with UK's Channel 4: "The thing was ideal when IS [Islamic State] was advancing on Baghdad because Sunnis were killing Shias. That's exactly what we need.... our best hope right now is to get the Sunnis and Shias fighting each other and let them bleed each other white."

But, thankfully, Muslims are realizing that unity is the only way to emerge triumphant and are using the shared congregational prayer as a vehicle to attain that unity. After all, God demands unity before He commands worship.

"Indeed this ummah (community) of yours is one community, and I am your Lord. So worship Me." (or "So conform to me") (21:92)

"It is a matter of regret that the issue of unity is spoken of as something that is merely advisable—a noble matter that ought to exist among Muslims and that they must exhort one another to adopt," according to scholar Ustadh Muhammad Khurasani. "In reality, however, the Quran highlights unity with the same emphasis as it highlights tawhid (Oneness of God). It is an obligatory duty, therefore, on Muslims to strive for a single ummah (community with a common goal), in the same way that they are obligated on the basis of tawhid to worship one God."

Some examples:
  • Sunni and Shia Muslims in Lucknow, India,  prayed Eid ul Adha prayers together for the first time last month. A Sunni imam led the prayer at a Shia site. "Lucknow's Muslims want a better environment to prevail in the city," according to local resident Mujtaba Khan. "This event [will help] bridge differences and free people of age-old prejudices."
  • In July, Shias and Sunnis prayed for unity at Kuwait's grand mosque after a suicide bombing killed 27 and injured more than 200 at a Shia masjid. "This prayer is a prayer of unity," Parliament member Adnan Abdulsamad said. " This heinous crime only brings us further strength and tolerance. Thank God it made our enemies fools." 
  • A Sunni family visited a Shia masjid in Chicago this past summer to break fast and pray together and wrote about it on the religion website Patheos. "As we started, we stood shoulder to shoulder, united in prayer," wrote Mohiuddin Ahmed, who attended the Bait ul Ilm mosque with his wife and three children.   

Muslim leaders amongst both Sunnis and Shias have increasingly urged unity.

Earlier this year the Grand Imam of Al Azhar University Shaikh Ahmad Al Tayeb appealed for harmony and reconciliation across different sects within Islam.

“We need to forget about our differences, which have brought us nothing but weakness and humiliation,”Al Tayeb exhorted. He said Islamic nations faced a “neocolonialist” threat posed by international powers  trying to divide and rule by instigating sectarian tensions.

While unity does not mean uniformity and Muslims are urged to follow the schools of thought that make most logical sense to them, scholars have issued edicts that make it logistically possible and convenient to pray together. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Imam Khamanei, for example, allows his followers to pray according to the Sunni timetable and prostrate on carpet (instead of natural materials) while praying in congregation with Sunnis for the sake of unity.

Ironically, the figure in Islamic history who strived most vigorously to prevent divisions amongst the nascent Islamic community became the source of contention later. Indeed, the sacrifices Imam Ali made for the unity and success of the ummah are present in both traditions. Shias who believe Imam Ali thought he was supposed to be the successor to the Prophet (S) need to emulate the way he prayed, worked and ruled alongside Sunnis to keep the Islamic system flourishing. Sunnis, on the other hand, who believe Imam Ali did not consider himself entitled to succeed the Prophet (S) should realize he prayed, worked and ruled with Companions who did believe in his successorship, known as the Shia Ali, and must do the same.

"You should not consider the Commander of the Faithful [Imam Ali] as a cause for disagreement among Sunni and Shia Muslims - or among the different Islamic sects," Imam Khamanei said. " The Commander of the Faithful is the axis of unity among all Muslims."

So, in the spirit of unity, I plan on once again praying in congregation at my mosque--though, I must admit, I'm not quite ready to rub shoulders with THAT sister during prayers. Not yet.