Friday, March 31, 2006

Reply to Rosendall

Richard Rosendall, wrote a column in the 30 March 2006 issue of Boston's GLBTI paper, "Bay Window." As it encapsulated a lot of common clichés of Islamophobia I thought it worth responding to. Editor Susan Ryan-Vollmar wrote that this response would run in the next issue:

As Richard Rosendall reports with apparent approval, Bruce Bawer has shifted focus from his bizarre revisionism of queer history. (Bawer has in the past gone to some length saying that the leftists, queens, bulldykes, and leathermen who catalyzed our community’s growth in the Stonewall Era are weirdos who denigrate our community.) Now Bruce is whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. Indeed the integration of large Muslim populations in western societies is a problem, but one that needs a more nuanced and historical perspective than Bawer offers. Quelle surprise.

Projecting a homophobic dystopia arising out of current trends, Rosendall and Bawer ignore the fact that the trends they’re looking at follow a cycle of rise and ebb; not the linear trajectory they draw. Historical precedents abound. Immigrant ghettoes in early 20th-century America also had imported systems of law enforcement where the civic institutions chose not to tread. But immigrants do integrate into the larger society. Recent efforts to allow Shari’ah courts in Canada were squelched, thanks in large part to progressive Muslim groups who recognize that we can preserve our religion and thrive better in an integrated society.

“Honor killings” are a tribal custom, not condoned by anything in the Qur’an, and yes, they happen, but they are not “routine” any more than double-fisting is a routine gay sex practice. Really, gay men should know enough about sensationalist stereotyping to look beyond it. Hysterical exaggeration only causes “traditional” communities to circle the wagons and make a real problem worse.

Typically ignorant of reality is Bawer’s characterization of Pat Robertson as merely wanting to deny us marriage – and thus nicer than the Muslims. Excuse me??? Robertson is well on record preaching death for queers as fervently as any mullah, and has blamed us for incurring God’s wrath in the forms of earthquakes, hurricanes, and even the 9/11 attack. Bruce’s longstanding fetish for Republican bootleather comes off here as indecent slavering.

Much more typical than the terrorism espoused by Osama bin-Laden is his niece, Wafa Dafour, a singer who has posed for sexy photos in GQ. Islamic names are growing ever more noticeable in cast lists and movie credits. As more and more Muslims celebrate the freedoms and opportunities offered in western cultures so are more and more westerners embracing Islam. Feminist, Queer, and progressive Muslims are organizing and finding in the Qur’an support for personal autonomy and cultural diversity.

With a growing presence of Muslims in the West we have a growing number of Queer Muslims among us who are struggling to tear down the artificial barrier between their religion and their sexual/gender integrity. Rosendall’s parroting of Bawer’s polarizing twaddle only attacks our efforts at personal and social integration.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Medicine for Mexicans: Public services and Illegal immigrants

A friend writes that Virginia has just passed a law requiring legal residence for medical assistance and that that Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico says illegal immigrants are stressing their health care system. Richardson, a latino Democrat, should know better.

With the brutal conditions that people sneaking up from Mexico risk, it seems insane that anyone would cross the border to take advantage of American Health Care, but likelier that they would need it after making the crossing. A couple of excellent movies, "El Norte" and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" illustrate the point. In fact I have friends who have gone to Mexico to get treatment they couldn't get in the US. And besides, it's cheaper, and so much easier, to see a doctor in Mexico than to hire a "Coyote" to sneak you into the States.

Nowadays whenever a "liberal" speaks of compassion and the human cost he's accused of being a mushy-headed PC bleeding heart, so I'm going to skip all that and speak strictly in terms of economy and security.

People cross the border desperate to find work, and their labor, often at or below the minimum wage, without benefits that citizens would demand, usually the most grueling tasks, keeps our economy running. They pick the crops, clean the restaurants, and keep the homes of politicians who vote to make their lives even dicier. (We see these "nanny-gate" scandals again and again.)

Because they are here illegally they do their best to avoid the system and not use services that citizens and legal immigrants can take advantage of.

If an illegal gets a contagious disease, it is cheaper for all us taxpayers if he just goes to the clinic to get it taken care of, than if he doesn't get the care and the disease spreads among others, who are here legally or otherwise, and when it gets worse the treatment becomes more expensive in each case, and there are so many more cases!

If there are children here illegally who don't go to school, they are likelier to end up in gangs, and prisons are costlier than schools. (Funny how the right wing moans and bitches about the expense of schools and the politics of teachers' unions, but eagerly pump money into more prisons and shell out whatever the prison guards' unions ask for.) And a lot of those children, even if their parents are here illegally, are born in the US and are indeed citizens. And still, for fear of consequences to their parents, they miss out on school and health care. So we end up spending more on prisons. One should also note how more and more latinos are embracing Islam. I should be glad for that, but what Islam are they embracing? Are they learning – “Bismillah irrahman irrahim” – a discipline of love, mercy, and compassion that will help them to live fuller lives? Or are they getting the brutal puritanism that encourages contempt of diversity, that imagines armies of God and promotes violence and suicide bombs? Alienated youth who came up through gangs are too prone to the latter. Abdullah al Muhajir, né Jose Padilla, is one famous case involving an alleged “dirty bomb” plot. (Joe Loya writes more about the link between latin gangs and el-Qaeda at )

Yes, our public health care system is being very stressed. Blaming the illegals conveniently ignores the cut-backs and lowered corporate taxes, the obscene diversion of government funds to the war in Iraq. This is just another symptom of the structural decadence of America as health, education, and infrastructure are being starved so the rich can get richer.

The new law in Virgina requiring legal residence for medical treatment is penny wise, but pound foolish. It appeals to short-sighted jingoistic voters and echoes Virginia’s racist past, but the many Virginians who call themselves Christians should be ashamed of turning away the ill, the poor, the strangers... exactly the people that Jesus told us to embrace and care for.

As for Richardson, this only demonstrates the spineless vacillation, the lack of leadership and vision that is keeping Democrats out of power. Shame, shame, shame...

Friday, March 03, 2006

How did I come to Islam?

I was raised in an agnostic, socialist home. Even my grandparents were all agnostic. Both my grandfathers grew up in strict religious homes, one Catholic, the other orthodox Jewish. The Catholic married an Episcopalian who converted to appease his mother and, tourism aside, neither ever entered a church again. My Jewish grandpa came to America and after a couple of other marriages met my nana who came from a very reform Jewish family in Berlin. My parents raised their children without religion… for the most part. For reasons more pragmatic than religious we went to a Unitarian Church for a year. Being active in the Civil Rights movement, and then the peace movement opposing the war in Vietnam we had a lot of contact with black and peace-oriented activist churches. Our parents taught us about different religions and said we could make up our minds when we grew up. When they divorced, my father decided that his three pre-teen children would all be Jews. A rabbi said some words over our heads, and they are since long forgotten. My brother is an adamant atheist and my sister attends a Protestant church.

As a young adult I read the Gospels and became a Christian, and eventually Roman Catholic, but always critical of institutions and fundamentalism. I remained open to learning other ways, studied Wicca, and always had friends of many different religions. For all that I never really knew any Muslims, although in the 10th grade I’d read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and that was for a long time most of what I knew about Islam.

In February of 2001 I was studying in Florence and had the opportunity to visit Istanbul. What I found there astounded me, a vibrant city that had been truly cosmopolitan for centuries in ways that no European or American city came near. I was then only dimly aware of medieval Arab empires that stretched from China to Iberia, but in Istanbul one could see an incredible legacy of many diverse arts and cultures. I was hungry to learn more.

I returned that summer to San Francisco and signed up for classes in the “History of Islamic Societies” in the fall of 2001. The class had been meeting for a few weeks before the attack on the World Trade Center. On September 12, we were as shell shocked as the rest of the country, and very aware that we were strangely privileged to be in that class at that time, that after a few weeks we already knew far more about Islam than most Americans and that what we were learning would be crucial in healing wounds and building bridges.

The next summer I went to Morocco to study Arabic, which strictly for studying Arabic was a mistake, like going to Italy to study Latin. What they speak in Morocco is a form of Arabic rather removed from the standard language of the Arab media, much less the dialects of other Arab countries. Still, it was very eye-opening to live in an Arab country, poor in their economy, but rich in history, culture, and the good manners I would learn were integral to Muslim society, “al-adab” which means manners, culture, and literature, depending on context, but always suggests polite grace and education.

Back in San Francisco I continued learning about Islam and the Muslim world – never intending to convert. I was really quite happy as a Catholic, thank you very much – but with a sense of duty that Americans and Europeans needed to know about this world that was so close to us in so many ways, but so far from our knowledge.

It always seemed to me that to judge any matter you always have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. To know another person’s way of thinking you have to learn her language. People only resort to violence, let alone suicide, when other means fail. What were we not hearing from the Muslim world, what did we need to know? Aside from the huge geo-political questions what are the underlying religious and philosophical beliefs?

It came clearer and clearer that– despite the institutional overlays, and the huge political problems that they create – the Abrahamite religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have at their common core a belief that the dignity of humanity is a divine grace that we share in by acts of compassion and forgiveness. There is really very little that separates these religions – differing opinions about Jesus and Mohammed (peace be upon them) – but the moral teachings are essentially the same. The rest is little more than cultural and political history.

In my study of Islam I had to ask myself if I could or would be a Muslim and why (not)? As a Catholic I believed in Jesus Christ as God incarnate. There is a wonderful, beautiful mystery in this that links humanity with God. The Incarnation was very important to me, and even believing in this as an historical (if historically unverifiable) fact, I knew that if we believe in Christ as the salvation of man, that excludes the majority of humanity that never had the opportunity to know of Him. Therefore God either turns His back on most of humanity or “knowing Christ” has to be as valid in metaphor as it is in literal interpretation.

The Qur’an, on the other hand, affirms Jesus as prophet, but no more, and also affirms that while some prophets are known to us through the Qur’an and the Bible, there are many prophets and they share God’s word in all communities. And also that we are made in different nations and cultures that we may all learn from each other. This understanding helped me to let go of the Incarnation.

There is also the not inconsiderable problem that I have always and only loved men. Women as friends and sisters, sure, but never “that way.” Along with my other research I looked into Gay Muslim organizations and scholarship and found that the homophobia that is indeed very strong in most contemporary Muslim cultures is relatively new, that it flourished with the spread of European colonialism, and that sexual diversity had been known and accepted throughout most of Muslim history. Islamic arguments against homosexuality are based on readings of the story of the “people of Lut” – familiar to Christians and Jews as the Sodomites – but this is a story about robbery, rape, and murder, that has nothing to do with men loving men or women loving women.

All this came to a head for me when I attended the 2003 conference of Salaam Canada, a Gay Muslim organization. I felt there was no reason I could not make the declaration of faith, but should probably wait to do so until I got home, rather than doing something rash in a setting so removed from my daily life. But then there were two Sufi dhikr. The first one was ecstatic, leading me into an openness of spirit.

The second one was more structured, strictly choreographed dances with chanting ayat (verses from the Qur’an). The first two were general recognitions of human spirit… but the third, “En’shedu na la illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah,” was the declaration of faith: There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet. Could I say it without meaning it? One participant, who was not Muslim, bowed out, which crystallized my choice, and I asked the leader if this would qualify as a Shahadah. She said that it would if I meant it. Could I, should I say it and mean it? I could, and despite the sensible reasons for waiting it seemed a perfect setting in which to make the Shahadah. Besides, I am a professional astrologer and my horoscope for that day signaled a major change in my life.

I danced and sang,
En’shedu na la illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah.
“En’shedu na le illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah.
“En’shedu na le illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah.”

And I have never regretted it. I find joy in prayer and fasting, and I find in Islam not easy answers to questions, but simple principles that offer endless challenge.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Oh, those Cartoons! Anti-Semitic? Or Anti-Israeli?

In response to Muslim rage over the Danish doodles, Muslims have been challenged with anti-Israeli cartoons taken as evidence of vicious anti-Semitism. But can one criticize the policies of the Israeli state without being accused of anti-Semitism? And what other government has managed to put itself so above criticism? Oh, but look at the cartoons! They are ugly stereotypes of Jews and profane the sacred symbols of Judaism. True enough, but let’s look at the context.

Political cartoons rely on stereotypes that would be crude and bufoonish elsewhere. Any survey of political cartoons would find the French drawn as apache dancers with baguettes, the English are cockneys or snooty umbrella-toters, the Germans are fat, officious men in monocles or women in braids and dirndls, etc., etc… Heaven knows we've been lately awash in Arabs with bulging eyes and unkempt beards, swinging huge scimtars. The cartoon stereotype of the Jew does have ugly historic resonance, but if Israel claims to represent the Jewish people they cannot reasonably protest being represented as Jewish people, even in a medium where most of the people are absurdly crude stereotypes.

Israeli leaders have declared themselves and their government THE representatives of the Jewish people – a claim that many of my Jewish friends and relatives dispute – and this government represents itself with the symbols of the Jewish religion. Take the Jewish star, the mogen david, which is so prominent in these cartoons. I don't like seeing it sullied, but it is the symbol on the Israeli flag. The Israeli state seal exploits a menorah. It is the Israelis who have made the sacred symbols of Judaism, the religion of my own family and forebears, into the signs of a worldly government. Religious symbols should be above vicious caricature, but political symbols are fair game. The Israeli government cannot have it both ways.

The icing on the cake is the comparison of caricatures of Muhammed with caricatures of Ariel Sharon. Inherent in this argument is equating a prophet of God with a particularly brutal politician.
This is not to deny that there is indeed crude and vicious hatred of Jews among Muslims (as there is also among Christians and others!) but when reasonable political criticism is assailed as religious hatred, this is "crying 'wolf''" in a way that makes serious challenges to actual bigotry all the more difficult.